Lockdown literature: Doctor Zhivago

We have all the time in the world. Time to tackle the classics.

I haven’t read a fat Russian novel like this since I was a teenager – I remember devouring Anna Karenina when I was just about to be too old for family holidays, at least I thought so. I carried a battered World’s Classics edition of War and Peace around when I was interrailing but didn’t ever get into it properly. There was so much else to enjoy, and to be, and to do. Now I’d run out of excuses. Yes, I usually read new books by women rather than old books by men, but one has to make an exception.

And this was exceptional. Boris Pasternak put his life in his hands by putting his manuscript for Doctor Zhivago in someone else’s, and it was published in translation abroad long before it could be published in the original at home, because it told the story of revolutionary Russia differently. The Cold War helped him to the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, but he was forced to refuse it and died soon afterwards. His son collected his award for him in 1989.

Noble and politically important, but is it a good read? Yes. It drew me in fast. I loved the detailed descriptions made you feel, smell and touch, not just see or hear what it was like to be there. Some of then reminded me starkly of some of now, too.

Meeting the key characters and getting inside their heads from childhood, the inevitability of their being drawn together and then forced apart was clear. The pace is sweeping, breakneck and suddenly stands stock still. It’s dramatic and romantic – you could see why this would make a great movie. As Dr Zhivago and his wife flee the city for what they hope will be a safer life in the provinces (sound familiar?) the train breaks down and everyone has to help clear the track.

But that vast openness soon proves illusory. When they arrive in that provincial town, the reality hits that in a place this size, absolutely everyone knows everyone’s business, revolution or not. Which is a good thing for some, but not for others. And the inevitable happens. He meets her again, in the library, of all places. At points like this, you know it’s a man writing.

The complexity and uncertainty of the times is very clear. This isn’t a glorious advance, it’s messy, make do, fuelled with medical moonshine on plummeting morale. This part, when Zhivago is doctor to the forest army, reminded me a lot of Unknown Soldiers, which was written just across the border at around the same time.

It might all still end well, the lovers might find each other again, fate might be on their side, coincidences certainly do happen… miracles might. it’s all rather more beautiful than terrible. Which is why people are still reading it, and reading it. And translating it again. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky made the story sing in English – and they’ve translated a lot of Dostoyevsky. Time to beam their War and Peace to my e-reader next.

Translator, editor, writer, reader

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Posted in Nobel Prize in Literature, translation
2 comments on “Lockdown literature: Doctor Zhivago
  1. You might like to read the first English translation, made in the 1950s: I found more magic in it that this recent attempt. And the discussions on art/creativity scattered throughout the novel are worth reading and rereading, too.

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