Boris Pasternak

THE LAREATE: Boris Pasternak was born in 1890. He studied music with Alexander Scriabin, who encouraged him to continue with it. Pasternak became a poet instead. After the Russian Revolution, he remained in the Soviet Union as a member of one of the writers’ organizations. His work was not socially realistic enough for the party elite, and he was continually harassed by the Communist party. When Doctor Zhivago was first written, no Soviet publisher would touch it. Eventually, an Italian publisher, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, smuggled a copy of the manuscript out of Russia and published Zhivago in an Italian translation, much to the Kremlin’s chagrin. Zhivago was an instant international sensation. Apparently, MI6 and the CIA really wanted Pasternak to win the Nobel prize, so they finagled a few copies of Zhivago in Russian and just barely submitted them to the Nobel committee in time. Pasternak’s nomination summoned all the wrath of the Soviet literary world. He declined the prize, citing fear of retribution. The Nobel committee rejected his rejection and held his awards until 1989, when Pasternak’s son, Yevgeny, accepted it.

MY EXPERIENCE: Well, I have read a lot of Russian novels in translation. To start, the only translators worth mentioning are Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. They seem to have the knack, missing in most other translators of the great works of Russian literature, of being fluent in Russian and English. They also provide helpful notes and commentary. Go with their translation. I tried reading the other translation when I was younger and had more patience, but I gave up about halfway through.

REVIEW: Dr. Zhivago is really two books. The first is a painfully tacky novel in the socialist-realist vein that uses the travails of Yuri Andreevich Zhivago as a frame for the mighty inevitability of the Communist experiment in Russia. This book is too poorly done to be vindicated with a deeply-considered critical opinion. The second book is a brilliant restructuring of the 19th century Russian novel into a modernist format. This is the book that deserved the Nobel prize and is also the book that got Pasternak screwed over in Soviet Russia. The rest was obviously tacked on afterwards to appease the censors and get Zhivago published.

I won’t try to summarize the plot, because too much gets lost in a dense novel like this. Instead, let’s talk about themes and symbols. Thematically, Dr. Zhivago is about the overhaul of the old order in Russia. Zhivago’s lover Lara is frequently molested in her youth by a rich old lawyer, who comes off as a cartoonish Dickens villain. (It also turns out that he drove Zhivago’s father to bankruptcy and suicide, but that doesn’t help the case for his cartoonish villainy.) This all happens during the expository part of the novel. By the end, when Zhivago is being hunted by the army for deserting and not being a good communist, this same cartoonishly evil lawyer comes to the rescue and takes Lara and her daughter. Zhivago himself escapes on foot across hundreds of empty miles of Siberia, where the trains don’t run anymore. Pavel Antipov, Lara’s husband, started life as a porter’s son, and he dies by his own hand as the most famous Bolshevik general on the Siberian front. Galiulin, a general for the opposing White (menshevik/constitutional democratic/opposition) army, was first introduced to us as an apprentice founder in a Moscow rail switch yard

Speaking of trains, they are incredibly important to the story and the general state of the world. Richard Pevear had said that Pasternak makes use of the pathetic fallacy (the usually lazy device of making it rain outside when the protagonist is sad), but the trains and the rail system tell the reader about the state of Russia itself. For instance, in the railyard Galiulin worked in as a boy, in the “ripping off Dickens” part of the novel, we have a strong, set hierarchy among the workers, which collapses when one of the old hands takes his beatings too far. Thus, the 1905 revolution. After the first world war, when Zhivago and his family are trying to get out of Moscow because of how much of a hellhole it’s become, the train gets stuck in some burned-out village. Everyone gets put to work shoveling to clear it out. When they finally do it, and I paraphrase, they looked around at each other and saw what they could do together. Later, while (off-page) the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks and everyone else are wrangling with how to make this workers’ revolution thing actually a functional government that lives up to its rhetoric, Zhivago, who deserted from the Red army (that he was forcibly drafted into to begin with), walks by dozens and dozens of backed-up trains, stuck because no one was doing any upkeep on the tracks. Lara even summarizes this bizarre literary construct like so: “the arbitrariness of the revolution is terrible not because they’re villains, but because it’s a mechanism out of control, like a machine that’s gone off the rails.” No wonder Zhivago never got published in Russia.

RECOMMENDATION: Read it! But also read one of the great 19th century novels (The Brothers Karamazov or Anna Karenina, maybe) and also The Master and Margarita. Fortunately for those of us who don’t read Russian, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have translated all of these! (I am not advertising their books! I swear!)

NEXT: Pablo Neruda. Also, I need to write a post about communism and why it is kind of a big deal. But first, Pablo Neruda.


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