Classics Reviewed: Doctor Zhivago

When January rolls around, I’m often tired already of winter. And, by then, it has dawned on me that there’s a long hard time ahead before spring. Wanting something to read that fit that spirit of desperation (with a determination to see it through), I decided it was the right time to read a Russian novel. Nothing says "heroic determination in difficult circumstances" like a long Russian novel.

Having read War and Peace this summer (I read it in the summer, but whenever I was reading, I felt like I was on the Russian steppes in winter), I had to look elsewhere. And then I hit upon Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. The book had been on my backburner for a long time. I saw the 1965 film version about 30 years ago – the movie publicity machine compared the film to Gone with the Wind, a film that I hated based on a book I’d never read.

I enjoyed the film Dr. Zhivago and was glad it was better than GwtW, but, in the back of my mind there was still this nagging chorus – how is it that Boris Pasternak won the Nobel Prize in Literature for this? Admittedly, the Nobel Prize is more of a lifetime achievement award, and he did not get the award just for this novel, but this novel was a big reason for his selection. The only way I could find out how Pasternak had gotten the Nobel Prize was to read the book.

The book has an interesting history. Pasternak began writing the work in earnest in the 1940s (some parts were written much earlier), at the height of Stalin’s control of the Soviet Union, but he did not finish it, or consider publishing it, until the post-Stalin thaw under Nikita Khrushchev. Still, when Pasternak tried to have the book published, he was refused by publishers in his own country.

Some privately printed copies made it out of the Soviet Union, and the world’s first experience of the novel was in an Italian translation in 1957. It was this translation that the Nobel committee had access to (and the Russian equivalent in manuscript form) when they made their decision the following year to award the Nobel Prize to Pasternak.

I cannot help feeling that the main factors in the committee’s decision were the political drama surrounding the novel’s unorthodox publication coupled with the novel’s expression of a rather melancholy sense of the failure of the Communist Revolution. These were also the chief factors in the Soviet Union’s pressuring Pasternak to refuse the prize to save the Soviet Union embarrassment. Pasternak died in 1960, and the work was not published in Russia until 1988.

The novel deals with the life of Dr. Yuri Zhivago in the years from 1905 (the year of the revolution that presaged the glorious October Revolution of 1917), through the years of WWI, the Communist Revolution, and the civil war that followed. David Lean’s film focuses on the love affair between Dr. Zhivago and Larissa Guishar (later Antipova), AKA “Lara.” Though the film portrays the love affair as the greatest event in Zhivago’s life, the book spends very little time on the affair and focuses much more on Zhivago and others as they pass through the landscape of early 20th century Russia.

Here is where Pasternak got himself into trouble – though initially supportive of the Revolution and the ideals on which it claimed to be based, Zhivago becomes increasingly dissatisfied with the effects of that Revolution. For Zhivago, this dissatisfaction is largely personal. A poet as well as a doctor, he has a romantic sense of the self in the world and sees the corporate nature of the government as a prison, brutalizing or terrorizing those who reject the state, and corrupting those who accept it. But Zhivago is no revolutionary, and his own personal ideas are not meant by him as an alternative to the Soviet system.

Still, such musings, and the more explicit criticisms of the state by other characters, were seen as a threat to the Soviet Union, for such views could be construed as direct attacks on the Soviet system. A reader might draw the conclusion that the whole Soviet experiment was a failure and a mistake, and such a view might become dangerous if commonly held and expressed.

As I read the novel, I couldn’t help but think of Tolstoy – I did tell some of my friends that Tolstoy could have really done something with this material. I guess I still feel that way, at least when I think of the work as a great epic like War and Peace. Tolstoy captured the majesty and scope of the Russian efforts in the Napoleonic War in a way that Pasternak fails to do with the Russian Revolution here. But I’m not sure that was Pasternak’s aim.

This is Zhivago’s world, and it has a poetic and sensitive quality to it. Much of what Zhivago knows of the world is not fact so much as feeling. Criticism of the novel when it first came out centered on the fact that the story does not have a crisp narrative line and depends an awful lot on coincidence. I think such criticism is valid, but only inasmuch as one expects Tolstoyan majesty from what is an intensely personal work.

About the Author

Bernard Norcott-Mahany is our resident connoisseur of classic literature and a technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch of the Kansas City Public Library.