Book Review: Doctor Zhivago

Doctor Zhivago
By Boris Pasternak

This book was a bit heavy and at the end of reading it, I couldn't tell if I liked it or not. While I did not enjoy reading much of it, I also did not regret finishing it.

I disliked it because:
  • After this one, I don't think I want to read another Russian translated novel ever again. I will always be open to suggestions, though.
  • As I finished the last page, I felt like a victory lap was in order. I was so happy to be done.
  • The whole book I didn't know what the hell was going on. This is mostly due to my complete ignorance of Russian history. I had to consult a European historian a couple times.
  • The protagonist was a bum, the other characters weren't interesting and the names are hard to keep track of. Real hard.
I picked this novel because I wanted to wedge a couple books in between my Game of Thrones reading-fest and I hadn't picked up a classic in a while. So, the Russian classic won when the back cover promised "army revolts, irrational killings, starvation, epidemics, Communist Party inquisitions." Sounds like my kind of party. While I'm really into Game of Thrones, I truly felt that Doctor Zhivago served some inspiration to George R.R. Martin, as a couple of "Winter is coming (on)" instances popped up and some of the gruesome stuff rang familiar, too.

The reading was very difficult and I learned that apparently it is a very complicated manuscript to translate. The Guardian had a great article about a 2010 translation that made me feel a little better about myself. I could have definitely used some heavy scholarly guidance on this one.

Surprisingly, I took a lot of notes. While I couldn't follow most of the story, I found that there were some really good passages. That's how I felt about The Unbearable Lightness of Being, too. In reviewing these notes, I recall being impressed by the steady pace of misery in the book. This is not a book for spring/summer. I'm glad I made it through and I'm glad that's done.

Here's a few passages:

P. 12-13 
Every motion in the world taken separately was calculated and purposeful, but, taken together, they were spontaneously intoxicated with the general stream of life which united them all. People worked and struggled, each set in motion by the mechanism of his own cares. But the mechanisms would not have worked properly had they not been regulated and governed by a higher sense of an ultimate freedom from care. This terrelated, a certainty that they flowed into each other -- a happy feeling that all events took place not only on earth , in which the dead are buried, but also in some other region which some called the Kingdom of God, others history, and still others by some other name

P. 31 
This world of ignominy and fraud, in which an overfed lady had the impertinence to stare right through a crowd of workingmen and where a drink-sodden victim of such an order found pleasure in torturing his comrades--this world was not more hateful to him than ever before. He hurried on as though his pace might hasten the time when everything on earth would be as rational and harmonious as it was now inside his feverish head. He knew that all their struggles in the last few days, the troubles on the line, the speeches at meetings, the decision to strike - not carried out yet but at least not cancelled - were separate stages on the great road lying ahead of them. 
P. 164
Three years of changes, moves, uncertainties, upheavals; the war the revolution; scenes of destruction, scenes of death, shelling, blown-up bridges, fires, ruins - all this term suddenly into a huge, empty, meaningless space. The first real event since the long interruption was this trip in the fast-moving train effect, the fact he was approaching his home, which was intact, which still existed, and in which every stone was dear to him. This was real life, meaningful experience, the actual goal of all quests, this was what are aimed - at homecoming, return to one's family, to oneself, to true existence.
P. 185
On such days the sky is incredibly high, and through the transparent pillar of air between it and the earth  there moves an icy, dark-blue radiance coming from the north. Everything in the world becomes more visible and more audible. Distant sounds reach us in a state of frozen resonance, separately and clearly. The horizons open, as if to show the wholes of life for years ahead. This rarefied light would be unbearable if it were not so short lived, coming at the end of the brief autumn day just before the early dusk.
P. 195-196
Winter came, just the kind of winter that had been foretold. It was not as terrifying as the two winters that followed it, but was already of the same sort, dark, hungry, and cold, entirely given to the breaking up of the familiar and the reconstruction of all the foundations of existence, and to inhuman efforts to cling to life as it slipped out of your grasp. 
There were three of them, one after the other, three such terrible winters, and not all that now seems to have happened in 1917 and 1918 really happened then - some of it may have been later. These three successive winters have merged into one and it is difficult to tell them apart. 
The old life and the new order had not yet  come in contact. They were not yet openly hostile to each other, as when the civil war broke out a year later, but there was no connection between the two. They stood apart, confronting each other, incompatible.
P. 233
At first the snow thawed quietly and secretly from within. But by the time half the gigantic labor was done it could not be hidden any longer and the miracle became visible. Waters came rushing out from below with a roar. The forest stirred in its impenetrable depth, and everything in it awoke. 
There was plenty of room for the water to play. It flung itself down the rocks, filled every pool to overflowing, and spread. It roared and smoked and steamed in the forest. It streaked through the woods, bogging down in the snow that tried to hinder its movement, it ran hissing on level ground or hurtled down and scattered into a fine spray. The earth was saturated. Ancient pine trees perched on dizzy heights drank the moisture almost from the clouds, and it foamed and dried a rusty white at their roots like beer foam on a mustache. 
The sky, drunk with spring and giddy with its fumes, thickened with clouds. Low clouds, drooping at the edges like felt, sailed over the woods and rain leapt from them, warm, smelling of soil and sweat, and washing the last of the black armor-plating of ice from the earth.
P. 238
"...I'm sure there wasn't any murder. They just broke free like the water."
P. 338
People who can say that have never understood a thing about life - they have never felt its breath, its heartbeat - however much they have seen or done. They look on it as a lump of raw material that needs to be processed by them, to be ennobled by their touch. Life is never a material substance to be molded. If you want to know, life is the principle of self renewal, it is constantly renewing and remaking and changing and transfiguring itself, it is infinitely beyond your or my obtuse theories about it."
P. 457
It was the disease, the revolutionary madness of the age, that at heart everyone was different from his outward appearance and his words. No one had a clear conscience. Everyone could justifiably feel that he was guilty, that he was a secret criminal, an undetected impostor. The slightest pretext was enough to launch the imagination on an orgy of self-torture. Carried away by their fantasy, people accused themselves falsely not only out of terror but out of a morbidly destructive impulse, of their own will, in a state of metaphysical trance, in a passion for self-condemnation which cannot be checked once you give it its head.
P. 464
He lit the kitchen range, picked up a bucket, and started toward the well. A few yards from the door, Strelnikov lay across the path with his head in a snowdrift. He had shot himself. The snow was a red lump under his left temple where he had bled. Drops of spurting blood that had mixed with the snow formed red beads that looked like rowanberries.
I also looked up a lot of words, as Pasternak sported a vast vocabulary. Here are those:

  • taiga - coniferous evergreen forests of subarctic lands
  • fratricidal - a person who kills his or her brother
  • dactyl - a finger or toe
  • casuistic - a person who studies and resolves moral problems of judgement
  • lecherous - lustful
  • conscript - to compel into service, recruit
  • aliment - that which nourishes
  • ignominy - disgrace; dishonor; public contempt
  • carrion - dead and putrefying flesh
  • lattice - a structure of crossed wooden or metal strips usually arranged to form a diagonal pattern of open spaces between the strips
  • portiere - a curtain hung in a doorway, either to replace a door or for decoration
  • sonorous - rich and full in sound
  • ampoule - sealed glass or plastic bulb containing solutions for hypodermic injection
  • expectorated - to eject or expel matter from throat or lungs by coughing or spitting
  • emetic - causing vomiting, as a medicinal substance
  • coquet - to attract attention of men; flirt
  • hoarfrost - frost
  • theosophist - any variation of philosophical or religious thought based on mystical insight into the divine nature
  • anathematise - curse or denounce
  • hubris - excessive pride or self-confidence; arrogance
  • tumid - pompous of inflated, as language; bombastic
  • au courant - fully aware or familiar
  • preternatural - outside of nature
  • cotillion - a formal ball given especially for debutantes
  • calumny - a false and malicious statement designed to injure the reputation of someone or something
  • deleterious - dangerous to health
  • acerbic - sour or astringent in taste
  • faux-naïf - marked by pretense of simplicity or innocence
  • ostentatious - characterized by or given to pretentious or conspicuous show in an attempt to impress others
  • solecism - a breach of good manners or etiquette
  • contrivance - a plan, crafty scheme or trick

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