March 24, 2009

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

I've had this book on my to-read list for years, but only just got round to it. I put it on my list because a girl I used to talk to online about baby names loved the names Lara and Marina, which she got from this book. It's funny because names are the very reason I generally avoid Russian literature. The names are so complicated and at the same time too similar to tell apart, and just when you think you've got sorted out who's who, their names change or they're given a nickname that makes no sense. I tried reading War and Peace a few years ago and had to give up, because while the story was interesting, there were five different Annas and I simply could not keep them straight.

So I finally got around to Doctor Zhivago. This book follows the life of a man from his childhood before the Russian revolution, through the revolution and the following civil war and the establishment of Soviet rule. It's of immense Historical interest. In this sense however there are drawbacks. There are interesting details of those troubled times, but the large events are completely washed over. The assassination of the tsar and his family isn't even mentioned, only vaguely referred to years after it happened.

The writing follows this same odd pattern. Pasternak described in great detail insiginificant things, like what a sheaf of burning papers looks like and how a woman switches between two clothes irons as they heat in a fire. These details show up in dialog too, as the characters' speech is sprinkled with phrases like: "watch out, there's a step." "don't touch that, you'll only make a mess." "shoot, I burned my finger." And yet the important things are nearly lost in a sudden rush of plain statement. He'll describe a forest scene for pages that means almost nothing, and then he'll say something like, "and then he realized that he needed to tell his wife the truth and never see Lara again, but at that moment he was kidnapped by a band of forest partisans who forced him to be their doctor for two years." Whahhh???? Did something just happen???

That was annoying.

And yet in other ways there was a lot of important literary juju going on that reminded me a lot of The Great Gatsby. A billboard the doctor always sees when something significant is going to happen. The proliferation of rats in his lover's house that he is always trying to seal out, but has no way of exterminating. That kind of thing.

This was a great book that I am still thinking about, but it is great for its Historical impact and literary devices, not for its story. Therefore I give it four stars.


  1. I read a lot of classics, and generally love them, but this one grated on my nerves when I read it last August/September. I'm not generally a fan of the Russian style of literature, I suppose. My review is here.

  2. Some of my favorite novels are Russian, but haven't read this one yet. I'm not sure what I'd think of it.

  3. Have you seen the movie? I haven't, but it was one of my grandma's favorites. I wonder if the movie is better?


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