You'd think, having Julie Christie as a mistress and Geraldine Chaplin as a wife, that you couldn't do much better than that in life. Alas, you can, because if it's that good and it's all taken away and your net time with each amounts to squatski (Russian for "squat"), in the scheme of your life, maybe life's a bitch after all.
Dr. Zhivago brings us another Russian opus dealing with man as pawn against the great playing board of history. You can see why the Soviets banned the book, too, as its view of the Bolsheviks becomes increasingly dim as the book plays out. I remember, in fact, talking the book (and movie) up when I was in the Soviet Union back in the 70s. My tour guide was much intrigued and furtively questioned me about both, but stopped suddenly, perhaps thinking for a panicked nanosecond that I was a plant (ficus, peace lily, whatever). Nyetski, comrade. Just an interested reader.
I considered 4-stars because the book has stretches that could be excised without harming it in the least. And it commits the cardinal sin of including an epilogue after its two protagonists have exited the scene. (The sound you hear is pages flipping.) It ends with some 30 pages of Doc's poetry, few of which survive the turbulence of translation.
But that's the point and the reason for the fifth star, actually. Poetry. Frequently, the narrative in this book slows down for some beautiful poetic writing, for some reason handled more deftly by Pevear & Volokhonsky in the prose than in the unforgiving confines of verse. Zhivago is a Renaissance man of Russia, interested in poetry, writing, philosophy, history, medicine, etc. He's a regular William Carlos Williams of the steppes, coming in from his doctor calls to write poetry like he does. Here's typical fare, as a for instance of the descriptive flare Pasternak has:
"Meanwhile it was getting dark. The crimson-bronze patches of light the sunset scattered over the snow were swiftly fading, going out. The ashen softness of the expanses quickly sank into the lilac twilight, which was turning more and more purple. Their gray mist merged with the fine, lacy handwriting of the birches along the road, tenderly traced against the pale pink of the sky, suddenly grown shallow.
"The grief in his soul sharpened Yuri Andreevich's perceptions. He grasped everything with tenfold distinctness. His surrounding acquired the features of a rare uniqueness, even the air itself. The winter evening breathed an unprecedented concern, like an all-sympathizing witness. It was as if there had never been such a nightfall until now, and evening came for the first time only today, to comfort the orphaned man plunged into solitude. It was as if the woods around stood on the hillocks, back to the horizon, not simply as a girdling panorama, but had just placed themselves there, having emerged from under the ground to show sympathy."
Larissa Fyodorovna (Lara) is a character for the ages -- beautiful, intelligent, emotional, strong, maternal, romantic, and realistic all at once. Small wonder so many western girls were named after her once the book (and then the movie) was released. She links together disparate characters like Zhivago and his wife, Tonya; the repugnant Komarovsky; Pavel Antipov (Strelnikov). And she surely comes across as the wife everyman envisions but never gets (Zhivago included, though his vision at least took form for an ethereal second).
Like War & Peace, the book goes back and forth between wartime scenes (a man's world) and domestic ones (man and woman) seamlessly. Pasternak is equally adept at both. The sharp contrasts, I think, are a great metaphor for Russia itself -- the sheer scope, size, and beauty of the landscape serving unwillingly as backdrop to the 20th century's tremendous shocks to her people.
When all is said and done, you'll come away with certain scenes -- especially from Varykino -- permanently embedded in your longterm memory. How many books can lay that claim? Rhetorical question, of course. Haunting, poignant, memorable, all graciously written.
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