Friday, November 1, 2013

Doctor Zhivago

Brilliant, it's just brilliant.  I haven't written on this blog in a while, but I must process what I just read and take a moment to publicly sigh in appreciation of it.  I love Russian literature, as you probably know by now, but I have largely focused on the 19th century.  However, there is also a lot of wonderful work from the 20th century, such as Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, a Nobel Prize winner.

I feel like I have to tell you a little bit of Pasternak's story because it does help you appreciate this novel.  Before Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak had only published poetry and gained a fairly significant following from his work.  But during this time, he also quietly worked on his magnum opus, carefully crafting it for ten years.  When he was finished, he sent it to some Russian publishers, but they refused to publish it due to the backlash they might receive.  Ultimately, he handed his manuscript to an Italian publisher, famously telling him: "You are hereby invited to watch me face the firing squad."  The book was an instant sensation across Europe, bringing him international attention as well as Russian persecution.  When he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, he was unable to attend the ceremony as he knew he would be denied reentry to his beloved country.

This story is an intimate portrayal of the Bolshevik Revolution.  We know very little of the big picture but grasp the rumors and moments that Dr. Zhivago witnesses.  There is something compelling and ingenious about this structure, even as it is irritating and confusing.  It's written in pieces, cutting in and out of the story abruptly and erratically.  Without an omniscient narrator, we have an opportunity to feel how the Russians must have felt during the revolution, unsure how each side was doing in its grueling struggle.  They could only guess the progress based on whichever rumors reached their towns, carrying in conflicting stories about the various generals and leaders.  Moreover, I couldn't tell whether Pasternak favored one side over the other, the White Army or the Red Army.  Instead, I simply felt Zhivago's earnest desire for the conflict to end, regardless of which side of the revolution would receive credit for it.

Another significant component of the novel is its wide spectrum of characters coming in and out of the text.  Throughout his arduous journey, Zhivago meets a number of different people, some of whom only interact with him in a passing moment.  He talks to people on the train, at the hospital, in labor camps, and at home.  At times, Pasternak will devote a whole chapter to introduce a character and tell his story and then never mention that character again.  I find this incredibly realistic, as we all have fleeting interactions with strangers every day.  In Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak plays with the concept of "coincidence," bringing some of these strangers back into Zhivago's life in the most unexpected moments.  I loved this, for I believe we are always connected with the people around us, whether or not we take the time to recognize it.  Some scenes which should seem important pass quickly with little description, while other nominal scenes are drawn out with great detail.  In presenting the story in this way, Pasternak is challenging the notion of which events are the most important in our lives.  Are they the big occasions such as weddings and funerals?  Or is it the everyday conversations and routines that have a greater impact on us?

In between moments of the story, Pasternak tosses in insightful commentary of human nature, society, revolution, and struggle.  I could pull out dozens of quotes that struck me and can stand on their own merit.  He beautifully weaves in descriptions as well, making the landscape come alive through his pen.  For example, the snow is an important component of the novel, appearing as a recurring motif alongside the characters.  At times it represents the heavy, depressing emotions of the ongoing war.  It powerfully crashes on the land and freezes everything in place.  Yet in other scenes, the snow is a beautiful relief, glittering in the sun with hope and beauty for those who watch it.  It reminds them of childhood play, building snow forts and snowmen.  The snow interacts with the people as one of the characters, evoking various emotions, reflecting their current predicaments, and foreshadowing the future.

I admit that it took some effort for me to get through this whole novel, as its unorthodox structure made it a little more difficult to move quickly through the text.  However, I truly enjoyed every minute of it, feeling enriched by each page.  I feel like Pasternak gave me an incredible understanding of the Bolshevik Revolution, and reading his novel allowed me to experience this piece of history in a realistic way.  Thus, I highly recommend that you read it, as it is an informative, expansive, heartbreaking classic.

For more on Russian literature, check out my lists below:
Great Russian Authors of the 19th Century
Great Russian Authors of the 20th Century


Kate said...

I enjoyed reading your thoughts! I have this book in my stack upstairs and I've been looking forward to getting to it! Even more so now that I read that you liked it so much.

Jessica said...

You finished it! Bravo! I do love the way you approach literature and your reviews. You're such a thoughtful reader, even if the reading experience is a challenge.