When most people think of Dr Zhivago they immediately think of the David Lean film and I should imagine think that it is pretty faithful to the book so there is no need to go any further and actually read Boris Pasternak’s novel.
The reason for posting this review now is that the memory of the Nabokov experience in revolution is still fresh in the mind after reading Speak, Memory last week.
Of course the film falls far short of the book and goes further in that it answers some of the questions left hanging in the film and takes Yuri’s character on for quite a while after Lara exits the dacha and heads off into safety.
The story follows the main character, Yuri, who becomes a doctor and is happily married with a child when the revolution tears his life apart. Running parallel to his story is that of Lara who also finds her life and her love entwined with the revolution but from the angle of the worker not the fringe aristocrat. Three things happen to take Yuri, who is also a sensitive poet, and shake- him out of his normal life: the first world war, revolution and civil war. He loses his wife and child, who seek exile in Paris, falls in love with Lara then loses her and then forms another relationship that is with a poor woman. Each time he seems to fall in love with someone at a lower level in society before finally dying a humble death. At his funeral the different circles he has lived in momentarily and awkwardly come together – the perfect metaphor for the fact Russia could never return to its former situation.
Is it well written?
The major difference between the film and the book is that in the novel there is not as much of an attempt made to get the reader to like Yuri. You can observe with him and understand why his experience is parallel with what was happening to the entire country. There are a couple of speeches that Yuri makes that stand out as expounding the theme of turmoil the first when Yuri talk about how “the roof being taken off the country” and the freedom it gives to everyone to do as they like. The second speech is by Lara, who talks about the tearing up of lives and blames the war for it. It is hard to sympathise with a man who goes from woman to woman but that restlessness and corrosion of the social codes is exactly what was happening in the country and partly why it is hard to side with Yuri. To be able to do illustrate the turmoil caused by wars and revolutions through the story of one man is quite an achievement.
Should it be read?
The main question I was left with at the end of the book, which has been billed on film posters as ‘the greatest love story ever told’, was who was it that Yuri loved? Was it his wife? Lara? Russia? I came to the conclusion that it was a time of innocence that he loved and sought solace in poetry and nature where people can be idealistic, without having to resort to violence. The other theme that has been an influence on numerous other writers and is not unique to Pasternak is the idea of echoes through time with people turning up in places where they would least be expected and enemies and acquaintances cross paths time and time again. Ironically it is the idea that someone you once loved will come back that is the most romantic aspect of the novel for me. This should be read but maybe not by those people looking for a mushy love story but by those prepared to empathise with a man who keeps having any form of security ripped away from him.
More books set against the backdrop of the revolution – Mikhail Sholokhov’s two volumes about Don Cossacks or of course some of the heavy non-fiction stuff of which the list is pretty long but Orlando Figes A People’s Tragedy is a good starting point.
Version read – Vintage paperback