Dr. Zhivago~ First Impressions

Reading Book One of Dr. Zhivago was a bit like standing in the midst of a Russian snowstorm, impressions and characters and ideas were swirling around me like the fast flurry of a snowstorm off the Urals.  Here, with no particular rhyme or reason, are some of those impressions:

The Political Landscape~ This is an extremely political book, and it’s not one bit surprising that Pasternak got himself in deep with the Soviet authorities.  He makes his feelings about the revolution quite clear, and teaches us all a thing or two about what it means to live in a country at war with its own ideologies.

Chaotic was the whirlwind of thoughts swarming in his head…two spheres of them, which kept winding up and then unwinding.

To this new belonged the war, its blood and horrors, its homelessness and savagery.  To this new belonged the trials and the wisdom of life taught by the war.  To this new belonged the revolution, not as idealized by university intellectuals in 1905, but this present day one, born of the war, bloody, a soldier’s revolution, reckless of anything…

The Translation~I don’t read many books in translation, but I know Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are renowned for their translations of the great Russian novelists.  Reviewers have said that their work on Dr. Zhivago comes closest to capturing Pasternak’s own style than any of the other previous translations.  I find the novel easy enough to read.  Occasionally, when the characters are speaking emotionally, the language seems strange and almost nonsensical, as  if there aren’t adequate English words to replace the terminology in the Russian.

Zhivago~Yuri Andreevich (Dr. Zhivago) appears somewhat rarely in these first 229 pages, and the reader learns to wait for his arrival as one does for the starring actor in a stage play.  When he is on stage, Zhivago always has something important to say, something that reveals his philosophy, his theology, his feelings.  He becomes almost Christ like, stepping up to make a pronouncement,  to shed light on a situation, to reveal a truth.   Part of him can’t bear to face what’s happening in his country, and though he tries to turn his head away, it eventually become impossible.

Why should I know everything and lay myself out for everything?  The times take no account of me and impose whatever they like on me.   So allow me to ignore the facts.  You say my words don’t agree with reality.  But is there any reality in Russia now? In my opinion, it’s been so intimidated that is has gone into hiding.   I want to believe that the countryside has benefitted and is prospering.  If that, too, is a delusion, what am I to do then? What am I to live by, who am I to obey?

The Theology~Often in Book One, Zhivago appears on stage expressly to share some theology with the reader.  When this happens, he’s often at a breaking point of frustration or despair.  Very early on, he’s moved to write this passage after reflecting on “Modern Man” (actually the Ancient Romans)…

And then into the glut of this gold and marble tastelessness came this one, light and clothed in radiance, emphatically human, deliberately provincial, a Galilean, and from that moment peoples and gods ceased, and man began, man without a drop of proud sound, man gratefully dispersed through all mothers’ lullabies and through all the picture galleries of the world.

Later on he discourses on the nature of the soul and immortality… “Man in other people is man’s soul. That is what you are, that is what your conscience breather, relished, was nourished by all your life.  You have been in others and you will remain in others.  What difference does it make to you that later it will be called memory?  It will be you, having entered into the composition of the future.”

And so the story in Book One whirls and swirls around this rather enigmatic man, caught up between the forces of good and evil erupting throughout the world he has always known.  Like so many of us, he feels powerless to effect change, and longs simply to cordon himself away from it all and escape to what really matters…”his home…where every little stone was dear to him,” and “his dear ones, returning to himself, the renewing of existence.”

Thanks to: Frances, at Nonsuch Book for hosting the read-along of this new translation, and to the publisher’s giveaway which provided me with a copy.  It is definitely a book I’m proud to add to my library.


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5 thoughts on “Dr. Zhivago~ First Impressions

  1. I love your imagery in the beginning of this post about feeling like you’re standing in a snowstorm with everything swirling around you; so true for these Russian greats! Also, I know just what you mean about the translation being nonsensical at times, like there aren’t enough words to replace the Russian. I struggled with this particular rendition, but I still love the novel, most especially for the story of Yuri and Lara.

  2. I struggle with books in translation, and this was no exception. I sometimes got frustrated with the way the characters would utter pronouncements in such portentous tones; but the moments of emotional truth happened often enough to keep me reading.

  3. It is such an incredibly political book so I find it funny that I have read about the author denying political motivations in a few places now including Pevear’s introduction to this new edition. Realize that some denial was necessary at a time for self-preservation but now?

    I am taking a short break from the novel, and hoping to enjoy the second half more than the first. Thanks for joining in. Lovely post. And right there with Bellezza’s comment about your snow imagery.

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