When I read certain challenging books, I find myself sorely lacking in areas that would greatly enhance my reading understanding and enjoyment. “Doctor Zhivago” by Boris Pasternak is one of those books.
First off, I’d say that reading any important Russian novel would be greatly enhanced by a solid understanding of Russian history — something, sadly, I do not have.
The story is quite grand in scope when you consider the revolutionary events against which it is told and the impact those events had upon the main character, Yurii Zhivago, and those around him.
A better historical understanding of the Russian Revolution and the events leading up to it would have enhanced my appreciation for the story, but I also would have benefitted from a guide to the pronunciation of Russian names.
Take this mouthful for example: Osip Gimazetdinovich Galiullin. Wowsers. Not only are the events of the story grand in their size, so are the character names.
Everything I read about this novel intrigued me and left me wanting to know more about it and its author.
Both Pasternak and his alter ego Zhivago carried on a long-term relationship with a mistress, and both those women suffered greatly for it. The book was not allowed to be printed in his home country originally, so it was first printed in a translated version in Italy.
Shortly after that, Pasternak received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 but was forced to reject it due to the political climate of Russia at the time.
As a writer, I pay a lot of attention to other writer’s styles, and one thing that jumped out at me was the abundance of similes. Pasternak was primarily a poet, and his poetic side comes across over and over through similes and other forms of comparison.
Here are three examples taken from one page in the middle of the book: “Here and there a birch stretched itself like a martyr pierced by the barbs and arrows of its opening shoots, . . .” “The wood smelled of damp and was heaped with last year’s leaves like an unswept room where people have been tearing up letters, bills, and receipts for years.” “Even the engine steam rose into the sky warbling like milk boiling up on a nursery alcohol stove.” Quite poetic, wouldn’t you say?
Not only was Pasternak a poet, so was his famous protagonist, and at the end of the novel there is a section titled “The Poems of Yurii Zhivago.”
I found these same poems in a section of the Nobel Prize Library book that is dedicated to Pasternak, and it was interesting to see how the same poems were translated from Russian by two different translators.
In the Nobel Prize Library, his poems were translated by Lydia Pasternak Slater, his sister, and her take on them is quite different from the translations done by Bernard Guilbert Guerney, whose translations appear in my copy of “Doctor Zhivago.”
I’ll give you the final line of Pasternak’s poem titled “Hamlet” done by each: his sister’s reads “Life is not a walk across a field” while Guerney’s reads “To live life to the end is not a childish task.” I wish I knew Russian to read Pasternak’s original for comparison.
Even though I found this book challenging, I know I came away from reading it a better (perhaps smarter) person than when I started it – because it challenged me to do so. I challenge you to read something challenging as well.
* * *
Next month’s reading selection is “Andersonville” by MacKinlay Kantor.
Contact Marshall at firstname.lastname@example.org.