This wasn’t at all what I expected. I thought I was going to read a sweeping love story set against a backdrop of snow.
Instead I found the history of Russia in the first half of the 20th century, world wars, revolution, civil war and the political terror of the 1930’s told through the eyes of a doctor and poet.
But it was the plain, almost dispassionate style that surprised me the most. Writing in 1957 Pasternak describes the civil war vividly, but without sentiment. A sense of catastrophe and upheaval is always present, the characters come thick and fast, which gives a sense of the chaos and disorder but somehow Yuri Zhivago is detached, as if he’s watching events through a window and never really taking part.
“Despite the restoring of the normal flow of life,there was still shooting here and there after December, and the new fires of the sort that always happened, looked like the smouldering remains of the earlier ones.”
The hardships of eking out an existence, whether as a soldier or civilian are described in intricate detail, everyone who appears has a name and a story but it meant that I never really got a feeling for Zhivago or Lara, they seemed to be there just to dramatise the history. I didn’t find this style particularly engaging and I was often fed up with Yuri Andreevich who seemed to go along with everything so easily; when he’s taken prisoner by partisans, or his wife is missing, or wondering whether she’s had the baby? All are met, seemingly, with little more than a shrug.
But it does mean that the history is a personal one, and in particular that of a poet. Doctor Zhivago is thoughtful and dreamy, when he shoots a man in a skirmish he looks at the young guard “The features of innocence and an all-forgiving suffering were written on the young man’s handsome face. “Why did I kill him?” he thinks. At a time when sensitivity, creativity and originality weren’t valued or needed Yuri Zhivago with his wish for “a quiet life and a big bowl of cabbage soup” remains true to his personality; when all he has is a crust of bread and a hunk of lard he describes the coming evening as
“frosty,transparently grey,tender-hearted as pussy-willow fluff,” even in time of revolution and war people go on living Pasternak seems to be saying. His poetry is full of trees, gardens, lakes and weather – the natural world that Pasternak saw as fundamental to life. Respect of the individual personality is key at a time when “The human laws of civilisation ended.”
The last parts (The Ending and Epilogue) were much more conventional in style and felt sad and poignant. With his love of the natural world Dr. Zhivago is back in Moscow and senses that “the living language . . . the spirit of today, is the language of urbanism”, is this the deadly uniformity and mediocrity that Pasternak was afraid would come after revolution? It’s 1943 and the second world war is described as “a breath of deliverance” from what had gone before.
I didn’t love Doctor Zhivago but I do think it’s a very important book and one that I need to read again; now that I know what I’m getting I think I’ll be able to concentrate more easily and not try to make it fulfil my expectations!