When I was a little less than half-way through Doctor Zhivago, I mentioned it casually to a thoughtful and well-read friend. “Ugh,” he said without hesitation and rolled his eyes. I was confused by this--I was enjoying it so far. Sure there were a million characters, each with multiple names, but the Internet helps with this a lot. And the author does a pretty good job of reminding you who’s who as you go along.
Granted, I expected to have trouble with this book. I have a pretty shaky grasp of Russian history. It wasn’t taught in my grade schools, and I didn’t pursue it in college. My 9th grade English teacher taught us Animal Farm as an Aesop’s-Fable-type story about the importance of knowing your place. I expected to get lost in some of the “who’s fighting who, when, and ostensibly why” details of this novel, which stretches from the early 1900s through World War II–a pretty active time in Russia. And I did.
But I kept reading (rather, listening; I got it on CD for my commute). I read without an unusual amount of eye rolling until chapter 13, “Opposite the House of Sculptures.” And then it lost me; I turned. Glancing through other reviews on Goodreads, I’m not the only one who turned at this point. It’s a ginormous chapter in which two characters who are supposed to have the most pure, passionate love ever known to existence speak to each other in impersonal monologues, explaining their feelings and large sections of the plot that the reader has already witnessed.
The chapter probably shouldn’t feel so ridiculously long and boring and forehead-slappingly unbelievable. The reader is supposed to understand the intense passion that these two feel for each other. The problem, obviously, is that we don’t. And this was the point in the book when I realized that there wasn’t going to be any further character development. The characters were fully formed, but they were wooden. The only other explanation for their reactions, emotions, and absences we’d get would be delivered in monologue--either by themselves or the narrator.
I felt and understood this great and perfect love exactly once: [SPOILERS!] Yuri is headed home to confess his affair with Lara to his pregnant wife, Tonia. On the way, he convinces himself that he really didn’t end things right with Lara and should probably go back and talk to her again. (Eye rolling, because you want him to be better--this poet/philosopher/physician--but it’s realistic.) He’s so overjoyed at the prospect of seeing Lara again, even if it’s just to break up with her. But then, on the way, when the reader is anticipating a beautiful love scene, he gets kidnapped by partisans. And marches around the woods with them for about 2 years. And then, when he finally escapes, he goes to Lara’s house first so that they can give speeches at each other for hours. Ugh. [/SPOILERS!]
After that turn in chapter 13, Doctor Zhivago wasn’t able to win me back. The coincidences get ludicrous. Reading this, you’d think there are only about four houses in Russia, because everyone keeps appearing at the same places. They walk straight across Siberia and end up at the same house. Really.
(All of that said, Pasternak comes up with some of the more beautiful nature descriptions I’ve ever read. His scene descriptions are the strongest part of the novel. And the relationship between Lara and Komarovsky in part 1 is, oddly, the most believable and human relationship in the book.)
Once I finished Doctor Zhivago, I read the Wikipedia page and a few other online resources. Maybe, I thought, I missed something. Maybe each of these characters is a metaphor for some aspect of Russian culture or history that is lost on me in my ignorance. Maybe that would explain the way they all interact with each other, fade and reappear, go to their fates. But no. At least, I didn’t find an interpretation that supported that theory.
So, the question remains: Why is this Nobel-winning novel such a drag? Maybe it’s because it’s written in a style that modern (American) readers aren’t familiar enough with--like trying to watch Lawrence Olivier act and wondering how anyone could ever have tolerated him for a whole movie. It’s not very old (smuggled out of Russia and published in Italy in 1958), but it’s a bit old, and it’s Russian. Or maybe the reason for its popularity and critical success during the Soviet era had a lot more to do with what it said about the Soviets and less about its plot and characterization. Are the readers or the book to blame?
I don’t have enough information to answer the question. But if you’re a student of Russian history, I encourage you to read Doctor Zhivago and tell me what you think. Let’s talk about it. Because it’s very possible I just missed something obvious, and you have something to teach me.
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