Tuesday, June 30, 2015
Book Review: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
Doctor Zhivago tells the story of Yury, a young doctor during the time of the Russian Revolution. He marries a girl he grew up with, and lives in Moscow as a bourgeoisie who agrees with the plight of the Russian poor and is trying to acclimatize to the constant shifts in power and any new laws that come with them. The story also follows Lara, a young girl growing up in Moscow at the same time as Yury, but who is in a lower class. Lara's mother is the mistress of a man named Komarovsky after her husband's death. When Lara starts to grow up in her mid teens, Komarovsky takes up a romantic relationship with her that eventually pushes Lara into trying to shoot him at a Christmas party. Yury was at the party, and was always fascinated by the strange girl who seemed so strong. Lara marries a boy she grew up with, Pasha Antipov, to try and move on from her troubled past. Pasha can never really accept Lara's history, and decides a few years after their marriage that he needs to get away, so he joins the military. Lara loses contact with him, so she becomes a field nurse. Yury ends up as a doctor in the same hospital as Lara, and they become friends. Things are hinted by Yury at the time, but their relationship remains platonic since they both still love their spouses.
When Yury returns home, he finds things incredibly changed and his family almost starving from the lack of food in the city and the strict rations imposed by the new regime, so he agrees to move with his wife, son, and father-in-law to their family's old land holdings in the Ural mountains in hopes that they can live off the land themselves and be able to survive. Their trip across the country is long and difficult, and when they arrive in the Urals they find it difficult to begin life. Once the planting season is finished, Yury rides into the nearest town to study in their library and he runs into Lara again. The two have an affair with each other that carries on for a while until Yury breaks it off out of respect for his wife, whom he still loves deeply. On his way back home that day, he is kidnapped by one of the military groups fighting in the area and forced to act as their doctor. He stays with them for 18 months before he manages to escape. When he returns home, he discovers that his family has moved back to Moscow because his father-in-law was offered a job their, but shortly after their arrival the new government decide to deport them. His family has fled to France without him since they had no idea where he was or if he was even alive. Yury never sees his family again in his life. He goes back to Lara and her daughter and the three of them are able to live for a short time. Komarovsky shows up suddenly with news that Lara's husband is not dead but is actually the feared and vicious military leader, Strelnikov, putting herself and her daugther in danger of death from her husband's enemies. Yury and Lara flee to a cottage away from town and live there for a few weeks before Lara becomes so paranoid that she insists on them returning to town. Komarovsky returns and takes her and her daughter away to Mongolia to hide them. Yury never sees them again in his life.
Yury makes his way to Moscow where he meets another young girl who takes a liking to him and begins a family with her. He makes contact with his family in France after a while, but he suddenly dies of a heart condition before he is able to do anything to try and see them again. Lara returns and manages his funeral, hinting to Yury's half brother about a child of Yury's that she was forced to give up years before. Yury's brother eventually finds the girl and tells her of her parentage.
I normally wouldn't give quite such a run-down of the book's story, but I feel it is very relevant to my review this time. I went into reading this book thinking it was an epic love story that took place during the revolution, but in reality the revolution IS the story. The story is just about a normal man's life during this tumultuous time of incredible changes. Yes Yury falls in love with Lara, but that is just a side note. The true point Pasternak tries to make is the struggle for life every man has, striving for a life of meaning and for love and so many other things all while still trying to just plain survive. Yury also writes poetry periodically throughout his life, a practice which is deemed superfluous in a time embracing communism. The story is all over the place. Governments and public opinion changes constantly, and the people are just left to try and make the best of it, hoping that the fighting will stop soon so that life can level out. This leveling out never seems to happen. There is always another war to fight, more work to do, and never enough to take care of yourself. "The people" are treated as less important than "the ideals", and the citizens themselves allow this idea because they are holding out hope for things to get better once the fighting ends. I was so glad for an explanation of the time that was included after I finished the actual book. Apparently Pasternak modeled many aspects of Yury's life after himself, telling what he went through during this unprecedented time in history. The book was published in the 1950s, but had to be published in Italy as the communist government did not agree with its existence. This was the first account from a Russian citizen that managed to reach the outside world after the revolution. Until this book was published, Russia had shut up their goings-on so much that no one outside the country had any idea what it was like for the actual citizens who lived there. That is why this book is such a big deal - it lifted the iron curtain to the rest of us.
Even though the book was very different from the movie, I still enjoyed reading it. It's crazy to think of all that went on in this period and what it must have been like to live through. The book is really all over the place, but that helps convey the true feel for the people at that time in my opinion. It's not something I probably will read again, but I am glad to have read it to gain a better understanding of a historic period that I thought I knew a good deal about already. I give this book 4 out of 5 stars.