When I read this in my early twenties it went straight into my top ten favourite novels. All the ravishing set pieces of snow, the high adventure of the long train journeys through spectacular landscapes and Yuri and Lara as the romantically bound orphans of the storm was irresistible to my romantic young imagination. On top of that, as you’d expect from a poet, the novel is alive with memorable piercing images. This was my third time of reading it. I still loved it but it would no longer make my top ten or even twenty. I began to suspect it might be a novel you love less the older you get as you grow more wary of romanticism.
Nabokov famously called it dreary and conventional. For someone so astute at always coming up with the right word “dreary” is decidedly off the mark. Pasternak packs into his novel two revolutions, two world wars and a famine. In fact it’s hard to think of any country in the history of the world that has gone through such a series of traumatic events in such a short period. Pasternak does a terrific job of condensing all these events into theatre. There are no more characters in this novel than in a play. And as in a play all characters continue to interact with each other in a self-contained world. This of course demands a number of far-fetched coincidences but these are embroidered together with such artistry that not once did I have a problem of suspending disbelief. He does this by designing a floorplan in which the idea of predestination is the science that holds everything together.
I was thinking while reading this that serious authors no longer tend to write romantic self-portraits of themselves. After Fitzgerald and Hemingway the trend began to die out. Perhaps because the person we least know in any objective sense is ourselves and to write about yourself, especially from a romantic perspective, is to risk portraying as qualities what most see faults. This is true of Yuri who comes across as pompous and ineffectual at times which I’m not sure Pasternak meant. To be honest I’m not sure how similar Yuri is to Pasternak but because they are both poets there’s often the feeling he’s writing about himself. Fitzgerald after all denied Dick Diver was a self-portrait when clearly this was a smokescreen. And like Dick Diver Yuri isn’t terribly convincing as a doctor either. Not convincing, in other words, whenever Pasternak tries to distance him from himself. Not that this matters much in either case.
Dr Zhivago could be seen as the most elaborate justification of adultery every written. I doubt if it’s any hard core feminist’s favourite novel. This time around I wasn’t convinced about his women. He seems to idealise women rather than understand them, often putting his own words into their mouths. Tonya’s letter to Yuri when she finds out he’s betrayed her is almost comical in its flattering appeal to his vanity and understanding of Lara’s advantages over her own. What woman would tell her man she makes things simple and acknowledge her rival complicates them? That’s like admitting you’re duller than your rival. You might fear it but never would you say it, at least not in the calm moderated charming way Tonya does. This voice of reason on the part of Tonya while the entire country is a bloodbath of irrational hatred jars. Pasternak means well when he writes about women but like many educated man of his generation can come across as patronising.
Pasternak will also show how public life and its etiquette, its conventions, can corrupt the personal life. In the old world his marriage to Tonya is a rational decision – they’re from the same class, share a similar education and have much in common. And yet the lower class Lara is better suited to him. But it takes the revolution for them to meet on equal terms. Ironically then, for all his criticism of the revolution, he’s recognising it introduced a broader prospect for love between soulmates while before love was principally confined to social equals.
Komarovsky is a key character to understanding what Pasternak thought of the revolution in broad terms. Komarovsky begins the novel as a predatory entrepreneur who enjoys the good life. After all the passionate idealism, the killing and sacrifice and starvation Komarovsky loses not one iota of his power. The unscrupulous mercenary will always come out on top. And maybe it’s this accurate but rather unadventurous idea which runs through the novel that explains why Nabokov found the novel dreary. On the other hand maybe he was just bitching about a rival.
Once again I read the old translation which has been roundly criticised. I read somewhere that the translator read a page and then set about translating it without again glancing at it. In other word he went for the gist rather than the rhythm. There’s a new one now that is apparently much better.