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Doctor Zhivago – Book Review

It snowed hard throughout the month
Of February, and almost constantly
A candle burned on the table;
A candle burned
-From the poems of Yurii Zhivago-

First published in Italy in 1957, Boris Pasternak’s sweeping epic Doctor Zhivago stirred controversy in his native Russia. Set in Moscow and the Ural Mountains, the novel tells the story of a poet-physician whose life is defined by the Bolshevik Revolution and its aftermath. The novel’s underlying criticism of the Bolshevik party led to it being banned until 1988 in Russia. When Pasternak was chosen for the esteemed Nobel Prize for Literature, his native Russians protested so much that the author declined the honor. Felt to be largely autobiographical, Doctor Zhivago reveals much about its author’s philosophical ideology and personal life.

The novel opens with the suicide of Zhivago’s father just before the Russian Revolution when Zhivago is still a young boy. Pasternak reveals early on that the novel will be about truth and sacrifice; about one man’s beliefs and how he lives with his choices.

I think that if the beast who sleeps in man could be held down by threats – any kind of threat, whether of jail or of retribution after death – then the highest emblem of humanity would be the lion tamer in the circus with his whip, not the prophet who sacrificed himself. But don’t you see, this is just the point – what has for centuries raised man above the beast is not the cudgel but an inward music: the irresistible power of unarmed truth, the powerful attraction of its example. -From Doctor Zhivago, page 42-

As the story develops, the reader is pulled into the life of Zhivago, who matures into a young man, loses his wealth, marries his childhood sweetheart, becomes embroiled in the fast accelerating revolution and finds Lara, his true love.  The overriding theme of the novel is the importance of the individual vs. the rules of the state and the terror inflicted on the masses in the name of a political ideal.

Everything in Yura’s mind was still helter-skelter, but his views, his habits, and his inclinations were all distinctly his own. He was unusually impressionable, and the originality of his vision were remarkable. -From Doctor Zhivago, page 64-

Pasternak writes prose like the poet he was – painting the chaos of the times on wide brush strokes of beautiful description.

Everything was fermenting, growing, rising with the magic yeast of life. The joy of living, like a gentle wind, swept in a broad surge indiscriminately through fields and towns, through walls and fences, through wood and flesh. Not to be overwhelmed by this tidal wave, Yurii Andreievich went out in the square to listen to the speeches. -From Doctor Zhivago, page 141-

Throughout the novel, the idea of fate – of being swept along with the tide of the times – is often repeated. Characters re-emerge in unusual ways, seemingly by coincidence – and yet we are left with the idea that some things cannot be chance and nothing is coincidental. The characters seem to be victims of the Soviet ideology.

“Let’s try to think. Though what is there that we can do? Is it in our power to avert this blow? Isn’t it a matter of fate?” -From Doctor Zhivago, page 409-

Most people think of Doctor Zhivago as a love story. The love between Lara and Yurii spins throughout the novel, and reminds the reader again about the power of the individual even during tumult and upheaval. But, calling Doctor Zhivago merely a love story would be undervaluing its bigger messages. The novel is full of wonderful passages and  beautiful prose; and defines a generation of Russians during a cataclysmic time in history.

Certainly a classic and one which will stand the test of time – Doctor Zhivago is a must read for anyone who strives to better understand the Russian Revolution and who has a love of great literature.

Highly Recommended.

6 Comments

  1. Anonymous Anonymous
    November 25, 2007    

    Hey fellow blogharbor-ite, I really like your book lists. You might enjoy http://www.goodreads.com for tracking your reading and sharing it with the world. I’m not affiliated w/ them, though you’ll probably find me if you search for Motormouth. This year the big books I read were _Infinite Jest_, _Gravity’s Rainbow_, and (in progress) _Finnegans Wake_. Feel free to visit at http://motormouth.blogharbor.com. So nice to find such an inspiring reader! — Motormouth

  2. Anonymous Anonymous
    November 25, 2007    

    Thanks for visiting, Motormouth! I’ve heard about goodreads…but I already am a member of LibraryThing (similar site) which I love, so will probably not be creating another account 🙂 I visited your blog – very nice!

  3. Anonymous Anonymous
    November 27, 2007    

    Yay another positive review of this one. I’m looking forward to curling up with this in January for the Russian Reading Challenge 🙂

  4. Anonymous Anonymous
    November 29, 2007    

    I’m looking forward to reading your review in January, Suzi!

  5. Anonymous Anonymous
    November 30, 2007    

    I have this on my shelf. I’m glad you liked it. Now maybe I’ll move it up on the pile.

  6. Anonymous Anonymous
    November 30, 2007    

    Come back and link me to your review after you’ve read it Chris!

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