This is my brain on Boris Pasternak

Doctor Zhivago Pasternak Vintage Pevear VolokhonskyI just finished reading Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. Reading it has been the tonic I’d been seeking after that desperate run of post-Mantel mediocrity; I freely admit to having planted many platonic, entirely non-pervy smoochies on the book’s cover and pages as I read.

Doctor Zhivago is political and historical; it is exuberant in execution and painstaking in plot and pacing; it is unabashedly romantic as well as “stay up all night thinking and reading and writing” intellectual.

It is a blend of inconsistencies so irresistible I can’t usefully compare it to any other book I’ve read; it actually reminds me of some of my most beloved humans (real humans that I know, not characters or famous people). I can imagine Pasternak winking saucily at Whitman and admitting to sometimes contradicting himself.

Allow me to contradict myself. Doctor Zhivago is a mess; I don’t think Pasternak knew where he was going necessarily, and that’s why it’s perfect. It’s neither easy nor predictable nor comprehensible except along purely historical lines–which is incredible, given how incomprehensible exactly everything about the Russian Revolution and its aftermath is.

Allow me to contradict myself again (on several levels); this book is unique in my experience, but it displays a certain something shared by all my favourite Russian novelists (especially, of course, Dostoevsky)–it seems as though Pasternak skirted the lines of narrative chaos, but I think this is an entirely calculated effect.

I stand by all of the above. Try to unpack it all if you like, but wouldn’t it be better for you to just go read the damned novel and have a good time?

You see, I’ve learned two important things by reading Pasternak’s novel. The first is this:

A surprising number of people don’t seem to know that Doctor Zhivago isn’t only a film. Which means they haven’t read it. (I’m told by People Who Watch Films (not movies) that Doctor Zhivago the film did for snow what Laurence of Arabia did for sand; by which I assume they meant these films built elaborate free-standing sculptures from these two inhospitable climatological substances, rather than that they portrayed them as sexy, which would just be irresponsible.)

The second:

Not many people seem to be reading it right now either, if my Twitter feed is a meaningful measure (which it is and isn’t: I follow a relatively small number of people but they are mostly readers with tastes not totally unlike my own).

I’ve tweeted a number of dead good bits from the book. A sure sign I love a book is that I rain quotations (sometimes thunderously) from it down onto the internet and hope for a bite or two; I didn’t get any bites. And the hashtag #DoctorZhivago brings up mostly nuggets about the movie and, from back in April, some stuff about the CIA using the novel to undermine the Soviets. No retweets or favourites of those yummy mouthfuls, my friends. Come on!

Well, it’s better to be alone with a good book than to have no book at all. And it’s not like my brain isn’t company enough, a lot of the time. Doctor Zhivago is many things but I’d say it isn’t particularly funny; luckily there’s my mind’s tendencies to spectacularly misread things to graft a little hilarity onto the most solemn objects of contemplation. A stanza in one of the good doctor’s poems reads thus (as translated by the incomparable Pevear and Volokhonsky (surely an even more crucially important love affair than Yuri and Lara’s!)):

When in the last week

He was entering Jerusalem,

Thundering hosannas met him,

People ran after him with branches.

What I saw was this:

When in the last week

He was entering Jerusalem,

Thundering bananas met him,

People ran after him with branches.

(While funny, my brain sadly isn’t hilarious enough to have replaced “branches” with “bunches;” I’m just as disappointed by this as you are.)

How do I get back to the actual novel after such a silly digression? I don’t. Neither Lara or Yuri would demand it–their brains took them to strange and surreal places too; of all people in this great world, real and imagined, they would have been the last to demand sense or consistency from the likes of me. They would, and rightly, demand this:

Let’s talk as long as you can, with every luxury, all night long, with candles burning.

12 Comments Add yours

  1. I will put it on my list to help make your Twitter stats more meaningful. ; )

    1. Colleen says:

      I know I can count on you.

  2. Sylvia says:

    I read the book before the movie came out, and I must say, the movie was quite good. (How could it not be good with Omar Sharif in it.) There was an article in a recent London Review of Books about “the Zhivago Affair”, the smuggling of the manuscript out of Russia by Isaiah Berlin. The CIA did try to use it but I’m not clear on what they hoped to accomplish. Anyway, perhaps that article will prompt more people to read the book, or reread it as I intend to do.

    1. Colleen says:

      I also wondered what the CIA had hoped to accomplish with Doctor Zhivago… In any case, it’s pretty clear the US will never be so gentle or innocent again to try to gain political ends by publishing great novels. Sigh.

  3. heidenkind says:

    So I take it you haven’t seen the movie?! You really should. I knew it was based on a book, but since mammoth Russian novels intimidate me I don’t have any ambition to read it ATM (this may change).

    I am kinda disappointed I missed all your #doctorzhivago tweets though. 😦

    1. Colleen says:

      You’re right, I really must see the movie. I’ll plan it for our first big snowstorm here. πŸ™‚

      Doctor Zhivago isn’t as mammoth as some of Tolstoy’s and Dostoevsky’s…but it’s by no means short. So worth it though!

  4. Jennifer D says:

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts!! I read Doctor Zhivago earlier this month (finally!!) and really loved it. I agree with your assertion it’s a mess. And yet, somehow, it still works amazingly. Nothing like a great Russian read in winter – at least, that’s how I roll!! πŸ™‚

    1. Colleen says:

      I agree and am trying to find something suitably wintery and Russian for my next read… :p

      1. Jennifer D says:

        I haven’t yet read The Master and Margarita… but I don’t think its settings are moody-winter-y enough. πŸ™‚

  5. Colleen says:

    All I could find at home that was both Russian and winter-y was Tolstoy’s The Cassocks…but the translation seemed really stilted, so I compromised and began a Chekhov that isn’t winter-y either. Master and Margarita is crazy good!

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