Do you ever find that after finishing a book you’re still not sure what you thought of it and couldn’t even say whether you had actually enjoyed it or not? That’s the way I felt about Doctor Zhivago. I’m glad I’ve finally read it as it’s a book I’ve been curious about for a long time, but while I didn’t dislike it I didn’t love it either. Thankfully I don’t even attempt to rate books on my blog but I do on Goodreads and wavered between three and four stars for a long time before settling on three. Doctor Zhivago is a long book and definitely not a light, easy read, so I was disappointed that I couldn’t rate it more highly after investing so much time and effort in it.
Doctor Zhivago was published in 1957 and Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature a year later. The novel is set in Russia and follows the life of Yuri Zhivago, a doctor and poet. Yuri’s mother dies when he is still a young child and he is raised by his Uncle Kolya. After studying medicine at university, he marries his childhood friend, Tonya, and they have a son together but Yuri and Tonya are separated when Yuri joins the army as a doctor. Recovering in a field hospital after being wounded, he is drawn to another woman, Lara, who is working there as a nurse and over the years that follow he is torn between his loyalty to Tonya and his love for Lara. But this is more than just Yuri’s story…it’s also the story of Russia itself and the events that shaped the country throughout the first half of the twentieth century.
I have to admit that before I started reading this book I had absolutely no idea what it was about, though I think I must have had the impression it was a romantic historical epic set against a backdrop of beautiful snowy landscapes. Although I’ve never actually watched any of the film or television adaptations of this book it seems that they have chosen to focus more on the love story aspect, which is probably why I had this misconception of what the book would be like. This particular edition of the book does nothing to dispel that idea, with the claim on the cover that this is “one of the greatest love stories ever told”. It isn’t. Not in my opinion, anyway. After reaching the end of the book it seemed to me that the romance had only formed a minor part of the story, taking second place to the Russian history and politics, though whether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends on your personal preference, of course!
Doctor Zhivago was originally written in Russian and the translators of this edition are Max Hayward and Manya Harari. I hadn’t looked into which other translations are available – I just picked the book up on a whim when I noticed it on the library shelf because I’ve been interested in reading it for a while. Maybe there are other translations that are better, but I didn’t have any problems with this one; I thought the writing flowed well and was easy enough to read (although the story itself is disjointed, almost episodic). There are some beautiful, moving passages, and yes, some wonderful descriptions of snowy Russian landscapes too. But what did make this book very challenging for me was my complete lack of knowledge of most of the history involved: the February and October Revolutions, for example, and the Civil War between the Reds and the Whites. If you’re planning to read Doctor Zhivago and know nothing about the historical context I would strongly recommend doing some background reading first – I wish I had as I’m sure it would have made the story a lot easier to understand and follow!
The parts of the book that I did enjoy were excellent – I particularly loved the penultimate chapter, Again Varykino, and its atmospheric descriptions of a deserted town surrounded by howling wolves – but I was disappointed that I never managed to form any kind of emotional connection with any of the characters. Although Yuri, Lara and Tonya found themselves in situations that I could sympathise with, I thought their characters felt underdeveloped. They never felt like real people to me, so their stories didn’t affect me as much as they should have done.
I wish I had been able to write a more intelligent, articulate review but I think I’ll have to leave that to other people as I’m aware that a lot of the political and philosophical aspects of the story just went over my head. To fully appreciate this book I would have to read it again and I don’t think that’s something I’ll ever want to do! I do usually like Russian literature in general – I loved Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, I enjoyed Anna Karenina and am currently taking part in a group read of War and Peace – so I have to conclude that Pasternak and Doctor Zhivago are just not for me.