Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago: Turning love & history into immortality

Why Doctor Zhivago is a good read?

I first read the book in 1991 when it was translated in my mother tongue. Some time ago I said why not having a second go? The re-reading enabled me to see the story from another angle and to better taste Pasternak’s style.


Stepan Kolesnikov – Winter landscape (Image source)

While ageing, a book like “Doctor Zhivago” could be perceived with different eyes. I enjoyed the reading as I better contextualised the story plot in Russia of those years. I also better portrayed the characters along with their emotions, feelings and their struggles.

A former teacher told me once that, in original, the book is a masterpiece. To put it right in other languages and to connect the story with the languages’ cultural settings, a translation requires a huge creative effort. The difficulty would consist of transposing the poetic wealth of words and to turn them into beautiful and unforgettable images in the target language.

This book made me feel Pasternak’s poetic art from one word to another. I needed to slow down my regular speed reading and enjoy the book’s density. It was the right thing to do to fully absorb both the narrative and the historical context.

The book is without a doubt a reference masterpiece of the world’s literature. Not only because of Pasternak’s art to enable the reader to see and feel the story’s context, but also because of his ability to perfectly balance his poetry while building beautiful descriptions.

The book was first published in Italy, in 1957, as the Soviet authorities banned it. Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, but could not attend the event and could not get the Prize. Actually it was not the intention of the Soviet regime to make the book story unusual, so that after all the book become a notably worldwide success.

The book plot in a nutshell

The book bears the name of its main character, Yuri Zhivago, a doctor and poet. The story goes through the 1905 Russian Revolution, the World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution and the post-Bolshevik Revolution period.

The book starts with the early years of Yuri Zhivago and Larisa Feodorovna (Lara), in Moscow. Yuri studies medicine, becomes a doctor and marries Antonina Aleksandrovna (Tonya).

After a while the historical events change their ordinary lives. Yuri serves as a doctor during a military campaign. He meets Larisa (Lara) who enrolled in the army as a nurse to find out what happened to her husband, Pavel Pavlovich Antipov (Pasha). He went missing during a military mission. Yuri and Lara fall in love. Lara does not find her husband and returns to Yuriatin, but their love story stays strong enough.

The main characters are then part of a number of bitter events involving the confusion of those years, the Bolshevik Revolution, the post-war shortages and the political regime revenges.

Following the historical events of those years, including the Civil War from 1918 to 1920, Yevgraf, Yuri’s half-brother, plays a crucial role in the lives’ of both Lara and Yuri. Lara dies years later, probably in a labour camp, whereas Yuri suffers a heart attack while running after a woman who resembled Lara. Tonya along with her family is deported to Paris.

The book closes with twenty poems. In my understanding Pasternak transfers these pieces of poetry to Yuri.

Why the book is a special reading?

This book is about how to transpose and turn ideas, feelings, idealism, mysticism and emotions into immortality.

On my side the only effort I needed to make was to write down the characters’ names, which for a non-Russian speaker are hard to catch and memorise. But it was worth the effort.

Even if the book is often dense and too much for the eyes to hold, I easily find a connection with both characters and descriptions, as I am a Russian literature lover.

I was impressed with the way Pasternak captures the Bolshevik Revolution and its ideology which he introduced to the reader in a neutral manner, without taking sides. He also managed to bring in ordinary people’s reactions, believes, pains and struggles.

The book contains outraging moments mixed with hostility and cruelty. The main characters could not find their own places and felt out of the day-to-day context.

The forbidden beautiful love story of Lara and Yuri runs on a land caught between communism, deprivation, confusion, uncertainty, duality, disloyalty and family separation.

My favourite quote from the book explains why one should never give up and take the life stumbling blocks as a challenge to face what comes next:

“I don’t think I could love you so much if you had nothing to complain of and nothing to regret. I don’t like people who have never fallen or stumbled. Their virtue is lifeless and of little value. Life hasn’t revealed its beauty to them.”

(Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago)

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2 Responses to Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago: Turning love & history into immortality

  1. elisabethm says:

    “You and I, it’s as though we have been taught to kiss in heaven and sent down to earth together, to see if we know what we were taught.” That’s one of my favourite quotes from Doctor Zhivago. It’s a beautiful novel.

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