Monday, November 1, 2010
A Review of Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, or How Vladimir Nabokov Is Like a Paranoid, Junkyard Dog
I've read a few reviews of Doctor Zhivago out there on the interwebs, and it's impossible not to notice a fairly uniform dislike for it. Most reviews find it long and stale, with relatively cardboard characters that are thrown together in odd and contrived places and situations simply to move the story along or make a particular point about politics or ideology. And it's not simply a case of cultural differences or a misunderstanding of the artist--the dislike runs wide and deep. Russian-born Vladimir Nabokov once said, "Doctor Zhivago is a sorry thing, clumsy, trite and melodramatic, with stock situations, voluptuous lawyers, unbelieveable girls, romantic robbers and trite coincidences." Ouch! So much for mutual support among Russian novelists.
I personally disagree with Nabokov's overall negative assessment of the work, which is to say that I like Doctor Zhivago immensely. I find it a fascinating account of life in the Soviet Union and an honest portrayal of mostly apolitical citizens whose primary concern is simply to survive the buffeting winds of change and idealism. The writing is depressingly beautiful. While Pasternak is not as fluid and artistic in his writing as John Steinbeck, Doctor Zhivago flavors strongly to me of East of Eden--an epic tale of love set against the backdrop of forces (natural or political) that are beyond the characters' control and which ultimately end up determining their lives. At the same time, Doctor Zhivago is periodically disjointed and contrived, characteristics which (I like to think) Pasternak himself attributed to the Soviet state that had swallowed his people and his culture.
And there are other (convincing) reasons for Nabokov's harsh opinion than the honest critique of a fellow writer. In fact, Doctor Zhivago was released in the West at around the same time that Nabokov released Lolita, and his criticism smacks strongly of territoriality--a junkyard dog running off the stray that has wandered too close to his fence. Moreover, Nabokov was convinced that Doctor Zhivago--despite its criticism of the Soviet system and the Soviets' refusal to publish the work--was a public relations plot by the Soviets to raise Soviet literature to new heights (i.e., above Nabokov himself) in the eyes of the world.
At the same time, looking behind the (seemingly paranoid) green monster, I think Nabokov is on to something. Doctor Zhivago has gained a fairly sizeable acceptance in its numerous film adaptations. Even today, the story seems to run fairly consistently on the various classic movie channels. In short, because Doctor Zhivago is sweeping in its setting, both historically and geographically, and because it attempts to construct a romantic relationship that is buffeted by the winds of history, it appears to tap into those notions of romanticism that we have deemed appropriate to the screen, but not the page.
Is there anyone out there, besides me, that likes Doctor Zhivago more than its film adaptations? Is this unusual? Are there other examples of works of literature that have received only a middling popular acceptance as literature, but have blossomed in film?