Monday, November 1, 2010

A Review of Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, or How Vladimir Nabokov Is Like a Paranoid, Junkyard Dog

Doctor ZhivagoDoctor Zhivago is a tale of love set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution and Civil War of 1917-1921, as well as the institution of the Soviet Union, which followed it.  The novel is, in essence, a criticism of the Soviet system, which destroyed both culture and humanism in its single-minded pursuit of an ideology that was progressively twisted by those in power.  More grandly, it is the story of the inability of the individual to control even his own destiny among the strong currents of time, ideology, and power.  Publication was refused Pasternak in the Soviet Union in 1956.  A copy of the manuscript was then smuggled out of the country in 1957 and appeared in English the next year.  Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, which he was forced to refuse in order to forego a scandal in the USSR.  Unfortunately, he died only two years later.          

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?        


  1. I haven't read Doctor Zhivago nor seen the movie, and it wasn't really on my radar to read until I listened to a BBC podcast this weekend that made it sound like such an interesting story, so it's on the TBR now.
    Your thoughts only make me want to get to it faster, though I have War&Peace to get through first ....

  2. I am just half way through this book and I'm surprised that this book is hated by alot of people as so far I love it. I do also however love the film and the TV adaptation and its interesting to compare as I read along. So far having read only half the book I think whats a striking difference are some of the characters motivations eg the reasons for Lara marrying Pasha (I think I spelt that wrong) The actual story itself is quite similar though so far.

  3. I haven't read Dr. Zhivago since high school, and I loved it then but certainly wasn't a discerning reader. I definitely thought it was better than the two film adaptations I've seen. This month a group read is going on hosted by Frances from Nonsuch Book, so I'll be reading it again. I'm curious to see what I think of it years later!

  4. @Suzanne - "I have War & Peace to get through first," is not a phrase you hear every day. I wonder what you'll think of Doc Zhivago after reading the masterpiece - definitely let me know. It's a lot of Russian history, but I definitely applaud your ambition!

    @Jessica - Me too! I've been very surprised at the consistently negative reviews I've seen. I've also seen various adaptations, which I enjoyed, but they all sort of blend together in my mind now. Let me know what you think when you're through to the end. And if you actually read Zhivago's poetry, I think you get a gold star or something.

    @Shelley - I'm curious too. There are so many books that I read in high school or even in college that I re-read now and realize that I missed half the significance of the thing! I picked up Moby Dick the other day and I can't put it down - it's pure genius. Thanks for the info about the group read - I'll have to check it out.

  5. Even though I'm not male, I love the concept of your blog. My husband's been a lot more interested in fiction than he used to be, so I'm looking for some good recommendations for him. TWILIGHT didn't go over well for some reason ...

    Found you through the Hop, BTW.

  6. Dr. Zhivago is a winter favorite of mine. Once the snow falls I always have the urge to fall into it again and enjoy the frozen sadness and beauty of Pasternak's writing. I will happily say I like the book better than film, but I haven't seen it for years.
    Thanks for the great reviews!

  7. First, I'd like to second Susan: I'm another non-male who enjoys your blog very much. I was especially happy to find your post on Doctor Zhivago... My first memories of it are from TV -- I remember watching the movie on the ABC Sunday Night Movie -- but I also much prefer the book to the movie. I thought a play adaptation I saw in Moscow (a musical!) was much better than the movie with Omar Sharif and Julie Christie.

    I was fortunate to study Dr. Zh in a grad school course, where I read the book multiple times and loved analyzing it. I wish I could say I enjoyed it as much when I reread it on my own, more as a novel rather than as an object of research, a couple years ago. I still liked it, especially when I analyzed, but I was far more critical of Pasternak's novel-writing technique.

  8. I love Dr Zhivago, but I must admit I only heard about it through one of the adaptations. I do like it better than the film versions though, I think it's wonderful.

    Your review is great, I enjoyed reading about Nabakov's reactions to it and your reactions to his reactions...

    For some reason I'm not getting updates from this blog, so onto google reader we go :)

  9. Love the book; loved the movie.

    I just came across your blog today and think it looks great. I see a similarity and some of what we enjoy reading. I'll be visiting again.

  10. Most films are not as good as the books they are based on. This is the opinion of most people I talk to and I tend to agree. By necessity they have to miss out a lot of elements that are in the book and this why we read books. One exception I think is 'Women in Love' by D.H. Lawrence. The book is over-long and turgid. The film on the other hand captures the essence of the book and makes it accessible. One of the best scenes in the film is where the protagonist is comparing a fig to a vagina as the characters sit outside in the garden. This is not in the book so the scriptwriter has actually improved on the original.

  11. I read the book when I was in my 20's after having seen the movie. The movie was grand and sweeping...romantic and horrific. When I read the book the first time I simply liked the story and the history of the novel. I decided to read the novel again now that I am in my fifties. I missed, or forgot, all the Christian reference in the book. Reading it now these things seem relevant in that I believed there was a turning away from religion in Russia during Soviet rule. I have read many books in the last decade dealing with the Cultural Revolution in China. Now, rereading Zhivago, I see a direct connection to the travails of the individuals in Pasternak's novel and the real life experiences of those living in China during Mao's reign. Pasternak's characters lives serve as fodder for a political fanaticism that has a momentum of its own. The most intriguing aspect of the novel for me is the contrast between what the people need for happiness and the complete neglect at meeting these needs by the political machine that purports to have their interests at heart.

  12. LOLZ i have not finished with it & i don't find it "stale" (i loved pasternak's autobiography, "safe conduct") but neither do i think your pseudo psychoanalysis of nabokov's criticism at all appropriate... they say people read their own flaws in others' motivations and i think with your rather misguided ad hominem attack on nabokov you're being rather silly and immature. BAD MAN!
    the reason i think so is because i can see why, as literature, zhivago might be criticised. and unlike you i did find many of the criticisms apt. i think it's an enjoyable novel nonetheless, but i do think it's a bit stilted in places. i also think pasternak's prize was in large part motivated by a political agenda; i don't think he deserved the nobel prize--there are so many more talented russian writers out there! including nabokov, imo.
    bottom line:
    you don't hafta hate on nabokov to love zhivago. that basically ruined your "review" for me. makes you sound like a little kid. you can't really say anything against nabokov's criticism except to simply disagree with it, so you resort to name calling. actually... looking over the review again your writing style makes me think of freshly matriculated first-year university student? hmm... your reading list confirms this.
    in that case... GOOD JOB KID! :) keep it up! but hot damn, the nabokov bashing makes you look stoooooopid.

  13. I simply love this book and david Lean's film.
    I saw the film when I was in my twenties and was highly impressed by the graphic portrayals, the drama, the imagery, the pathos, the rebel spirit, the hypocrisy of the revolutionary army,the gloomy ambience created by an unstable political situation, the weakness of the flesh, the dilemma of married lovers, the silent agony of the neglected wife, the cruel and separation of lovers, the inevitability of fate, the final soothing gesture by Zhivago's cousin and his daughter. It is an epic book and an epic film. Let anybody else say anything else.

  14. I fogot to mention; after seeing the movie, I jumped up and went for the book. I read it non stop for two days and finished it. It was great book. And Lean's movie captured the central theme of the book - it was if the soul of Patsernak possessed David Lean and the soul of Dr. Zhivago took hold of Omat Sheriff.

  15. Doctor Zhivago does let one see the whole Soviet society, but Pasternak's particularly weak at dealing with characters, relationships, emotions... I recognise some merits of the book, and its historical/ political importance, but as a novel it's not that great- Nabokov's criticisms are apt.
    You have the right to disagree with him, but your reaction is immature and ridiculous. If you want to say anything about Nabokov's literary criticisms, you have to understand his attitude towards art, his aesthetics and the writers he considers the best, otherwise you don't understand him. To attribute his comment to envy is silly, to turn to name-calling is even sillier. Why should Nabokov support Pasternak only because they're both Russians? And in spite of the popularity of Doctor Zhivago and Pasternak's Nobel prize, today Nabokov's still considered the more talented and important writer of the 2.

  16. Exactly, Di. And Nabokov was a fair man. Despite his blunt criticism of Zhivago, he considered Pasternak an excellent poet.

    This interview might clarify a few things: