Friday, May 18, 2018

Doctor Zhivago Paperback – January 5, 2017 by Boris Pasternak (Vintage Classics)

Just a few words, on the outside chance that I might tip a potential reader or two into reading this marvelous oh-so-Russian novel of lives caught up in the Great October Revolution of 1917 and its aftermath. Either you read Big Russian Novels (primarily of the 19th century) or not. If you do, you've probably already read, or tried to read, Zhivago. If you don't, I can offer a few reasons why you might want to read this one, in the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation or the earlier, less literal (but reportedly more graceful and poetic) Hayward-Harari version. Pasternak's cast of principal characters are to a person layered, complex, deeply conceived individuals swept up in the massive surge of events, struggling to keep their heads above water while, all around them, friends, family, and nameless millions of others are drowning in the turbulence. The arc of Yuri Zhivago alone - from enthusiastic, humanistic supporter of "regime change" to mordant skeptic of divisive ideas imposed as orthodoxy-driven policy - is typical of the evolutions and surprises Pasternak has written into the novel. His characters ruminate far and wide over imputed glories and horrors of Marxism, Bolshevism, Soviet Communism, the New Economic Policy (NEP), etc., and it was for precisely these candid criticisms of Soviet ideology and practice that Pasternak's novel was condemned (although unpublished) in the USSR - despite the deStalinization still underway at the time of Zhivago's publication, first in Italy then around the world (Soviet readers couldn't legally purchase a USSR/Russian edition until 1988). Needless to say, Pasternak was obliged to decline the Nobel Prize for Literature he won in 1958, mostly for Doctor Zhivago.

For me - I spent most of my adult life as an analyst of foreign political, economic, social, and military affairs - Doctor Zhivago is particularly brilliant in its depiction of the horrors and dislocations war and civil war inflict on populations, and especially those segments with little or no recourse to "safety nets" of  any variety - personal, familial, governmental, church-, religion-, or community-based, or other. Pasternak depicts the range of human ingenuity in such circumstances, as individiuals cobble together the means of extracting brief moments of small pleasure from the tractor-pull of events. But through an accumulation of hundreds of small details, often in asides and parenthetic observations, Pasternak conveys the epochal common misfortunes and hardships of those whose accident of history made them Russians born around and after 1900. The novel compels us to consider that, at some point in the 20th century, such horrors of remorseless privation, despotism, and brutal inhumanity were visited upon the majority of humanity - the Europe of the World  Wars, China for most of the century, and on and on - and how  fortunate those spared such travails (and their descendents) are.

Throughout, Pasternak's characters comment on the flow of events, the political struggles, the conduct of, first, the World War and later the Civil War, the states-of-play at various key junctures, the putative winners and losers, the impositions of what must seem arbitrary policy (and then policy reversals), all in the name of advancing to some  formless Communist Utopia but, to the  cynically incisive observations of Zhivago and other perceptive observers, simply a Soviet variation of high-stakes politics of power-seeking  individuals. THIS is how depotism and deprivation of freedom looks, and it's an experience alien to most American readers and one worthy of serious contemplation. Zhivago is filled with long, philosophical digressions that in general weigh humanism and spirituality against ideological politics; many found these passages tedious and a drag on the narrative. Suffice to say, I did not. Moreover, I found even Pevear-Volokhonsky's more literal translation filled with beautifully poetic moments, as were the translations of "Yuri Zhivago's poetry" that forms an appendix to the novel.

In short, I found Doctor Zhivago a transporting literary experience and a profound reflection on Soviet Communism. And a book I will reread, soon, in the Hayward-Harari translation.

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