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Doctor Zhivago ()

Nobel Prize Winners (1958)

    Man is born to live, not to prepare for life. Life itself, the phenomenon of life, the gift of life, is so
    breathtakingly serious!
        -Boris Pasternak

Most of us are only familiar with Doctor Zhivago from the epic David Lean film version (indeed this is one of the books I come across most frequently at book sales, almost always unread).  The movie is beautiful but strangely inert, has a somewhat disjointed narrative and conveys no clear philosophical message--flaws which I always assumed were a function of the difficulty of converting a Russian novel to film and the inexplicable casting of two really awful actors (Omar Sharif & Julie Christie) in the lead roles.  But now, having reread the novel, it seems to me that these weaknesses are inherent in the novel.  Just as Lean seemed most interested in the story as a vehicle for presenting cinematic images, the real life in Pasternak comes less from the narrative itself than from the poetry that Zhivago produces.  And the message of the novel, assuming that there is one, is presented awfully subtly.

Zhivago himself, the name means "life" in Russian, is a pretty docile leading man.  The story follows him as he is buffeted by the winds of change in Russia from 1903 to his death sometime after WWII.
We can take at least a twofold message from the novel.  Pasternak seems first of all to be speaking out, however obliquely, against a system which denies life and destroys artists, as the Soviet regime had.  However, he also seems to be saying that the artist is relatively helpless against the tides of history.  It is ironic in light of this that Pasternak became such a cause celebre.  A good deal of this novel's reputation surely rests on the Western reaction to Soviet efforts to quash it.  Perhaps I've simply lost the ability to read between the lines of samizdat, but I thought the condemnation of Communist Russia in the book was exceedingly mild, almost too much so.  And there is one section in particular, right at the end of the book, where Pasternak waxes optimistically over how the nation may be entering a period of renewed freedom now that the war has been won.  This kind of wishful thinking comes across as incredibly naive.  I guess I too will have to fall back on the reaction that the novel provoked and assumed that even such feathery criticism as the book contains was important in crystallizing opposition to the regime.

But Doctor Zhivago is understood to be semi autobiographical and to the extent that Zhivago is acted upon rather than acting himself, perhaps he is intended to convey Pasternak's own ambivalence about the role he had played by remaining in Soviet Union and continuing to work. Indeed, there is a really poignant moment in Isaiah Berlin's piece on the author, where Pasternak, near desperation, seeks to solicit Berlin's opinion on whether people believe that he has collaborated with the government because he remained in the USSR or whether they instead accept that he felt compelled to stay.  In fairness to Pasternak, it should not be necessary to leave a country (as did Solzhenitsyn) or be disappeared (as was Isaac Babel) or be imprisoned (as were countless others) in order to demonstrate the legitimacy of your opposition to an evil government.

To be honest, the subtlety of Pasternak's message and our increasing distance from the time when even such subtleties could prove incendiary, served to deaden the effect of a novel which already suffers from being a tad too episodic.  In the final analysis, I guess I respected the book more than enjoyed it and found it more interesting as a key artifact of an age that is quickly receding from memory than compelling as a novel.


Grade: (B-)


Boris Pasternak Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Boris Pasternak
-OBIT: Pasternak Is Dead; Wrote 'Dr. Zhivago': Pasternak Dead; Soviet Writer, 70 (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS, May 31, 1960)
    -POEM: “The Color Blue” by Boris Pasternak: Poems read aloud, beautifully (Amanda Holmes, April 19, 2022, American Scholar)
-ESSAY: How Boris Pasternak defied Soviet tyranny with a Shakespeare sonnet (Douglas Murray, February 19, 2023, Free Press)
    -ESSAY: The Environmental and Humanistic Sensibility of Pasternak and Lessons from Dr. Zhivago for Today (Walter G. Moss, 6/05/22, History News Network)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Encyclopedia Britannica :  Your search: "Boris Pasternak"
    -POETRY: Boris Pasternak
        "Winter's Night"
        "There'll be noone in the house..."
        "February. Get ink, shed tears..."
    -Portrait of Boris and Alexander Pasternak by Leonid Pasternak (1862-1945)
    -Boris Leonodovich Pasternak (Nobel Site)
    -Boris (Leonidovich) Pasternak (1890-1960)(kirjasto)
    -Pasternak, Boris Leonidovich (Britannica Guide to the Nobel Prizes)
    -Boris Leonidovich Pasternak Winner of the 1958 Nobel Prize in Literature (Nobel Prize Internet Archive)
    -BORIS PASTERNAK  (1890-1960)
    -EXHIBIT: Poetry in Revolution: The Pasternak Family Papers (Herbert Hoover Memorial Exhibit Pavilion)
    -ARTICLE: The hard life of Boris Pasternak: Russian writer who was forced to turn down the 1958 Nobel Prize is focus of new exhibit at Stanford  (Therese Lee, Palo Alto Weekly)
    -ARTICLE: 'Doctor Zhivago' to See Print in Soviet in '88  (FELICITY BARRINGER, NY Times)
    -ARTICLE: Pasternak Retreat to Be a Museum   (FELICITY BARRINGER, NY Times)
    -ANNOTATION: Pasternak, Boris Doctor Zhivago (Medical Humanities)
    -ESSAY: Doctor Zhivago and Khrushchev (
    -ESSAY: Isaiah Berlin: Conversations with Akhmatova and Pasternak, NY Review of Books
    -Librarians Choose A Century of Good Books (Library Journal; November 15, 1998)
    -REVIEW: Peter France: Pasternak in Private, NY Review of Books
        My Sister, Life and Other Poems by Boris Pasternak
        Pasternak, A Collection of Critical Essays edited by Victor Erlich
        Boris Pasternak's Translations of Shakespeare by Anna Kay France
    -REVIEW: Helen Muchnic: Pasternak in His Letters, NY Review of Books
        Letters to Georgian Friends by Boris Pasternak and translated by David Magarshack
    -REVIEW: Helen Muchnic: A Somber Theater, NY Review of Books
        The Love-Girl and the Innocent by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
        Five Plays of Alexander Ostrovsky translated and edited by Eugene K. Bristow
        The Trilogy of Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin translated by Harold B. Segel
        The Complete Plays of Vladimir Mayakovsky translated by Guy Daniels
        The Blind Beauty by Boris Pasternak
        Meyerhold on Theatre translated and edited by Edward Braun
        Notes of a Director by Alexander Tairov and translated by William Kuhlke
    -REVIEW: John Bayley: Big Three, NY Review of Books
        Letters: Summer 1926 by Boris Pasternak, Rainer Maria Rilke, Marina Tsvetayeva
        Letters on Cézanne by Rainer Maria Rilke, edited by Clara Rilke, and translated by Joel Agee
    -REVIEW: Henry Gifford: Indomitable Pasternak, NY Review of Books
        Boris Pasternak: A Literary Biography Volume I, 1890-1928 by Christopher Barnes
        Boris Pasternak: The Poet and His Politics by Lazar Fleishman
        Boris Pasternak by Peter Levi
        Boris Pasternak: The Tragic Years, 1930-60 by Evgeny Pasternak
    -REVIEW: of A VANISHED PRESENT The Memoirs of Alexander Pasternak. Edited and translated by Ann Pasternak Slater (Harlow Robinson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of BORIS PASTERNAK The Poet and His Politics. By Lazar Fleishman (David Bethea, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: V.S. Pritchett: Private Lives, NY Review of Books
        The Correspondence of Boris Pasternak and Olga Freidenberg, 1910-1954
    -REVIEW: of THE PARADOX OF HISTORY Stendhal, Tolstoy, Pasternak, and Others. By Nicola Chiaromonte (Hayden White, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE MEMOIRS OF LEONID PASTERNAK Translated by Jennifer Bradshaw. Introduced by Josephine Pasternak (JOHN BAYLEY, NY Times Book Review)

    -Britannica Guide to the Nobel Prizes (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
    -REVIEW: of NIGHTINGALE FEVER Russian Poets in Revolution. By Ronald Hingley (Susan Jacoby, NY Times Book Review)
    -Russian Literature  (Baranov Evgeny)
    -Russian Culture (
    -ESSAY: The Orthodox Content in Slavic Literature ( Andrew J. Sopko, Ph.D., Loyola University of Chicago, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America)
    -ESSAY: SUCCESS AND THE SOVIET WRITER (Vassily Aksyonov, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Helen Muchnic: Coming Up For Air, NY Review of Books
        Dissonant Voices in Soviet Literature edited by Patricia Blake and Max Hayward
        Pages from Tarusa: New Voices in Russian Writing edited by Andrew Field
        The New Writing in Russia translated with an Introduction by Thomas P. Whitney
        Half-way to the Moon: New Writing from Russia edited by Patricia Blake and Max Hayward
        Soviet Literature in the Sixties edited by Max Hayward and Edward L. Crowley
    -REVIEW: Helen Muchnic: Poetry of Loss, NY Review of Books
        Poets on Street Corners by Olga Carlisle
        Russia's Underground Poets translated by Keith Bosley, Dimitry Pospielovsky, and Janis Sapiets
        The Italics Are Mine by Nina Berberova and translated by Philippe Radly
        Fever and Other Poems by Bella Akhmadulina
    -REVIEW: John Willett: Revolutionary Aesthetics, NY Review of Books
        Literature and Revolution: A Critical Study of the Writer and Communism in the Twentieth Century by Jürgen Rühle and translated and edited by Jean Steinberg
    -REVIEW: John Bayley: The Upper Depths, NY Review of Books
        Writers in Russia: 1917-1978 by Max Hayward, edited with an introduction by Patricia Blake, and preface by Leonard Schapiro
    -REVIEW: John Bayley: Night Mail, NY Review of Books
        Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness edited and with an introduction by Carolyn Forché