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Boris Pasternak (left) at the first Congress of Soviet writers in 1934.
Boris Pasternak (left) at the first Congress of Soviet writers in 1934.

Review: Fiction

Doctor, poet, lover, symbol Add to ...

I first fell in love with Doctor Zhivago as a 20-year-old university student. So influential was the novel that I actually considered switching programs and enrolling in pre-med, went so far as looking up the course requirements, saw math, and that was that.

A quarter-century later, the book is in my hands again, thanks to the husband-and-wife team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. She does the literal translation; he effects his miracle in English. The talented couple are systematically performing artificial respiration on all the Russian classics, many of which are floating around in outdated, clunky translations that earn Russian literature the reputation of being difficult.

Their extensive footnotes, which explain the many cultural and political references in the texts, make these great works even more accessible. I read their translation of War and Peace two summers ago. It seemed short.

Doctor Zhivago is the same page-turning epic I read at 20, a poet's novel about a doctor-poet. Sprawling and complex, it would take this entire review to summarize properly. This is all you need to get started: Zhivago loves Lara, and vice versa. Yet the translators write in their introduction: "Critics found that there was no real plot to the novel, that its chronology was confused …" This is difficult to fathom, given how much happens in the book: the Revolution, the first World War, the Civil War, the Second World War. It is not just a love story, but the chronicle of an entire society violently rearranging itself.

Zhivago says it best: "Just think what a time it is now! … Only once in eternity do such things happen. Think: The roof over the whole of Russia has been torn off, and we and all the people find ourselves under the open sky. And there's nobody to spy on us. Freedom!" Ironic words from the author who was not allowed to accept his Nobel Prize.

What those first critics were complaining about is the original manner in which Boris Pasternak deals with these events. Pasternak once described his world as "a vast infinite inspiration." He was interested in a "living, moving reality."

"Over and above the times, events and persons," he wrote in a letter quoted in the novel's introduction, "there is a nature, a spirit of their very succession." So we should not be surprised by the way so many things happen "suddenly," or in the wrong order. If the reader accepts the precedence of movement and the unstoppable flow of history over a causally constructed plot, and the importance of Nature (not just nature), if she can delight in weather (the snow, the snow, the snow!), and in startlingly anthropomorphized descriptions - "The unlit street looked into the rooms with vacant eyes," for example, or, "Stars and trees come together and converse, night flowers philosophize, and stone buildings hold meetings" - she will fall straight into this deeply impressionistic story where events that should seem crucial, such as the birth of a child, or a riot, are often glossed over in favour of poetic detail. In the chapter where Zhivago escapes the riot, the smell of linden flowers pervading the train is the most important thing.

Doctor Zhivago, being a beloved classic, does not need me to recommend it. This is a review of a translation. The best way I can communicate my appreciation of it is by comparison. The other translation that happens to be on my shelf is from 1958, by Max Hayward and Manya Harari. Consider this short passage:

"They were driving in a cab from the station, through the gloomy alleys to the hotel at the other end of town. One by one the street lamps threw the hunchbacked shadows of the coachman on the walls; it grew and grew till it became gigantic and stretched across the roofs; then it was cut off and it all began again from the beginning."

This is fine. I particularly like "hunchbacked shadows." But now consider the Pevear/Volokhonsky version:

"They rode in a hack through semi-dark lanes across the whole of Moscow, from the train station to the hotel. The street lamps, approaching and withdrawing, cast the shadow of their hunched cabby on the walls of the buildings. The shadow grew, grew, reached unnatural dimensions, covered the pavement and the roofs, then dropped away. And everything began again."

How delightful is "unnatural dimensions" over the prosaic "gigantic." Pevear establishes a pace and rhythm using commas instead of "ands" and archaic semicolons. The continuous verbs "approaching and withdrawing" provide poetic flow, not only the sense of movement that Pasternak was striving for, but the truth of the experience, of the long, long ride. And then the beautiful closing.

I have underlined so many lines in this book, such as, "When he left, it seemed to her that the whole town became silent and that there was even a smaller number of crows flying in the sky." Or this description of a scolded cow that "either tossed her head angrily or stretched her neck and mooed rendingly and pitifully, while beyond the black sheds of Meliuzeevo the stars twinkled, and from them to the cow stretched invisible threads of compassion, as if they were the cattle yards of other worlds, where she was pitied." And as I underlined, my middle-aged self kept wanting to ask my younger self, Why a doctor? Why not a poet?

Caroline Adderson's most recent novel, The Sky is Falling, is about the fear of nuclear war and the love of Russian literature.

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