Russian classic

In 1958 Boris Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his great novel Doctor Zhivago. Unbeknown to him the CIA was also involved in the award. The novel had been handed over by Pasternak to an Italian journalist and a few close non-Russian friends in 1957. Smuggled out of the Soviet Union it was copied by the CIA, and then translated at great speed. Re-printed by the CIA in Russian in the Hague it was then eligible to be nominated for the Nobel prize, which it duly won. Horrified by a novel that spoke out against the Russian state, the Soviet government forced Pasternak to reject the award.

The speed of the project is very evident in the copy that I have of Zhivago. Until very recently this 1958 English translation was the only one that was available, the two translators read a page, translated from memory, compared notes, compared to the original, and then, unless there was anything glaringly wrong, continued on to the next page. This may mean that occasionally as a result some of the beauty of the original language is lost, but there is an immediacy and vibrancy about the prose that remains undiminished by the speed of translation.

Very recently Aarti of Booklust was consoling me - I had re-read a book that I had once enjoyed, and now disliked (the previously reviewed Diary of a provincial lady). But just occasionally your opinion can change yet again. I first read Doctor Zhivago when I was in my teens - it was the first Russian novel I had ever read and I thought it was wonderful. Years later I read it again - and didn't enjoy it. The religious symbolism I found irritating and intrusive, the characters seemed wooden. And now reading it for the third time I'm back to where I started - it's a wonderful book. Yes, there is the religious symbolism beloved of so many Russians from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky onwards, but in Zhivago it's actually important. It is truly a symbol of the writer's opposition to the Communist authorities. The characters are certainly not wooden. Some of the speech is rather clunky - probably due to the fast pace of translation, but it's direct and says what it means.

There are coincidences aplenty, but this is a book that tugs at the heart, and after some uneven patches towards the beginning which is sometimes overly imbued with religion and philosophy, the book suddenly bursts gloriously into life. In a way, I guess the philosophical / religious sections parallel what is happening with the revolution, for Doctor Zhivago is a tale of revolution, of the transition from a feudal czarist state through a brief period of freedom and optimism into civil war and the descent into Stalinism. The philosophy and religion of the opening sections parallels the thinking of the revolutionaries and their idealism before life gets in the way.

Zhivago is unflinching. It's miraculous really that Pasternak was not made to suffer more than he did for writing this book. On one level it is a love story, albeit one with very human feet of clay, but in its depiction of what happens when society falls apart it is unflinching whether it's talking about child abuse or cannibalism. It should be unbearably bleak, that it's not is largely due to the sheer beauty of Pasternak's writing.

As with any truly great novel Zhivago manages to be both specific and universal. For a history of the Russian Revolution, the ordinary people caught up in it, and the messiness of the situation that followed Doctor Zhivago is a wonderful introduction. But it's also a tale of Europe in the twentieth century. As Lara disappears silently into one of Stalin's vast gulags, I couldn't help but think of every other Lara that had vanished in Russia, Poland, Germany, S America, China through the course of a very dark century.

The CIA may have made sure that Doctor Zhivago made the Nobel prize list, but they didn't ensure that the book won. Pasternak did that all by himself, by writing a book of such power and truth and beauty. It is truly one of the great Russian novels.


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