California Literary Review

Book Review: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

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October 18th, 2010 at 3:38 pm

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Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
Doctor Zhivago
by Boris Pasternak, Translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Pantheon, 544 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★


Found In Translation

The noted British film director, David Lean, returned to Europe from the 1963 Academy Award ceremony on board an Italian luxury liner. Lean’s latest film, Lawrence of Arabia, had received Best Picture and he was mulling over new projects. Packed in his luggage was a novel sent to him by MGM for his consideration. It was a big book, a Russian novel. According to his biographer, Kevin Brownlow, Lean was not pleased at its “five hundred and something pages.”

After two solid days of reading and “a box of Kleenex,” an emotionally moved Lean cabled his agent, “Yes, I’ll do Doctor Zhivago.”

Thus began the epic process of translating a great novel into film. This is especially worthy of note because the art of translation is a vital strand in the ongoing life story of Doctor Zhivago. A brilliant new English version has just been published. The translators, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, aim to help lovers of literature “read the novel in a new way, to see more clearly the universality of the image that Pasternak held up against the deadly fiction of his time.”

This new version of Doctor Zhivago is more than a reworking of Russian prose and poetry into English. It is a translation of a great novel from the Cold War era to the remarkably changed circumstances of the 21st century.

At every stage of its life, Doctor Zhivago has emerged in shape-changing transformations. Boris Pasternak, the author of Doctor Zhivago, toiled as a translator of Western books into Russian, when his literary works were banned by Soviet authorities. Pasternak’s leading character, Yuri Zhivago, is a poet who struggles to translate his feelings and reflections on life and love into verse. In an earlier version of the novel, written during 1930′s, Pasternak charted the story of his protagonist through the pivotal years of 1905 to 1917. Then in 1946, Pasternak commenced a new, longer version that was to be published first in an Italian translation in 1957. A limited Russian version was produced in the West, just in time to be considered for the 1958 Noble Prize in Literature.

Doctor Zhivago received the Nobel Prize on October 23, 1958. The next day, a storm of denunciation descended upon Pasternak. Even though the general tone of Doctor Zhivago is not anti-Communist, Pasternak had failed to write his novel in the prevailing style expected of Russia’s writers, “Socialist Realism.” This made him a marked man in the eyes of Nikita Khrushchev and the Politburo. Doctor Zhivago was banned in the Soviet Union and Pasternak was forced to decline the Nobel Prize.

Around the rest of the world, translated editions of Doctor Zhivago met with scholarly praise and huge, popular success. The English-language version, the one that David Lean read, did not receive unqualified approval by literary critics.

Pasternak was sympathetic to the difficult situation of his English-language translators. Manya Harari and Max Hayward needed to produce a version of the novel that readers, unfamiliar with the nuances of Russia’s language and culture, could appreciate.

“It’s not their fault,” Pasternak declared. “They are used, like translators everywhere, to reproducing the literal sense rather than the tone of what is said – and of course it is the tone that matters.”

The “tone” that Pasternak wanted to convey is to be found in the thoughts and struggles and, most of all, in the capacity for love of his protagonist, Yuri Zhivago.

On a surface level, Pasternak’s novel is set during the era of the Russian Revolution, beginning with the abortive uprising of 1905 and extending through the Civil War of 1918-1923 and the foundation of the Soviet Union. In a similar way, Zhivago can be interpreted as a representative figure of the Silver Age of Russia. This amazing blaze of cultural glory immediately preceded the outbreak of World War I. There are autobiographical elements in Doctor Zhivago, as well. The young Pasternak published his first poems in 1913, the same time period as his hero’s literary coming of age. And just as Zhivago was to be consumed by love for Lara in the novel, so too would a passionate relationship leave its mark on Pasternak’s emotional life. In 1946, just as he began work on the novel, Pasternak met and fell in love with Olga Ivanskaia, who served as the model for his heroine, Lara.

Doctor Zhivago, however, is not a novel about the Russian Revolution. Nor is it primarily an autobiographical work. Doctor Zhivago is a book about life and living, about loving and being loved.

In the Russian language, the root for Zhivago’s name is the word zhiv, meaning “life” or “living.” Taking a diametrically different approach to that of Marxist ideology, Zhivago rejects abstract theories about the Russian Revolution. In a moving scene, Zhivago explains his views to Lara:

“The revolution broke out involuntarily, like breath held for too long. Everyone revived, was reborn, in everyone there are transformations, upheavals. You might say that everyone went through two revolutions, one his own, personal, the other general. It seems to me that socialism is a sea into which all these personal, separate revolutions should flow, the sea of life, the sea of originality. The sea of life, I said, the life that can be seen in paintings, life touched by genius, life creatively enriched. But now people have decided to test it, not in books, but in themselves, not in abstraction, but in practice.” (p.129)

Pasternak ranges the individualism of Zhivago against the heartless society that is being erected by the Bolsheviks on the grave of Tsarist Russia. Where Zhivago questions his every deed from the standpoint of conscience, left-wing leaders like Lara’s husband, Pasha Antipov, who styles himself as Strelnikov or “Shooter,” kill without blinking or thinking.

The Bolsheviks promise a classless utopia for all, justifying their purges and mass executions by what they will achieve in the future. Zhivago revels in physical toil and sharing of the earth’s bounty, but he is not interested in the imminent triumph of Communism. He seeks a “new form of communion, conceived in the heart and known as the Kingdom of God,” where “there are no peoples, there are persons.”

Pasternak looked to Russia’s rich literary heritage for a means to convey Zhivago’s thoughts and ideals. He found it in Symbolism, the literary movement which emerged as the dominant mode of cultural expression in the last years before World War I. The individual was supreme in Russian Symbolism, both as a unique, creative being and as a representative of human emotions, dreams and values.

So important did Symbolism loom in Russian culture that it took on a quasi-mystical form. Doctor Zhivago is replete with symbolism. This is true of “The Poems of Yuri Zhivago” that conclude the book and seemingly at every turn of the novel. In a 1995 study of Doctor Zhivago, British scholar, Angela Livingstone, analyzed a seemingly minor scene depicting the coming of spring. Here the branches of budding apple trees “miraculously” reaching “over the fences into the streets” are symbolical of the “bridging and linking” of places and communities in society.

If grasping such literary allusions is difficult now, trying to convey them to English-speaking readers in the Cold-War 1950′s was next to impossible. Manya Harari and Max Hayward, both fine scholars, chose to emphasize the drama of Pasternak’s story over the novel’s Symbolist foundations. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, by contrast, base their translation on the whole cloth of Pasternak’s original.

A revealing example of the differing approaches of the two translating teams can be appreciated in the following passage of the novel.

Lara, having served with Zhivago treating wounded soldiers during World War I, departs for home. She leaves Zhivago and an elderly woman caretaker, Mademoiselle, in the country estate that had been turned into a field hospital. Suddenly a storm of hurricane magnitude descends and they think they hear a returning Lara banging on doors and windows, trying to escape the wind and the rain. Instead, it is the wind rattling a broken shutter. Both Zhivago and Mademoiselle, eager to see Lara again, regret “that it had been a false alarm.”

Here are the respective versions of the conclusion to this episode.

“They had been so sure of it that when they locked the door the imprint of their certainty remained in the street, round the corner, like the watery wraith of this woman, or of her image which continued to haunt them.” Harari and Hayward Translation p.161

“They were so certain of it that, when they locked the door, the traces of their certainty remained by the corner of the house outside, in the form of the woman’s watermark or image, which continued to appear to them from around the turning.” Pevear and Volokhonsky Translation, p. 132

Manya Harari and Max Hayward produced a translation for English-speaking readers whose literary perspective had been shaped by the dramatic fiction of the West from the 19th and 20th centuries. Their version evokes a resonance of Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories. Zhivago and Mademoiselle sense that Lara remains “in the street, round the corner.” In fact, the “watery wraith” of Lara haunts them from within.

In the new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the imaginary Lara has a more fixed presence. In keeping with pre-1914 Symbolism, Lara stands for an ideal of womanhood in Zhivago’s mind. But the spiritual manifestation of Lara, less a ghostly visitation here, remains rooted “by the corner of the house outside.” The use of the word “watermark” is particularly effective, evoking a tangible, if hard to discern, presence, as with embossed brand marks on high-quality stationary.

It was almost inevitable that the 1958 translation by Harari and Hayward responded to post-World War II conditions in the West. Indeed, the controversy attending the publication of Doctor Zhivago turned it into a Cold War cause célèbre. In the West, the persecution of Pasternak was portrayed as a further demonstration of Soviet repression. From the standpoint of the Soviet Writers Union, Pasternak was a “bourgeois reactionary” and a “malevolent Philistine.”

A more effective Soviet response to Doctor Zhivago would have been to print it in the literary magazine, Novy Mir. This had been the original plan in 1954, but was then rejected. Two years later, the brief “thaw” following Stalin’s death was over. Pasternak knew he was running great risks by publishing Doctor Zhivago in the West. He remarked to the Italian Communist journalist, Sergio d’Angelo, to whom he entrusted the manuscript, “You are hereby invited to watch me face the firing squad.”

Recent research into the Cold War origins of the Doctor Zhivago controversy has made a convincing case that the book’s publication involved an act of espionage more in keeping with a novel by John le Carré than one by Boris Pasternak.

In January 2007, the Sunday Times of London broke a story with the lurid title “How the CIA won Zhivago a Nobel.” Based on research by Ivan Tolstoy, the article contended that the manuscript of Doctor Zhivago was briefly seized from a plane bringing it to the Italian publisher, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. The CIA, with the complicity of British Intelligence, mounted the operation to embarrass the Soviet government. The manuscript was photographed, from which a Russian version was published in a limited-run by the Dutch firm, Mouton. This was done to insure that any restrictions on translated works would not impede the Nobel committee’s consideration of Doctor Zhivago.

Ivan Tolstoy presented a more detailed treatment of his thesis in 2008, with a book published in Russia entitled The Laundered Novel. As the book has yet to be published in the West, it is impossible to prove – or disprove – his allegations. What Tolstoy’s book does validate is the vital importance of literary translation to the whole “back story” of Doctor Zhivago.

Of infinitely greater importance is the fact that Doctor Zhivago has stood the test of time far better than the Iron Curtain or tales of Cold War intrigue. Pasternak’s novel is the story of a man of conscience who asserts human dignity in the face of the all-powerful state. That issue certainly has not faded with the passage of time.

By enabling us to see Doctor Zhivago as a living book, not merely as a dated text from a bygone era, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, have performed an enormous service to all who value great literature. Now, perhaps for the first time, we can realize the deep, inner truths that Pasternak sought to convey. When Zhivago opens his heart to Lara with these immortal words, he is speaking to us as well.

“Man is born to live, not to prepare for life. And life itself, the phenomenon of life, the gift of life, is so thrillingly serious!”

  • http://www.bigpearlandthefugitivesoffunk.com Leilani Lynn

    I have never before scene the movie Dr. Zhivago but in the span of about 3 weeks I’ve watched it 4x, finally seeing it in its entirety tonight. So I decided to look more info about its author, etc. To my surprise, I don’t know why, this back story has an incredible life of its own. What an amazing back story and am so glad to know its final interpretation is just and true. I can’t wait to read the novel now. Thank you Mr. Pasternak for writing and loving to live, wherever you are.

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