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Monday, January 30, 2012

Book Review: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky


I had never read a Russian novel before and was really looking forward to finally knocking that off my list this year. This isn't the one I would have picked but my book club did, and alas, I wish I had begun with another.

Basically there is the story you've heard of, of the love between Doctor Yuri Zhivago and Lara, both married to others, in Siberia. But if you boiled it down to that actual story, it'd be about 40 pages. Not 600+. The other 560+ pages are a confusing and boring political treatise. Ugh.

The book begins when both Yuri and Lara are small children (never a good sign in my book) and from there gives excruciating detail about absolutely everything and everyone they run into growing up. As young adults Yuri and Lara's husband Pasha go to war (it was at least 50 pages before I figured out what war - turns out it is WWI.) Lara becomes a nurse to find her husband and she then meets and becomes friends with Yuri. Her husband is reported dead but really isn't and has taken another name and now it's during one of many revolutions in Russia in 1917-1919 and he's leading a very successful and scary group of revolutionaries. To make things more confusing, the revolutions and civil wars in Russia don't involve just two sides, but instead there are four, so good luck keeping them straight. Yuri and his family get into trouble in Moscow so they decide to go to Siberia to avoid it and coincidentally his wife has family in the same town in the middle of nowhere, where Lara is from. Also coincidentally Yuri and Lara met each other twice as small children (and remember it!) And several times, in a very Dickensian fashion, Yuri runs into people he met 200+ pages ago (except that it's hard enough to believe in Dickens and England is itty bitty and Russia is ginormous so it's totally unbelievable!)

Every single character we meet is described to the nth degree - a librarian is wearing a black silk blouse and has a cold and holds a tissue to her nose the whole time and feels better after Lara talks to her, and this librarian is a non-entity who is never mentioned again and matters not one whit to the novel overall. By giving us such amazing detail about every encounter, the author gives the reader no help at all in distinguishing between important and unimportant characters, and so readers spend a lot of time and effort remembering these ancillary characters for absolutely no reason, and it ends up being exhausting. And boring. Who cares about the librarian? (No dissing on librarians, this is just an example.) What does it matter what color and fabric her shirt is? Why do we care that she has a cold? Not only do we need none of these details, I'd venture that we don't need her at all, she could be cut entirely and not only would the book be just as good without her, it would be better without so much extraneous and pointless description.

We argued a bit at bookclub about whether or not the translation had to do with how much we didn't like it. I spoke with a friend, H, a few weeks ago who had read it in college 3-4 years ago in the previous translation and she also had not liked it at all (she called it "a slog.") Someone else in bookclub had read it in college 30+ years ago and remembered liking it then. She started reading this one and didn't like it but isn't sure if it is the translation or simply the passing of time. One of our members has read pretty much all of the famous Russian novels now so she knows it's not an unfamiliarity with the style and conventions of Russian novels that is the problem. But none of us were willing to give another translation a try to see if it was as bad. I personally though the translation was great. The book read very smoothly and easily, and wherever there were puns or rhymes or plays on words, which can be very difficult to translate, they were done beautifully. Unless the translators had edited liberally (and added half the book!), I don't see how they were the problem. They didn't insert all the pointless detail and all the blather about politics. We heard that in their zeal for accuracy, they lost some of the beauty and poetry of the novel, but none of us felt that if it were more beautiful and poetic, it would be better (in fact, it could even make it worse, I think.)

So sadly, my first Russian novel was a bust. I did not enjoy it at all. I wouldn't have gotten past page 30 if it weren't for book club. It did not improve as I read it. I had to continually refer to wikipedia to figure out what was going on. I even looked for the Cliff's Notes at the library! At this point, I'm not even sure I'd be willing to sit through the movie. A disappointment.

I bought this book at my local independent bookstore.

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