This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Boris Pasternak’s classic novel, Doctor Zhivago. Problems with Russian censorship meant it was first published by an Italian company, Feltrinelli. The English translation followed in 1958, which was the year I first encountered it, aged 12. This was the year that Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, an event given an ominous dimension when he was forced by the Russian authorities to either renounce the prize or be exiled. Pasternak, for whom to live outside his homeland would have been unthinkable, chose the first option. Expelled from the writers’ union, he died, disgraced, in 1960.
This is the familiar background to Doctor Zhivago. Why, after 50 years, is it still worth celebrating this book when other Nobel Prize novels have fallen into obscurity?
First, it is a true work of art. Pasternak was a poet first and a novelist second; his novel is imbued with an almost hypnotically intense poetical consciousness and a verse section containing 10 poems was planned by the author to conclude the prose narrative.
Pasternak’s description of the qualities of a “great poet” in his Essay in Autobiography (he was writing about fellow Russian Alexander Blok) could be applied to himself: “Passion, gentleness, dedicated insight, his own conception of the world, [a] gift for transforming everything he touched, his own … self-effacing destiny [and] the quickness of his observations.”
These are the key features of his novel, recognised by generations of readers and reflected in the person of the eponymous hero, Yury Zhivago, who is, to a significant extent, his author’s alter ego. The word “Zhivago” is Church Slavonic for “the living”; Zhivago is a poet as well as a medical doctor, “unusually impressionable” and concerned, in his profession, “with the mystery of life and death itself”. Indeed, witnessing the death of his mother-in-law, he muses on the paradox whereby art depicts death, “thereby creating life”.
Like Pasternak, Zhivago experiences the most tragic episodes of 20th-century Russian history: from the pre-revolutionary period, growing up in a comfortable, cultured milieu; through the turmoil and savagery of the Revolution and the civil war; the setting up of a new, soulless Soviet society during the years leading up to World War II; and concluding in its immediate aftermath.
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