Notes on an Unputdownable Book: “Doctor Zhivago” by Boris Pasternak

This month I decided to reread the Nobel Prize-winner Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, surely one of the most breathtaking Russian novels of the twentieth century. Such a gorgeous book! I was enraptured by the lyrical language, the romance between soulmates Yuri and Lara, the detailed descriptions of family life in Moscow and small towns, and the tragic descriptions of war and the splintering of revolutionary politics.

I have a long history with Doctor Zhivago. David Lean’s gorgeous film, starring Julie Christie and Omar Sharif, was my introduction. I am still haunted by “the ice palace” scene, where Yuri Zhivago (Sharif) and Lara (Christie) take refuge in a deserted house at Varykino, which is filled with snow and stalactites and stalagmites (actually frozen beeswax). And–don’t ask!–of course I had a “Lara’s theme” music box.

But it was years before I got around to the the novel. Somehow the cover of the Signet movie-tie-in put me off. I finally read this tattered paperback in the ’90s, during a blizzard. Honestly, I was not that impressed.

I didn’t really fall in love with Zhivago until I read the translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky in 2010. Some critics praised it, others reviled it. I remember an indignant essay in The Guardian by Pasternak’s niece, Ann Pasternak Slater, who felt they had ruined the book. The Pevear-Volokhonsky backlash seems more extensive in the UK, but they do get people’s backs up. Janet Malcolm hated their Anna Karenina.

The Soviet-banned Doctor Zhivago was first published in Italy in 1957. The Italian edition was translated into English by Manya Harari and Max Hayward in haste after Pasternak won the Nobel Prize in 1958.  

The translations are very different. Here’s Yuri’s observation of a foul day in autumn (Pevear-Volokhonsky).

“The rain poured down most disconsolately, not intensifying and not letting up, despite the fury of the wind, which seemed aggravated by the imperturbability of the water being dashed on the earth. Gusts of wind tore at the shoots of the wild grape vine that twined around one of the terraces.  The wind seemed to want to tear up the whole plant, raised it into the air, shook it about, and threw it down disdainfully like a tattered rug.”

Here is the same passage in the Harari-Hayward translation:

“The rain poured with a dreary steadiness, neither hurrying nor slowing down for all the fury of the wind, which seemed enraged by the indifference of the water and shook the creeper on one of the houses as if meaning to tear it up by the room, swinging it up into the air, and dropping it in disgust like a torn rag.”

I love this book so much!

By the way, there is a new translation by Boris Pasternak’s nephew, Nicolas Pasternak Slater, commissioned by Folio Society ($125). It looks lovely at the website.

8 thoughts on “Notes on an Unputdownable Book: “Doctor Zhivago” by Boris Pasternak”

  1. Like you, I was also in awe of the beautiful lyrical language of Pasternak; you can see that he thinks like a poet.
    As for the different translations, I’m always surprised by the strong opinions that P&V in particular seem to evoke. I read most Russian literature in Dutch, and there there’s not much choice 😄

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    1. Pasternak is superb! There must be a market for multiple English translations, but the choices can be overwhelming. There are two new English translations of Gogol this year!

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  2. Oh it’s just a wonderful book. I read it in the translation by Max Hayward and Manya Harari. Introduction by John Bayley. Do you know the 4 part film adaptation by Andrew Davies — I love that too — extraordinary acting.

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    1. I do remember that Hayward and Harari had to translate quickly so the publishers could get the book out after the Nobel. Many prefer their translation to the Pevear-Volokhonsky, though I’m in the PV camp. I haven’t seen the Andrew Davies series. Now that it’s winter, I am really in the mood.

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  3. I just read it for the first time a couple of years ago, but I didn’t love it. Maybe the timing was off. (Often when I’m mostly reading contemporary novels, slipping a classic into the mix doesn’t do it any favours.) I did enjoy your parallel translation passages though. I feel like I would be in two different reading moods for each of them!

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    1. Two is the charm! It helps to have footnotes, which the Pevear-Volokhonsky translators take seriously. Then you absorb the history more easily and are enraptured by the way the story illustrates the horror of history.

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