Dr. Zhivago Died with Cold War

Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago hit bookshelves in 1958 when American fear of Communists could be measured in home bomb shelters and elementary school air raid drills. The novel became a bestseller and inspired a movie whose title song dominated the air waves.

I vaguely recall the movie as a long series of photographs of snow and people in fur hats. The novel isn’t quite that interesting.

A rogue lawyer sexually exploits a young girl. She later becomes a nurse and has an affair with Dr. Zhivago, who lost his parents and family fortune thanks to the same lawyer. The lovers become separated from their families and also from each other.

As the Communists take over the country, Zhivago dies, Laura disappears, but Russia goes on.

Pasternak holds his characters at arm’s length and describes them in generalizations: this one is beautiful, that one is intelligent. None of the characters emerges as a real person. They’re all just people in fur hats. The Russian way of naming people compounds the difficulty of recognizing individuals. In a single paragraph, Zhivago may be referred to as Zhivago, Yura, Yurochka, and Yurri Andreievich.

Watch the film instead of reading the book. Neither is particularly entertaining, but the film is shorter.

Dr. Zhivago
by Boris Pasternak
Trans. Max Hayward and Manya Harari
Pantheon, 1958
519+ pages
#1 bestseller for 1958
My grade: C-
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni