Normally in this blog, I give heaps of praise to the books I talk about in an attempt–hopefully not a vain one–to get more people today to dust off these classics of literature. That’s because, no matter how long or dense or difficult they may be, these books are, in fact, awesome reads in my view. However, earlier this year, I did mention that you the reader don’t have to read through every classic novel that comes into your hands.
Today, I want to expand on that topic by talking about my experiences with an undisputed classic novel–Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago of 1957–that I just couldn’t get into as reassuring proof that, no, not every classic novel is going to be worthy of recommending. As I confessed in my post last week, I’m interested in pretty much all things Russia, and Russian literature, including those mammoth-sized novels from the 19th century that are actually pretty darn enjoyable if you give them a chance, is one of my favorite sources of great reads.
So when I received a copy of Doctor Zhivago for Christmas in 2017, it didn’t come as a surprise, considering that I don’t keep my literary preferences quiet. Besides, I had already seen the David Lean film adaptation and loved it, so I believed I was in for a sweeping epic of a read that would only make my ardor for Russian books grow.
Instead, I found myself bamboozled almost from the start with Pasternak’s novel. The same basic plot I’d remembered from the film—that of the complicated and lengthy relationship between Yuri Zhivago, a doctor and poet, and the nurse Larissa, aka Lara—was still there. So was the historical background, which turned out to be much more of a foreground, as World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the subsequent turmoil and horror with Joseph Stalin’s rise to power.
But the book just did not click for me.
I’ve read that Boris Pasternak is a celebrated poet (and Yuri Zhivago’s poetry is included at the end of the novel), and that probably affected the style of Doctor Zhivago. Pasternak lingers over descriptions, making them as beautiful and imaginative as possible, to the point of distracting from the actual story. This also led to some serious problems with the characters. Omar Sharif and Julie Christie wowed me as the main two protagonists in the film version, but on paper, they were lost in the vast sea Pasternak created of other figures, many of them coming and going randomly, never to be seen again. Also, Yuri and Lara aren’t the most sympathetic or likeable characters I’ve come across in literature, which made Doctor Zhivago not just an uphill battle but a real slog.
Finally, as others have noted, there’s a few too many coincidences in this novel for me to stomach. I detest coincidences in literature (although I’d better be careful with what I’m saying if my own writing gets published one day!). The most alarming chance occurrence in Pasternak’s work came when Lara—working as a nurse—and Yuri somehow end up in the same hospital during World War I. I kept thinking, Out of all the many, many field hospitals there must’ve been on the Eastern Front in that war, out of so many millions of people . . . I felt somewhat like Rick in Casablanca when his ex-girlfriend shows up out of nowhere at his bar. While I did end up finishing Doctor Zhivago, I had since realized that it’s impossible to love or even like every book, especially classics, no matter how well-regarded or popular they are. I can only hope that you apply the same principle if you end up one of the two dozen or so books I’ve gushed over in this blog.
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Plus, check out what others have to say about this book here on Goodreads.com.