I went into Doctor Zhivago with no small amount of trepidation, not just because of its length and complex plot, but because of my history with this edition’s translators, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. In our previous encounters, I have been stymied by their translations, which always seem clunky and impenetrable to me. They ruined my experience reading The Master and Margherita, and several times since I’ve abandoned plans to read one Russian classic or another because the only translation available was theirs. Because Doctor Zhivago had been high on my list for so long, I decided to give Pevear and Volokhonsky another chance. I regret that decision.
I have found myself nodding along with recognition anyway at pieces that are critical of the Pevear and Volokhonsky approach. In short, they prioritize accuracy to the exclusion all else, including shades of meaning and artistic rendering. But perhaps the problem is not just with the translation. In this very long book, titled Doctor Zhivago, I never really got a feel for the character of Yuri Zhivago. Yuri is a physician and a poet whose career and life are thrown into chaos by the political turmoil of early 20th century Russia. As he tries to do good work in his medical practice and come to an understanding about human nature through his poetry, Yuri also tries to be a good family man to his wife Tonya and their children. Besides the Russian Revolution, the other complication in Yuri’s life is his deep attraction to Larissa Antipova, whom he first meets when the two are children and keeps encountering over and over again, all across Russia.
I have always heard Pasternak’s novel described as a great love story, but I have to say I found that aspect severely lacking. Putting aside questions of infidelity and its impact on the character’s likeability, the novel’s relatively few scenes between Yuri and Larissa are marred by dreadful dialogue. Here again the translation issue may be rearing its ugly head. It’s hard to imagine any two people on Earth talking to each other in the manner Yuri and Larissa do, let alone two characters supposedly hopelessly in love.
It’s definitely possible that I failed this book as a reader. I don’t really know much about Russian history, and Pasternak doesn’t exactly hold your hand. It was difficult for me to keep track of which side of the conflict characters were on, and what was going on in at the time of the novel’s events. There are precious few explicit references to dates or political opinions, and though there are copious notes describing the various factions and important events, these did not much help me. I also, as ever when it comes to Russian novels, found it difficult to keep track of the minor characters to the confusing proliferation of names, between the characters full names, patronyms and nicknames being used interchangeably.
I so badly wanted to like Doctor Zhivago. I find the story of it being smuggled out of the Soviet Union and Pasternak being unable to accept his Nobel Prize in person so fascinating. But whether it’s appeal was lost in translation or simply wasted on a dunderhead like me, I have to admit that Doctor Zhivago just didn’t work for me.