by Boris Pasternak
If you ever think of visiting, much less living in Texas, you should know that summers here last nine months, and it’s pretty darn hot the rest of the year. When my family moved to a small East Texas town, the Cold War was at its height but everything else was hot, hot, hot. Air conditioning was rare, and one of the few places that had it was the local movie theater (yes, we still had one at that time). Imagine the awe we felt at the sight of the ice palace love scene in the movie version of Dr. Zhivago.
After reading the novel years later, I felt momentary disappointment at realizing Boris Pasternak hadn’t envisioned the scene of Yuri and Lara’s love as quite so ice encrusted. But as film maker David Lean’s statement of the era’s climactic and political chill, it was a visual metaphor worthy of a poet whose prose was his masterpiece.
Although Pasternak spent most of his literary life as a poet and translator, in I Remember: Sketches for an Autobiography, he writes, “I would never lift a finger to bring back from oblivion three fourths of what I have written. . . my chief and most important work, the only one I am not ashamed of and for which I can answer with the utmost confidence (is) Dr. Zhivago.”
Even though, at 200 minutes running time, Lean had to sacrifice swathes of Zhivago’s epic sweep and dozens of characters, I’ll attempt an even briefer summary.
Orphaned in childhood, Yuri Zhivago is raised by wealthy family friends Alexander and Anna Gromeko. Lara is the daughter of a widowed Frenchwoman living in Russia. She is forced early into a sexual relationship with Komarovsky, who was also the lawyer of Yuri’s dead father, may have been complicit in the father's suicide.
Yuri marries the Gromekos’ daughter Tonia; Lara marries working class boy next door Pasha Antipov. During the First World War, Pasha volunteers and is missing in action; Lara enlists as a nurse to search for him. Yuri is drafted, and serves as a doctor in the same hospitals where Lara is a nurse, and where they fall in love. Lara’s husband, who was believed dead, was actually captured. When he is released from his POW camp, he assumes the name Strelnikov and, without contacting Lara, participates on the Bolshevik side during the Russian Civil War.
The resulting personal and political tragedies became Pasternak’s allegory both for his own life and the life of his country.
As a rule I’m wary of novels written by poets. But Pasternak captured both the sweep of a world-changing era and the individuality of the people in his story, studding it with gems such as the final meeting between Yuri and Strelnikov, who find, despite their political differences and personal jealousy, a strange sympathy.
Now in political disrepute and under sentence of death, Strelnikov arrives at the country estate of Yuri and Lara’s idyll, to find Lara fled. After a long talk, Yuri allows him to spend the night, suffers strange dreams, and finds his guest gone the next morning.
“A few yards from the door, Strelnikov lay across the path with his head in a snowdrift. . . Drops of spurting blood that had mixed with the snow formed red beads that looked like rowanberries.”
Pasternak’s works, including Dr. Zhivago and English translations of his poetry, are readily available on Amazon. Free versions of the movie are available through several online sources.
(Next Wednesday, in a month of historical fiction, Adventure classics turns from political epic to family saga, in Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits.)