by Boris Pasternak, 1958
There are titles of books or films, or names of personalities, that I fleetingly heard of or read about when I was young, that have left a blurred trace in my mind ever since. I have no other recollection apart from a word or two, no background information to tie these memories to.
Many years later, I set out to find what these titles are about, as if to add a missing piece to a puzzle. It is as if I reconnect with an acquaintance long lost. This is how I came across such disparate words as Truffaut, New Wave, Polanski, Lolita, and now Dr Zhivago.
When I came across this book, my expectations were not fulfilled. Dr Zhivago sounded more like a light, playful, womaniser story to me, in the likes of Casanova. Instead, I was landed in the grim realities of revolutionary Russia.
I admit I made several attempts in the past year to read this book; they all failed after the first pages.
I don't blame the novel's quality for that. I remember that the long, classic, Russian novels I read back at University demanded a lot of energy. You don't just lay back and enjoy the novel. You need to be relaxed, mentally refreshed and able to commit to a long read.
My reading habit is organised around the year in a way that goes beyond my control. In the wintry months, I read non-fiction. However, when summer arrives, it is impossible for me to read a single page from my reading list. As a matter of fact, it is difficult to read anything; I take a break from reading, till autumn arrives.
This summer things turned different. I approached Dr Zhivago in the last hours of the long summer days, and I completed it on the last day of my vacation. And, even though my start was sceptical, my reading flowed like a river, that ended in a dramatic waterfall.
It has been a very long time since a work of art, in any format, moved me so much. And the feelings Dr Zhivago steered inside me were not positive. Indeed, I found myself convulsed with anger, dread and anxiety.
I will not go into the details of the story. Suffice it to say that we follow the life of Dr Zhivago, a bourgeoisie physician, whose life and those around him are turned upside down by the Russian Revolution.
One might say that his life's sacrifice can be excused, since a better future is being built. Alas, things turned to the worse with the coming of the Communist Dictatorship. Dr Zhivago is a monument to the independent Man who refuses to bow to authoritarianism and madness and tries to uphold his dignity.
Reading about the author's life afterwards, it is easy to understand the autobiographical sense of the novel. Pasternak's mental and physical health suffered heavily, especially in the Stalinist period due to the unheralded war waged against him by the establishment. However, he might be considered lucky, since at least he avoided being sent to the Siberian Gulags. Alexander Solzenitzyn, that followed right after him, and many of his contemporaries, were not that lucky.