A couple of days ago I read Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago and have been trying to make up my mind about whether this book belongs in the rich canon of Russian literature. Vladimir Nabokov once called it a piece of muddled and sentimental fiction, and during parts of the book I couldn’t help but agree. Pasternak’s tone is painfully earnest throughout the novel, leaving absolutely no room for humor or irony. Zhivago’s love affair with Lara is characterised by laughingly dramatic lines of dialogue that barely hold up as plausible within the story, let alone in comparison to real life. This is a glaring flaw in a novel that strives above all to depict the harsh realities of revolution. It is likely that Pasternak meant for this discrepancy to show the separate natures of true life/love and politics, but it comes off as too disjointed.
Pasternak speaks through Zhivago, making him increasingly self righteous throughout the book, so much that by the last few chapters one gets the uncomfortable feeling of Zhivago being put forth as something of a martyr figure–a role that his questionable motives make it impossible for us to really believe he is good for.
This doesn’t mean that there are no redeeming points. Pasternak’s narrative is enticing and fluid enough to reflect the uncertainty of the revolution and civil war (although the constant coincidences by which the characters keep meeting eachother eventually cease to be very believable). His prose is at times brilliant: “Life is never a material, a substance to be molded…life is the principle of self-renewal, it is constantly renewing and remaking and changing and transfiguring itself, it is infinitely beyond your or my obtuse theories about it,” Zhivago says at one point. The entire flow of the story, with its emphasis on life in the present moment, harkens back to Heidegger’s philosophy.
In the end, the book is metaphysically ambitious, but certain parts of it are too unsatisfying to place Pasternak alongside the likes of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, or even Chekhov. Pasternak’s best moments come when he is depicting the gritty realities of war and politics, but it is too psychologically shallow and solipsistic on the level of emotional intersubjectivity to be hailed as a Russian classic.