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Thursday, November 1, 2018

I used to be in a very revolutionary mood, but now I think that we'll gain nothing by violence.

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary

Cast of Characters (not all-inclusive) Zhivago, aka Yuri, aka Doctor Zhivago
Lara, aka Antipova (married name) (Zhivago's love, and one-time baby mama)
Antonina Alexandrovna Gromeko, aka Tonya (Zhivago's wife, and two-time baby mama)
Antipov, aka Strelnikov, aka Pasha (Lara's husband)
Viktor Ippolitovich Komarovsky (Lara's first lover/tormentor)
Evgraf Zhivago (half brother to Zhivago)
Can't remember her name (#sorrynotsorry) (Zhivago's second wife, and two-time baby mama)

Oh, I'm sorry, are you confused? I didn't even include the alternate diminutives, so really, I'm cutting you some slack here. 

In all seriousness, though, here's the gist of it: 

This is the story of Zhivago - the man, the myth, the legend. We begin with him in his boyhood, and we end shortly after his death. The interim is replete with the stuff of his life - love, loss, adventure, work, revolution (because come on, he's a Russian, so obvi), family, writing, and some more love. We travel with him across the great expanse of Mother Russia, we fall hard with him for the forbidden Lara, and we feel for him when he is caught within the various webs of war and revolution in his home country. This book is an epic in the very best sense, and like any good epic, it's a wild ride.

Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Oh, I'm sorry, were you wanting more plot just then? I don't feel inclined to acquiesce to your request. You'll simply have to pick up a copy (or borrow mine) and read it yourself if you'd like to know more of the details. 

So, what did I think of this book, you DEMAND TO KNOW? I loved it. It officially goes into a very specific category for me called "Books where I don't really like any of the characters but somehow the book is one of my all-time favorites anyway". There is one other book in it. Any guesses? Starts with "Gr" and ends in "pectations."

It's not that I found Dr. Z unlikable, but more that he felt kind of entitled and aimless toward the end. He also had a lot of children, and didn't seem super invested in figuring out how they would do that whole growing up thing, which I just can't condone. But there's something sweeping and grand and majestic about this book that's sort of impossible to capture, and that's what I loved about it. I have alphabetized and categorized my thoughts for your reading pleasure. 

Cortèges and Cholera
This book has a stellar opening scene. We begin with Dr. Zhivago's mother's funeral, and we're quite literally standing over her grave in the middle of snowstorm. It's totally epic and amazing. It also reminded me of the opening of Love in the Time of Cholera for some reason, something about funerals and somber carriages and such. 

Fragrances and Flashbacks
Often, authors write of smells that make me yearn to eat the food in the book, or experience a specific moment in space and time. But Pasternak had a real knack for writing about smells, and weather, and things dealing with the physical world. Here are a few of my favorite fragrance flashbacks (anyone else thinking about Proust and his madeleines?):
  • Here she stopped and, closing her eyes, breathed in the intricately fragrant air of the vast space around her. It was dearer to her than a father and a mother, better than a lover, and wiser than a book. Lara, on returning home. I know it's odd, but this is what the smell of manure and hay does for me.
  • The handkerchief had the mingled smell of mandarine and of Tonya's hot palm, equally enchanting. The childishly naïve smell was intimately reasonable, like a word whispered in the dark. Aren't these metaphors spectacular? 
  • Then, like a telegram received on the way, or like greetings from Meliuzeevo, a fragrance floated through the window, familiar, as if addressed to Yuri Andreevich... Everywhere there were blossoming lindens. The ubiquitous wafting of this smell seemed to precede the northbound train, like a rumor spread to all junctions, watch houses and little stations, which the travelers found everywhere, already established and confirmed.
  • The air smells of pancakes and vodka, as during the week before Lent, when nature herself seems to rhyme with the calendar. I love everything about this sentence. 
(Sometimes) Lugubrious Lara
I don't want to go into too much detail about Lara here (because I'd really prefer that you go read the book) but here are a few lines I liked about her: 
  • Lara liked to talk in semidarkness with candles burning.
  • I'm broken, I have a crack in me for all my life.
Love and Lovers
Since this is a Russian novel, there's no shortage of love in it. Okay, so maybe that's not true of all Russians, but it's true for several of the Russians I have read for this blob. 
  • I don't think I'd love you so deeply if you had nothing to complain of and nothing to regret.
  • I love you wildly, insanely, infinitely. 
I am not sure I want to be loved insanely. Infinitely sounds nice, and wildly sounds exciting, but insanely gets into some tricky territory, imho. 

Playing Pianos
In the corner a tuner produced the same note a hundred times and then spilled out the beads of an arpeggio.
I loved this line because it made me think of our piano in the living room, and Mr. Donley (sp?) ping-ping-pinging at it to get the strings just right. 

Philosophy and Pepper (not be confused with that famous pairing of Salt and Pepper)
  • I think philosophy should be used sparingly as a seasoning for art and life. To be occupied with it alone is the same as eating horseradish by itself.
There is no shortage of philosophy in this novel (because, again, Russian) but this was by far my favorite line, from Lara, to Zhivago. 

Reading Russians

Reading this book reminded me of several fantastic Russian works, and I was ticking off a mental list of their common themes. Here's what I came up with: 
  • Philosophy
  • Existentialism/Death
  • Trains
  • Love affairs
  • Strange coincidences
  • Revolution
I thought of Bulgakov and Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn and Dostoevsky, and then, a thought came to me which clearly should have struck me before. What OTHER book that I love has all of these components? Did you guess Atlas Shrugged? And what did I recently learn about Ayn Rand. Was it that her real name was Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum. (slaps self on forehead) Of COURSE SHE'S RUSSIAN. Now it all makes sense. 

Okay, now that I've shared that epiphany (epiffy-wot?), here are a few things that felt quintessentially Russian: 
  • Now, as never before, it was clear to him that art is always, ceaselessly, occupied with two things. It constantly reflects on death and thereby constantly creates life.
  • The fear known as spymania had reduced all speech to a single, formal, predictable pattern. The display of good intentions in discourse was not conducive to conversation. Passenger and driver went the greater part of the way in silence.
  • The war was an artificial interruption of life, as if existence could be postponed for a time (how absurd!). Note - that is the author's commentary, not mine. Though I quite agree. 
It is perhaps also worth noting that one of my favorite scenes in the book took place when Zhivago and Lara crossed paths in the local library. Get it? Reading Russians? ;)

Trains and Trajectories
Trains came up many times in this book, and I was totally here for it. I love trains, and train travel, and there's something that feels deeply romantic and also functional to me about train travel. Like you get to do two things at once but you can also be a normal person on a train, whereas on a bus or a boat or a plane you're more rumpled by the action of the vehicle or the air or the water.

This could just as easily have lived in the fragrance section, but since it was the train station they were describing, I decided to include it here.
It smelled of early city winter, trampled maple leaves, melting snow, engine fumes, and warm rye bread, which was baked in the basement of the station buffet and had just been taken out of the oven.
Despite the absence of fetters, chains, and guards, the doctor was forced to submit to his unfreedom, which looked imaginary.
Doesn't that line just blow your mind a little? Just a little? Or maybe a lot? So good. 

Whispers and Waiting
I loved this exchange: 
He tugged at Yura's sleeve, trying to tell him something. 'Aren't you ashamed to whisper in a stranger's house? What will people think of you?' Yura stopped him and refused to listen.
Because it reminded me of this moment from Proust: 
-- "Now, don't start whispering! How would you like to come into a house and find everyone
muttering to themselves?" -- YBN's great-aunt, on why whispering is impolite

Words of Weather
Several people asked me about my experience reading this book, and what I told them each was this: I would, without a doubt, like to live in a world that was entirely composed of Pasternak's weather. He has many great qualities as a writer (in my opinion) but I fell in love again and again with the way he described the physical world and its weather. Here are some highlights for your pleasure. 
Even the sun, which also seemed like a local accessory, shone upon the scene by the rails with an evening shyness, approaching as if timorously, as a cow from the herd grazing nearby would if it it were to come to the railway and start looking at the people.
The cow either tossed her head angrily or stretched her neck and mooed rendingly and pitifully, while beyond the black sheds of Meliuzeevo the stars twinkled, and from them to the cow stretched threads of invisible compassion, as if they were the cattle yards of other worlds, where she was pitied.
The moonlit night was astounding, like mercy or the gift of clairvoyance.
Suddenly out of the cloud a heavy mushroom rain poured down obliquely, sparkling in the sun. It fell in hasty drops at the same tempo as the speeding train clacked its wheels and rattled its bolts, as if trying to catch up with it or afraid of lagging behind.
Here is my favorite line about Yuri, aka Dr. Zhivago:
  • And to the muttering of the wind, Yuri Andreevich slept, woke up, and fell asleep in a quick succession of happiness and suffering, impetuous and alarming, like this changing weather, like this unstable night.
Lines I Liked
  • The weather was trying to get better. lol. love this. 
  • They went outside and did not recognize the air, as after a long illness.
  • This was what life was, this was what experience was, this was what the seekers of adventure were after, this was what art had in view - coming to your dear ones, returning to yourself, the renewing of existence.
Lines that were in contention for the title of this blog: 
I may arrive any day now like a bolt from the blue.
Everything around fermented, grew, and rose on the magic yeast of being.
But everything truly great is without beginning, like the universe. It does not emerge, but is suddenly there, as if it always existed or fell from the sky.
So you've heard that there's nothing good coming, only difficulties, dangers, uncertainty?
Words Which Were New to Me
heliotrope a plant of the borage family, cultivated for its fragrant purple or blue flowers, which are used in perfume; a light purple color, similar to that typical of heliotrope flowers

nicotania - an ornamental plant related to tobacco, with tubular flowers that are particularly fragrant at night

taiga the sometimes swampy coniferous forest of high northern latitudes, especially that between the tundra and steppes of Siberia and North America

virago - a domineering, violent, or bad-tempered woman 

Congratulations, dear ones, we've made it to the end of this blob. I'll leave you with thoughts that seem to encapsulate this novel, which serves, in a way, as a love letter to Lara and to Mother Russia. 
And this expanse is Russia, his incomparable one, renowned far and wide, famous mother, martyr, stubborn, muddle-headed, whimsical, adored, with her eternally majestic and disastrous escapades, which can never be foreseen!
It's not for nothing that you stand at the end of my life, my secret, my forbidden angel, under a sky of wars and rebellions, just as you once rose up under the peaceful sky of childhood at its beginning.
With that, I'll leave you. I'm reading many books for a personal book bingo (and read 24 for a previous book bingo) which is why my blobs have been less frequent. I could apologize, but that would imply that I'm sorry I'm reading so much. Which I'm not. So look for me some time, perhaps soon, perhaps not! Off to The God of Small Things! Join me if you dare!

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