Doctor Zhivago, Part 1

I have a gorgeous copy of Doctor Zhivago and I have previously enjoyed the book (by comparison with other Russian novels) and I have seen not one but two film adaptations of the book and thus know who the characters are. This should be a recipe for extreme, resounding Russian-novel-reading success.

Instead of that, I had a middling amount of success. There are a lot of characters in Doctor Zhivago, and they all – you may have noticed – have different names. Several names. Full names, partial names, and nicknames. Eva, who knows about Russian things because she has been to Russia (y’all, it’s so cold there and no crawfish), says that there are specific nicknames for specific names, but I have not been reading Russian literature long enough to determine a pattern. Even with all of my (I just wrote nausea. I don’t know how to explain that) reading optimization things (previously mentioned), I still got very confused, and I had to go back.

Moreover I still do not like books in translation. The dialogue sounds stilted! I know that dialogue in English-language books does not accurately reflect the way real people speak in English, but if it’s stilted, it’s stilted in ways I’m used to. The people in Russian books are always saying things like “Tell me quickly, how did it all happen? So he died buried under the earth? Don’t conceal anything, don’t be afraid. I know everything.” Why, Russian novels? (Actually all novels in translation.) Nobody talks like that.

In short, I am fundamentally averse to books in translation. And yet I found myself engaged in the story. I kept thinking that I was bored of the book and didn’t want to carry on reading it, and every time I found myself thinking that, I also found myself unwilling to put the book down. Lara was an interesting character, and I loved how Pasternak portrayed her affair with Komarovsky. I wanted more Lara, and more Yuri, and of course more both of them together. So the aspects of this book I’ve been disliking are probably not the ones Frances says Nabokov disliked so thoroughly. I like melodrama, and I want Lara to come back. I miss Lara.

All this is not very insightful, I’m afraid. I feel like I am a smart girl and I should be able to say smarter things about this brilliant, award-winning novel, but this is all I’ve got for the moment. I read a really horrifying story in Catherine Gildiner’s new memoir, and I’m going to blame that for the currently squishy state of my brain.

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31 thoughts on “Doctor Zhivago, Part 1

  1. I don’t know why, but almost all the German and Russian books I’ve read have that weird stilted dialogue problem, even (or especially) in Cornelia Funke’s books, which makes it hard for me to read them. But it’s not ALL books in translation that have that problem; Japanese books tend to be good (although I don’t always get all the cultural references) and also Italian, Spanish, and French books. I really do think it’s dependent on the translator, though, because I read a really good German book a few months ago (Mimus) and I didn’t notice stilted language.

    Maybe you just have a not-up-to-par translator? Or MAYBE the reason Russian novels read like that is because they have different ideas of how dialogue should go than we do? Maybe they talk like that in Russia?

    • Oh, yes, Cornelia Funke, I remember thinking that when I was reading her books. I heard an interview with her on NPR that was absolutely charming, and I read her books in consequence, but I wasn’t wild about them.

      French has always been a rousing success for me. I think it’s possibly to do with the national character of the writers – I have always felt I am far more like the French than I am like the Russians. :p

      This translation is supposed to be really good! I can tell because the book is so handsome! It can’t be the translation’s fault.

  2. I’ve never read Doctor Zhivago, and I can’t decide if I want to. Like you, I really don’t like books in translation unless the translator does a stellar job. (For instance, I just read Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago, which had been translated, and it was phenomenal. But this, I feel, is not the norm.)

    All that name business sounds complicated and confusing…ack.

    • I like the story, definitely, but you have to struggle through a lot of political stuff to get the story. And there are A LOT of characters, particularly in the first 100 pages or so, so if you don’t care about some of them (and I didn’t), it can be a struggle.

  3. Actually, there are crawfish in Russia! I lived in Krasnodar, and my host family would occasionally invite a big group of friends over and they’d cook a HUGE pot of crawfish. LOL Krasnodar is down south too, so it doesn’t get horribly cold (it’s on about the same latitude as Chicago).

    I am a little confused: are you rereading Dr Zhivago? Or reading it for the first time? And I totally understand why the Russian nicknames don’t make sense; they use variations of the first name depending on formality as well as friendliness, which is fun when you study the language, but not so fun when you’re reading a novel! 😉

    I attempted to read the older translation of Dr. Zh a few months ago, got 60 pages in, and called it quits. I do want to give the P&V translation a go (since I heart them), but I tend to get along much better with 19th century Russian novelists than Soviet ones (except for Bulgakov).

    Do you have a problem with the dialogue in contemporary translated fiction? Or just the classic stuff?

    • Okay, I am not sure about Russian crawfish boils. I am willing to keep an open mind; but I suspect they do not make them as spicy-mazing as my uncle does.

      I’m rereading it, but it’s been absolutely untold ages since I read it the first time. There are parts I remember from my first read-through with exceptional vividness, but most of the book is gone from my brain.

      I am planning to try Bulgakov!

      I have the same problem with contemporary fiction, yes. It’s not ALL translated fiction, but it’s the bulk of it. With French works in translation, I would say I get on better with 19th century French works than modern ones.

  4. All I know about Doctor Zhivago is that one of the films has Julie Christie in it. My landlord, about a zillion years ago, had a huge crush on her and mentioned the film in about every other sentence. I am not sure I dare read the book, as in my mind it will be overwhelmed by the voices in my head wondering how Julie Christie played this scene and spoke this line, etc. I know what you mean about translation. Sometimes I find that sort of dialogue quite amusing, but on other occasions it can prove seriously annoying.

    • Yep, the original film with Julie Christie – my sister and I watched it, and it was gorgeous visually. We’re not fans of Julie Christie, though. The film was a bit boring really.

  5. You’re right – that’s exactly how characters speak in Russian novels! And the names too. Why are they always saying each other’s names (or one of their many names) when there’s only one other person there? ‘So Petr Perovokich, you saw ducks flying over the ice you say?’ ‘I did, Ivan Inanov. And how is your sister, Masha?’ (They mention the sister’s name even if the person only has one sister.) It seems such a transparent ploy to orient the reader.

    I really enjoyed this piece. And I’m now intrigued by this horrifying story in the memoir…

    • You don’t want to know the horrifying story, dude. It’s too awful. And once it’s in your brain, it’s there forever. Best I don’t say.

      WHAT IS WITH THE NAMES? You’re right, they say them constantly! Do Russian people really call each other Ivan Ivanov? I mean really really?

  6. No a success so far for me either, there seem to be a lot of train related conversations and happenings. I am not one of those nostalgic lovers of steam. Maybe I will try again next year, but I mostly want the romance from Dr Zhivago (probably because of the film versions) rather than the political commentary and I think you have to go through a lot to get to the romance. Not like Anna Karenina where Tolstoy is like ‘I know you don’t really care about farming, I will throw out lots of scandal and romance so by the time you get to the chapter all about effective farming you’ll be determine to power on until more romance appears’. That does not make me sound so smart, but I stand by it.

    • Funny you should say – I actually really love trains. When I was in England I wanted to be on trains all the time, and now that I’m living in New York City I wish I could just take trains everywhere every day.

      I haven’t read Anna Karenina. I’d say “haven’t read it yet” but with this slightly frustrating experience of Russian litrature, I’m not sure I’m going to be revisiting Russia in my reading any time soon.

  7. Oh Jenny! You make me laugh! I love your version of Russian speech – so true! Why say two words when ten grammatically awkward ones will do?!

    I think Doctor Zhivago is like bad chocolate. You don’t quite like the taste, but you can’t stop eating it. I get my moments of boredom too, but then I just can’t stop reading, either.

    I want to know Lara more as well. I want there to actually be some scenes between Yuri and Lara! Either the film took some serious liberties, or things are going to seriously hot up in the last 150 pages. I am hoping for the latter!

    • It’s not my version. It’s real. I stole it straight out of the book. Russian translated dialogue is UNSPOOFABLE. (Insofar as it’s already a spoof of itself, not insofar as you can’t make fun of it.)

      I believe the film took some serious liberties, but I also think that things get a bit more interesting. My recollection is they maybe have a kid together? And I think at some point Tonya and Lara get to meet. Awkward.

  8. I don’t often feel a craving for a Russian novel, but when I do, I kind of WANT them to talk like that. Forty years of reading Russian novels has convinced me that Russians actually DO talk like that, so it’s local color, right? Give careful thought to my argument, Jenny Josephovna!

    • You are so silly. I’ll have to ask Laura’s smugsasmugs if that is the way Russians speak. To hear her tell it, they all talk like this: “Give fries.” “Take ticket for train.”

  9. I love your interpretation of translation, and found myself giggling over that bit. I do want to read this, but I am afraid that the name situation would also be very perplexing to me and I might be bored. I read a review over at Marie’s blog that discusses the name issues, and it seems like she’s got the whole thing figured out. I have no illusions about my competency when it comes to this matter, and so, I am really on the fence about reading this book. I am going to be paying close attention to this readalong, in the hopes that it will become more clear whether or not this is the book for me. Thanks for the usual wonderful, and wonderfully funny review!

    • Maybe try watching the film first. If I hadn’t watched the film first – actually two film versions – I’d be totally lost. The films help me keep the characters straight, and let me keep my reading momentum when things get slow.

  10. I finally read this one in my 40s (love your reproduction of the dialogue, and agree with previous commenters that I always kind of thought Russians talked that way). I kept waiting for the great love story, advertised by the various movie versions, but found that it’s not so much a love story of two people as it is a lament for a way of life–sort of a sadder, sorrier Gone With The Wind.

  11. I’m glad you’re sort of liking it so far. Maybe the dialogue will get more familiar as you go. I don’t read a lot of books in translation, so I can’t really compare, but I suppose it’s a tricky balancing act between being faithful to the original and making it accessible to new readers.

    • Yes, exactly! There is also an element of me being very intolerant of Russians in particular. Ancient Greek and Roman literature doesn’t sound like the way people really talk, and yet I love it ferociously. It’s what you’re used to, I guess.

    • I remember the snowy landscapes really well, but not the suit. I particularly remember them coming to a house and it was all snowed out, and everything was ice. That was gorgeous.

  12. Hahaha, you are so right about the dialogue. Nobody talks like that, FOR A REASON!!! It is so false, forced and unlikely at times, in a sense that almost reminds me of a Carry On film. Can’t believe I just wrote that. Did I just compare Lara to Barbara Windsor? Hm.

    I don’t know if you’ve read Anna Karenina, and maybe you felt the same way, but I absolutely loved that – the characters leapt of the page and at the same time I could leap into the page and be with them.

    I can’t even bring myself to write a post about it yet. I really want to love it and to be captured by all its beautiful bleakness and snowy landscapes, and there are parts I love – I think Pasternak writes about Russia and its fantastic-sounding climate with what is clearly a great deal of delight, expressed i his perfectly eloquent turn of phrase. But I just don’t love the characters. Maybe they’ll grow on me — I will finish the book. But I was glad to read that Nabokov didn’t love it – I actually love the Nabokov that I have read and although if I understand correctly, a lot of their underlying disagreements were not really literary at all, I think perhaps this just isn’t the *type* of book I love.

    Be glad you’ve seen the film though — I haven’t and still keep getting everyone muddled up, and after 200 page it’s just embarrassing!

    • I’ve never read anything by Tolstoy except his art criticism. I loathed it, but I impartially loathed everything I read in that wretched wretched class. You’re the second person to say his books are more accessible with the characters than Dr. Zhivago’s, so maybe I will give him a go in a few months (or years).

      I do love Nabokov’s writing, but I tend to think he sounds like a bit of a jerk as a dude. If he found Dr. Zhivago melodramatic, what must he have thought of Tolstoy then?

  13. I tried to watch the movie but gave up early on. As for the book, I never tried it. I don’t read a lot of books in translation, I feel I should try to though, but, like you, the dialogue always gets to me.

    • Which, the Julie Christie film? Because that one is a bit boring.

      Yeah, the dialogue can be a killer. I’m a very dialogue-oriented reader. When the dialogue’s stilted, it makes a huge difference to my appreciation of the book.

  14. Okay I have to admit, up front, I really, really, REALLY hated this book. Every word of it. I tried and tried, and I read the whole stupid thing, but oh gosh I will never revisit it if at all possible.

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