Winter is the perfect time for curling up with a tome of Russian literature. Well, it would be if this weather wasn’t so unseasonably warm for the time of year — barely a hint of frost, let alone snow. I don’t think we’ll be having a white Christmas!
One of my favourite pieces of Russian literature is Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. You may know it better as the famous 1965 movie, but the book far surpasses the movie. Set against the backdrop of early twentieth century Russia, Doctor Zhivago tells the story of a young doctor and poet, Yuri Zhivago, and his struggles with life, his love for two women, and politics and ideology during unstable times.
Larissa (Lara) is the other prominent character in the book, a young woman who is seduced by Komarovsky — a wealthy, powerful lawyer who controls the lives of Lara and her mother, Amalia. Yuri meets her a few times and falls in love, but he marries Tonya — the girl with whom he grew up, as he was adopted as a young boy after his parents died. Later in the book, when Lara is working as a nurse during the First World War, she crosses paths with Yuri again…
As you would expect from Russia literature, the book contains outbursts of drama and an almost constant melancholy that hangs over the plot.
The plot summary above is only very brief. True to Russian literature, there are many more characters involved in the story (with lots of different names — Russian names have several components and ways of spelling them) as well as multiple events in the plot.
For me, one of the strengths of Doctor Zhivago is the author’s ability to write about characters in a multidimensional way. Although Yuri marries Tonya, a sweet and kind woman, his heart is caught by Lara. We should dislike Yuri for his infidelity, but it isn’t that simple.
“It’s only in bad novels that people are divided into two camps and have nothing to do with each other. In real life everything gets mixed up!” ~ Lara
As a quote by Richard Pevear from the introduction to the 2011 Vintage Classics translation says:
“Pasternak’s vision is defined by real presence, by an intensity of physical sensation rendered in the abundance of natural description or translated into the voices of his many characters.”
Pasternak writes beautifully about the people in the novel, the historical setting, the time and the place. Some of the most memorable passages for me are when he is describing nature and the seasons.
So, why did I choose this as one of my Christmas books? It doesn’t embody the cheer and goodwill of the festive season, but there is a certain romance to this piece of Russian literature.
When reading it, you imagine the snow and the white, frost-bound beauty of the landscape; the lyrical and haunting music of Russian folk music and balalaikas; and the tragic love between two people who can’t be together. It’s the type of book that is ideal for Christmas reading by the fire.
A traditional Russian folk song from the soundtrack of the 2002 TV adaptation:
A Russian Christmas during the time when Doctor Zhivago is set (1905 onwards) would have involved many familiar traditions — candle-lit trees (known as ‘yolka’), singing carols and exchanging gifts. After the 1917 Revolution, Christmas was banned in Russia and it wasn’t celebrated again until 1992.
The Russian Orthodox Church observes Christmas on January 7th, following the old ‘Julian’ calendar for celebration days. Most Russians don’t celebrate on December 25th. Christmas Eve (January 6th) is an important day for gathering together with family and friends to enjoy a meal with 12 dishes to symbolize the apostles.
At the end of Doctor Zhivago, there is a section with poems written by Pasternak, entitled “The Poems of Doctor Zhivago”. Here is an excerpt from one of them, appropriate for this time of year:
The winter held.
Blew the wind over the steppe.
In the burrow under the hill-slope
Cold for the child.
Snugly the breath of the ox lapped him.
Beasts of the steading crave
Standing room in the cave.
Hazing the crib warm currents of air wrapped him.
They stood in the dusk of a shippon, in the shade
Whispering, summoning only the barest word.
Of a sudden, slightly, one in the darkness stirred,
A Magus moved left of the crib by someone’s hand,
And the someone gazed in: from the doorstep straight
at the Maid.
Like a guest that calls, the Christmas star looked in.
Wishing you all a very literary Christmas!
Have you read Doctor Zhivago? What do you think of Russian literature?