Friday, January 09, 2009

Reading Zhivago

I decided around this time last year that I wanted to read Dr. Zhivago. My motivation was two fold. Firstly, I was a Russian linguist and strongly desired to read some of the Russian classics that are so famous even today. Secondly, I came to believe that this book held some sort of key to understanding the dysfunction that plagues my family on my mother's side. You see, my grandmother and grandfather are still alive, as are their three children and four? grandchildren. They are divorced, and have been since before I was born. They have not spoken to each other in decades. Perhaps that is understandable. Their three children however, also do not speak to each other. Strange. Furthermore, my grandmother does not speak to either of her two sisters. Stranger still. Of my grandparents three children, only one speaks to each of them. My uncle does not wish to speak to either myself or my sister so I have not heard from him or his two children in a while. I have never met my grandfather. Get the picture? Probably.
So how does Dr. Zhivago factor in. Shockingly, many of these people who do not talk to each other love Dr. Zhivago. My uncle implored me to read it years ago when we were communicating on a regular basis, claiming it was a masterpiece, and one of his favorite books. My mother then explained once that she loves the movie passionately. Lastly I discovered that my grandmother also loves the movie. Well that was enough for me. If three people who strongly dislike each other (I don't want to use the word hate) to the point of completely ignoring their existence, all love the same story, then I figured reading it would help me understand something about my family.

So what about Dr. Zhivago? It took me nearly a year to read it. Not because I was too busy, but because it was too slow. In the end I too came to embrace the work as a masterful, but I was not convinced until page 500 (the book is 500 pages long). The story is very disjointed early on and is difficult to follow given the Russian tradition of calling a person by the various diminutives of their name. At one point I believed there to be another Dr. working with Zhivago, only to find out it was him all along. Off the top of my head, he was called: Zhivago, Yuri, Yurochka, Yura, Yuri Andreivich, and perhaps even a couple of others. It was confusing. The prose is beautiful. Pasternak (the author) can describe a scene that had me not only visualizing, but also hearing, smelling and sometimes even tasting it. There is very little action however. So little that it made reading the book difficult. It had me wondering if nothing ever happened in Russia.

But did it help me understand my family? Yes and No. At a superficial level I could not see why they would all love the book. On a deeper level however, I wonder if it is because the tragic (and it is fully tragic) story of Zhivago in his absolute loneliness helps everyone to feel better about relational failure in the real world. Everyone Zhivago loved, and he loved a few people, were lost to him. He was left alone and he stubbornly accepted that fate. He was a character who believed himself to know what was best no matter what the circumstances or who he was with (another characteristic of my family). So maybe these things are enlightening. Or maybe I am looking for a connection where one does not exist.

Perhaps it will require reading the book again to truly understand what the connection is. Unfortunately that is not likely to happen in this decade.

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