There are times when you need a Russian novel. It has to be Russian: nothing less will do. You need an artistic vision that is effortlessly epic; and you need a writer who will, without any embarrassment or circumlocution or even preamble, address with a disconcerting directness all the big themes of life: God, morality, the immortality of the soul – you know, all that sort of thing. So, I started on Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. I last read it many years ago, and, although it impressed me at the time, my memories of it are surprisingly vague. So it’s definitely time for a re-read.
Of course, the very mention of Doctor Zhivago brings to mind that mushy David Lean film that has given the novel the rather unfair reputation as a sort of standard-bearer of that popular middlebrow subgenre “Love-Story-Set-In-Turbulent-Times”. And it is difficult separating the book from the film: despite the many inadequacies of the latter (not the least of which are the extraordinarily wooden performances from the two romantic leads), the film is, in visual terms, perhaps the most stunningly beautiful I think I have seen, and it is hard to keep those startlingly vivid images from one’s mind as one reads. And while cinematographer Freddie Young deserves the highest praise for this, some of the credit must go to Lean as well: after all, Young has been cinematographer on many other films as well, and while he has never been less than superb, none of these others is as visually stunning as the ones he made with Lean. If only the rest of Lean’s film version of Doctor Zhivago had been on a par with the cinematography!
But back to the novel. It starts: “On they went, singing Eternal Memory.” And immediately, I know I am reading a Russian novel. I think I’m going to enjoy this!