Thursday, April 12, 2012
Free! Free! Free!
Reading DZ makes you think that, perhaps, those lousy Russians got everything they deserved in their bloody, gawd-awful Revolution. If ever a dull and insipid group of self-important banalities deserved a reign of terror, it is these characters created by Boris Pasternak.
Wanna know how such a tedious nothing of a book won a Nobel Prize? Well, first of all, it's no great shakes to win a Nobel Prize. The Scandinavians seem to lack utterly the ability to disperse awards in any sort of rational manner. But, in the case of DZ, there was further international intrigue that led to this ponderous pomposity's being elevated far, far above its merits. DZ was first printed in Italy in 1957 (height of the Cold War, folks -- though it seems that any given year between 1946 and 1991 can be called "height of the Cold War"). People started reading it because they hadn't anything better to do, and it was, like, so cool that it had been written in secret by an actual Russian behind the Iron Curtain and he was all sorta, kinda critical about the Soviets and maybe the author was -- even then -- in the gulag. Then, the Brits and Americans thought that it would be a thumb in the eye of the Reds to get this book awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Stick it to the commies! So, they began a campaign on its behalf with the dumb as a sack of rocks Nobel committee. Voila!
Aside from everything else (which, I assure you, was uninspired), the main problem with the book was the two main characters, Yuri and Lara. This is supposed to be an epic and sweeping love story? You're kidding me, right?* Could you care, did you care, a whit about these two people? Did they even have personalities? If they did, I missed it. Here is a typical snatch of dialogue from Part Thirteen: Opposite the House with the Figures:
[Lara blathering incoherently on about her miserable life] And suddenly this leap from serene, innocent measuredness into blood and screaming, mass insanity, and the savagery of daily and hourly, lawful and extolled murder. Probably this never goes unpaid for. You probably remember better than I do how everything all at once started going to ruin. Train travel, food supplies for the cities, the foundations of family life, the moral principles of consciousness.
[Yuri interjects, unable to contain his enthusiasm for her sagacity -- or, perhaps, overcome by her Slavic hotness] Go on! I know what you'll say further. How well you analyze it all! What a joy to listen to you!
They chaw on like this page after page. It's like being trapped in a really bad college bull session -- without the beer. There's hardly even vodka, as both Yuri and Lara pride themselves on not drinking much. I now understand why the Russians have such a reputation for going to the cups: they have to talk to and be around other Russians all the time. Oh goll -- I'd drink too! I think it took me several bottles of Riesling just to finish Doctor Zhivago.
So, this translation that I read by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky is supposed to be the new gold standard. People (probably drunk people) have waxed rhapsodic about its closeness to Pasternak's voice, its perfect capturing of idiom and flow. God help us all, then. Pevear and Volokhonsky have made something of a cottage industry out of re-translating Russian doorstops. Pray for them. They probably drink a lot of vodka.
Here is a spoiler -- or a beacon of hope, depending on how much you loathe this book and its characters: Yuri dies at the end and Lara disappears and is presumed dead. Uncork that champagne! OK, that sounds a little callous, which is not typical of me. I spent the last half of Destiny of the Republic weeping indecorously about the too-short life of James A. Garfield and was mocked mercilessly by my unfeeling spouse. But, Yuri and Lara were never flesh and blood to me, so it was more like watching some unwieldy and intrusive pieces cardboard getting placed into the recycling bin than any sort of human tragedy.
And now I am done! Done forever! I feel as though a yoke has been lifted. Here comes the sun, and I say, "It's all right!" Though, Jason says he'll razz me forever because I flat out refused to read the 40 pages of Yuri's poetry at the end. The translators note in the introduction: The poems of Yuri Zhivago, which make up the final part of the novel, are not merely an addendum; they are inseparable from the whole and its true outcome -- what remains, what endures. Pbbblt! I tend not even to like good poetry, written by Brits, so why would I read ol' Yuri's stuff?
Here are my suggestions for future translators of Doctor Zhivago or any other Russian novel: First, don't do it. But, if you ignore that, then at least help us out with the names of the characters. All the Russian names just sort of pile up together in a syllabic-laden lump, like hair on a lint screen. This is because not only do Russians have first and last names of unpronounceable proportions, they also have a patronymic. As though that weren't enough, they also have a fondness for nicknames and diminutives. All this does not help their cause with the reader who is struggling against fleeing to a P.G. Wodehouse novel from the midst of a Russian wasteland. Just re-name the characters. May I suggest that all the romantic leads be named Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy? That will help waken the drifting reader. And, maybe, reset those novels from dull and oppressive Russia to the English countryside. And add in some funny parts -- you can hire a British person to help you write those. Then, you might have a novel that comes closer to being worth reading.
*A little homage to the speaking pattern of Lara.