Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Doctor Zhivago Group Read: Week 1- What's In a Name?

I'm participating in Frances's Group Read of Boris Pasternak's classic Doctor Zhivago, released in November in a new translation by acclaimed translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I've read Doctor Zhivago before and loved it; it's an epic novel about love and war and life, lyrically written by a poet with a searing love story at its center. It's been several years since I read it and it's coming back to me slowly. Certain things I remember but I'm going to try to do this spoiler-free.

One of the things that's interesting me about this read is Pasternak's use of names. In Russian there are lots of different ways to say someone's name. You can use just a first name, you can use a familiar, you can make up a nickname, you can use a formal first-name-plus-patronymic construction, you can use a last name, you can use a title, and so on. The name you use says something about your degree of familiarity and even your feelings about a person. Two of the characters forming the heart of the book are Doctor Zhivago himself (Yuri Andreevich, Yura, Yurochka, Doctor Zhivago, and so on) and Lara (Lara, Larissa, Larissa Feodorovna, Larissa Guicharovna, Antipova, Nurse Antipova, etc.) have, because they are referred to by all these different names, a kind of chameleon-like quality. Each name means something different. Lara is the name Pasternak uses when talking about her as a young woman. Antipova is her more formal married name, Nurse Antipova her professional name, Larissa her given name, and so on. Yet all of these names refer to the same person. She's an enigma, someone who appears and reappears in the plot and in Zhivago's life, at different times, under different circumstances, and under different names. If you haven't read the book I won't spoil it but let it suffice to say there's a big surprise coming soon having to do with how one character is named and not named. When I first read it, it knocked me out of my chair.

Part of Russo-Biblio-Extravaganza
Overall I'm enjoying the book so far. I don't know how I feel about this translation. My memory of the other version was that it wasn't so portentious as this one but it's been a long time. There are times when my attention falters under the weight of it. It's not really a book that's long on plot- it's about the internal lives of the characters and the way they're affected by the chaos around them. We'll see how it goes.

What do you think so far?

Go to Nonsuchbook for more Group Read links.