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.

9 comments:

rhapsodyinbooks said...

The Russian thing with names is such a stumbling block is you're not used to it. I remember finding a guide to Dostoyevsky's books that was nothing but a list of all the variations each name could have!

Tea said...

If I find my book, may I join? Don't want to comment. Just read along.

jewwishes said...

Thank you for your thoughts on this translation.

Kathleen said...

I've never read this book but have always meant to. Maybe your group read will inspire me to finally pick it up. I know the translation is key so I'll feel comfortable to choose the same one as you!

Zibilee said...

I also have never read this book, and find the information about the names fascinating and also very informative. I must make time to read this book! Thanks for sharing this, Marie!

Frances said...

The names are definitely slowing points for me too. I think when Bellezza hosted for The Brothers Karamazov there was a name glossary or something available in the text. Very helpful.

Struggling a bit with this one but am hopeful for Book Two. Thanks for joining in!

Bellezza said...

I love all the names as well. It's funny, because people who don't enjoy Russian literature get really annoyed with 9,000 names for one person (so to speak), but I just look at them all as terms of endearment. It's never bothered me to learn more than one name for a character, and somehow I don't confuse them, either.

This is a reread for me as well, and I love it as much this time as the ones previously. People are mentioning lots of connections to the film(s), but my only point of reference is the one with Omar Sharif and Julie Christie. Even though she's blonde, she'll always represent Lara in my mind. And, don't you hum Lara's Theme to yourself as you're reading from time to time? (Somewhere my love...)

Erin said...

I've never read Doctor Zhivago. I can't decide if it's one I'd like to try. It's amazing what a difference a translation can make, isn't it?

Joan Hunter Dunn said...

I'm reading Dr Z and your post on names has really added another dimension to the story and the characters. Thank you.