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Thursday, March 5, 2020

Doctor Zhivago and The Secrets We Kept: A Spy Story about a "Love" Story

Doctor Zhivago is considered by many to be the greatest love story of the 20th century. But is it? IS IT REALLY? I plowed through this 700-page beast over the course of about a month (it's THE definition of a winter read), and was actually a little surprised at how unimpressive the love story really is. And on the whole, I wasn't a fan of the novel itself either. It's confusing, the whole plot relies on some outrageous coincidences, and it's way way way way too long. I know, I know: Steer clear of Russian literature if you want brevity. But I normally like these crazy-long Russian books (mostly — see, War and Peace). Really, they're more fun to write about than they are to read.


But so, the reason I read Zhivago, beyond just the goal of reading more classics and more novels in translation this year, is because I wanted to know why it was so controversial...and also I was really intrigued by Lara Prescott's novel, The Secrets We Kept. Her novel is the story of how Zhivago came to be published after it was banned in the Soviet Union. It's also the story of how Zhivago's author, Boris Pasternak, was threatened with...well, all the things Soviets who ran afoul of the State in the 1950s were threatened with.

But why was Zhivago so controversial in Soviet Russia? Apparently, simply because it pointed out how everything wasn't perfect. Zhivago struggles to find food, protect his family, and condemns the October Revolution, much to the chagrin of the State, in which no one could possibly be struggling to the degree he is. For me, the doomed love of Yuri and Lara was waaaay less interesting than learning more about World War I, the Russian Revolution, shady lawyers, and double-agent revolutionaries who give up and blow their brains out. So there definitely was some intrigue in Zhivago, and those parts I really enjoyed.

Similarly, I enjoyed much of Prescott's novel, but on the whole, I thought it suffered from some of the same issues as Zhivago: Prescott just bit off more than she could chew here. The Secrets We Kept tells the story of secretaries in the CIA typing pool, spies, Pasternak's mistress (the inspiration for Lara), and much more. Each section is told from one of these perspectives and Prescott has to do some literary acrobatics to keep this going in a way that makes sense. The novel may have been much more successful with a different structure or type of narrator.

So while each of these reads were just lukewarm for me, the experience of reading them together was actually terrific — the whole experience being greater than the sum of its parts.

1 comment:

  1. I read and absolutely loved Zhivago in grad school, where I studied it with a professor who was a Pasternak specialist. His guidance made the reading very intellectually rewarding. Even with that background, though, when I reread the book about twenty years later, finally all in Russian, I found some tremendously beautiful and wondrous passages but, when reading without any academic goals, the flaws that you mention really (really!) stuck out. (I blogged about rereading Zhivago here.)

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