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The poet turns novelist, with mixed results
on 15 January 2016
Somebody described this novel as 'a flawed masterpiece' which I think was apt. When I first read the book many years ago I would have laid the emphasis on masterpiece, but this time around I would stress the flawed. It's fairly obvious that Pasternak was not a natural novelist to say the least. The plot is disjointed, the coincidences ridiculous, characters appear and disappear in a confusing way, and there are long digressions about philosophy, poetry, history, nature, politics: you name it Pasternak provides it. I am actually rather surprised that it gets such good reviews here. I had to really struggle at times at sustain my interest.
Though it may be heretical to say it, what I was left with above all was admiration for Robert Bolt's achievement in turning this ramshackle, rambling, discursive text into such an extraordinary screenplay for the movie. He stripped out the superfluous characters, radically curtailed the most protracted and grisly sequences (above all the Forest Brotherhood chapters), made the relationship between Lara and Zhivago more organic and credible, and breathed life into the crude stereotype that is the novel's Komarovsky.
At the end of the day there would be no movie without the novel, but I wonder how many readers would approach the book without first seeing the film? Okay, Bolt conflated the February and November revolutions which was cheeky, but given the need to sustain the narrative and tension it was understandable. I can see myself watching the movie again and again, but I don't think I shall revisit the text.