Saturday, May 14, 2011

Dr. Zhivago

No, I don't sit around all day watching movies from my past. I weed the garden, play guitar, fix the Swedish engineered Saab routinely (The rotor was baked onto the distributor shaft and the pcv hose connector shattered when I tried to change the rubber tube), crawl around the attic and fix the attic fan belt, blah blah blah. And also read. I've read a library of books this past winter and other than Siddhartha, Bukowski, McCarthy, Conrad, Steinbeck and others I finally sat down with the Boris Pasternak book, Dr. Zhivago. The film, scripted by Robert Bolt, is what makes me resent movies like Hardbodies because they shouldn't even be in the same category of media. One celebrates human emotions and studies political change; the other shows tan lines on flabby asses. Roller skating girls lose their bikinis. Chase scenes happen on surfboards.

But then I read the book and realize Robert Bolt should get some kind of Nobel Peace Prize for adapting a complicated Russian novel with digressions so numerous I can't even go into them without a long essay. I've never met someone who actually read that book from cover to cover because that person would've remarked that the movie is a loose adaptation of the book. It's been around for 50 years and less than 100 people have reviewed it on Amazon. So, like, two people a year have read it? I believe it. The movie, in this case, is more accessible and so "better". The book made my eyes cross with detailed descriptions of peasant women's braided hair and the history behind certain hairdressers. Maybe I'm biased since I'm a fan of the movie. But the movie, without Julie Christie's revlon complexion might fall on its face. The sizzle is so loud you almost don't pay attention to the steak and are content to eat the fork.

I think the mystique of the novel and story propelled them both to fame rather than the writing. The book was originally written in Russian by the poet Pasternak who had been censored as a poet and basically translated other works for 25 years to avoid trouble. But that whole time he was secretly writing Dr. Zhivago knowing that he would be on a train to a Siberian gulag if it was made public. Finally he was old enough to slip it out of the country and not care about his fate. (He would die three years after it was published) Russian censors considered publishing it and then decided no. But it was published in Italy and then translated into English. And the Red Scare American media saw a perfect opportunity to slander Communist Russia by prancing around with the novel as evidence of a repressive government. I wonder if Ike or Nixon or anyone read the book from cover to cover. That cunt Nixon was not known for his integrity.

This is not to say the writing is bad. No, the writing is utilitarian, to use a USSR word. But when you write for 400 + pages then there comes a point where the project itself is not utilitarian. Pages of dialogue go on and on. I'm always amazed at the existence of 400+ page book that manage to be totally boring. A Million Little Pieces fits this category. The Road. Jitterbug Perfume*. Everything is Illuminated. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. All terribly boring and self absorbed. They say don't pay attention to your audience. Well, this is what you get when you follow that advice. Snore! *To be fair, I'm not part of Tom Robbins' audience. His books are too deliberately fancy and witty for my taste. If you know you're cool then you aren't cool, Tom.
I did not laugh or cry or frantically turn the page to find out what happens next. It's utilitarian and reading it was like homework. Everything happening in real time for 50 or 60 years. Zhivago carries water in wooden buckets, apologizes, struggles, his heart hurts, the host family snickers, he apologizes, his knees ache as he climbs the stairs. "One more." blah blah blah. There is much of this book that a censor would help with his red pen. But it bothers me that a reader is left to entertain himself. Was Pasternak totally without a sense of humor in his writer's colony? It seems yes. The USSR of the 40s and late 50s was a gray place and smiles were as rare as tropical Sundays in Moscow. Brutal. The movie isn't very funny either but it's passionate and well paced. Grand. Watching it, you feel a part of something important even if you don't know what. A critic called the movie a prop pony that looked real enough to ride. Well, wasn't that clever?

I don't recommend running out and buying this book unless you have some wish to fall asleep with it on your lap. Legend has it that Christopher McCandless read this book shortly before his death in Alaska, even concluding from it that happiness is only meaningful if shared. He might've been one of the few people in a position to expound on the greater impact of the story and language but it's also possible his situation greatly influenced his interpretation of the book. In my present situation it put me to sleep until I finally knocked it out at 5am and shrugged. Lara isn't much of a role model. She is moved upon but does not move much. Zhivago is even less of a hero and would have poetic thoughts about happiness but at the end of his life would not trouble himself to debate the meaning of happiness. "That's a young man's game, hand me the kindling," he would say and I admire and detest this kind of person who is above a frivolous debate. I feel that I was once an aspiring philosopher and I'm not ashamed of that period in my life. No, I have graduated and it seems my fresh faced comrades did not follow me as I now find myself alone at the podium. Either students wish to learn philosophy to satisfy some humanities requirement or hobos embody their philosophy of drinking to excess. Where are the philosophers who walk in the footsteps of Plato? Who seek to further thought for its own purposes and not for political or religious gain? I'm too impractical to think a debate over the meaning of life is not important. A hipster would have a debate while drinking at Starbucks and turn his nose up at my boycott. Coffee in New England? Are you fucking kidding? You know how far that coffee has to travel? You ever pick coffee? They're like caffine vampires sucking the blood of Nicaragua and Colombia.
But hipsters are practical. The world runs on dunkin? Sure it does you Cambridge assholes. Harvard must learn you real smart if you think coffee is grown in Massachusetts. I'd really like to hear what a Harvard hipster has to say in his Russian Lit class about Crime and Punishment and Dr. Zhivago. I picture him wiping mud from his Chuck Taylor shoes, "Pasternak's notion of romance is influenced by his translations of Goethe. It is unoriginal. Pompous."
"I disagree," says the girl wearing a set of back rims without lenses in them. "The "Doctor" is prescribing medicine in the form of romance. His prescription for Russia, for the ailing Moscow is loyalty to love. Zhivago represents Pasternak's lost childhood."
The bell rings and everyone grabs their slave made iPads and jugs of coffee from 4000 miles away. SO FUCKING IMPORTANT THEY GOTTA DRINK COFFEE TO STAY AWAKE! YES, TELL ME WHAT YOU THINK ABOUT PASTERNAK.*

Just as a test I will write a short quiz for anyone to prove they read the book:

1) How many kids did Zhivago father?
2) What were the names of Zhivago's chief love interests?
3) Is Varykino a house or a town or a district?
4) Lara's husband goes by what names?
5) Lara's husband dies in what manner?
6) What is the name of the hydroelectric plant?
7) Shortly before Zhivago's death, who does he see outside the trolley car?
8) Who plays the balalaika?
9) What is Zhivago's occupation at the end of the book?
10) Does Zhivago kill anyone?

Bonus question:
Do you prefer a)

or b) "blah blah blah Zhivago blah blah blah."

I'll score your answers when you enter them in the comment section.

* Sorry, I stumbled on this site about hipsters and really feel the vortex of irony beginning to spin so fast we may travel back in time. The Honda ad made my brain melt. I didn't think I would ever miss the punk rock youth movement. My theory is that culture patterns have accelerated so fast that a 20 year old today is exposed to as much media as an 80 year old in the 20 year old has the jaded outlook of a terminally ill senior citizen but the viagra libido of a bunny and the Red Bull metabolism of a sparrow and the technology of Dr. Spock. The hipster acts like he can predict the future because he can predict the least how the media presents it (which is the same thing?). But I know that to abuse a hipster is to invite an auto tuned music video of your rant to end up as a facebook page/flash mob protest. You could literally bomb the south by southwest music convention and you would A) become the subject of a rap song. b) have your picture stenciled into urinals so S.F. hipsters could piss on your face. (only in microbreweries) c) the video footage of your attack would be edited into an abstract art film/ballet/opera with nude dancers and a crippled dog starring Emo midgets. I laughed until I cried and before I dried my tears there was a video on youtube of me crying and 50,000 haiku comments.

No comments:

Creative Commons License
Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.