Before finally reading this novel, I had watched the 1965 movie adaptation starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie many many times. By way of simple comparison, the movie captured very well the spontaneous passion of a brief love affair between physician/poet Yuri and his lover Lara, whereas the book dealt in much greater depth the tumultuous factional warfare incidents between the First Russian Revolution (1905) and the Russian Civil War (1917 – 1922), and their deleterious impact on everyday Russian life. As much as I loved the movie, I have to say that the novel was much more satisfying, if only for the stunning power of the written word.
The novel is divided into two Parts. Part One primarily dwells on Yuri’s family life as a doctor in Moscow and the lives of those close to him, weaving them into the fabric of the violent ideological strife and abrupt social upheaval that were taking place in Russia. Highlights include schoolgirl Lara’s descent into debauchery under an immoral lawyer’s evil influence, the chance but indelible encounter between young Yuri and Lara, and Lara’s falling for a shy idealist, Pasha, whom she later marries. After a short reunion in the town of Meluzeyevo, Yuri and Lara come to know each other better but return home to their respective families. In the background loom the bloodshed resulting from the fall of the monarchy and the advent of the Civil War.
Part Two zooms in on the spontaneous development of the love affair between Yuri and Lara in the Siberian towns of Varykino and Yuryatin, interrupted by Yuri’s being kidnapped by the Forest Brotherhood (a branch of the Red Faction) to serve as their camp doctor. In the background the Civil War is raging on. For fear of being arrested for being anti-revolutionary, the lovers decide to hide in a deserted house in Varykino. As much as they both struggle inwardly with their respective loyalties to family, they are able to savor the most magical and memorable moments in the week-and- a-half in that unforgiving icy wilderness. Then they are forced to accept the unscrupulous lawyer’s offer of a safe passage to Vladivostok, which means for them separation for life.
Throughout the novel, the author makes it quite clear through Yuri’s viewpoint his own take on the falsehood and futility of slogan-driven abstract ideology as against living life with passion and purpose. Even in Yuri’s all-consuming sentimental love for Lara, he never loses sight of the wholesome beauty of being a part of the universe. This is the poetic essence of the novel.
It was not out of necessity that they loved each other, ‘enslaved by passion’, as lovers are described. They loved each other because everything around them willed it, the trees and the clouds and the sky over their heads and the earth under their feet. Perhaps their surrounding world, the strangers they met in the street, the landscapes drawn up for them to see on their walks, the rooms in which they lived or met, were even more pleased with their love than they were themselves…. Never, never had they lost the sense of what is higher and most ravishing – joy in the whole universe, its form, its beauty, the feeling of their own belonging to it, being part of it. This compatibility of the whole was the breath of life to them.
I’m giving the novel 4.5 stars, rounded up to 5.