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Paul Coates -- Confidential File, March 12, 1959

March 12, 2009 |  2:00 pm


Dr. Zhivago's Life Slightly Confusing

Paul_coatesRobert Ruark, my competent colleague from darkest Africa and a few dimly lit saloons, is, I fear, a periodic victim of his own vitriol.

Occasionally he's able to find instant relief by blasting the brains out of a hapless water buffalo.

Apparently, however, when the Great White Hunter misses a shot, he's inclined to turn and draw a bead on his own readers, among whom I number myself.

I read Ruark for more or less the same reason I read Nick Kenny's poems -- out of a sense of professional obligation.

But a Kenny poem has never personally offended me. The worst it's ever done was to give me a mild sense of guilt for not writing. Ruark, on the other hand, offends me frequently. 

1959_0312_red_streak He did it again the other day. After probably firing wide at a wildebeest, he sat down and wrote a bitter tirade accusing all of us who've read: "Dr. Zhivago" of being wishful highbrows.

The crack was entirely uncalled-for. I'm no highbrow. I bought "Zhivago" only because I was slipping too far behind in literary matters, and it was causing me a great deal of embarrassment at cocktail parties.

(For example, I didn't even read "Lolita." Somebody told me it was a story about a little girl, and I assumed it must have been written by Louisa May Alcott, which is not my speed.)

When, later, I became confused about whether Boris Pasternak was the author of "Dr. Zhivago" or Dr. Zhivago was the author or "Boris Pasternak," I decided it was high time to buy the damn book and find out.

I've read it. And I'm here to tell you I didn't understand it. As a matter of fact, no red-blooded American can read a Russian novel and make any sense of it. You lose the entire thread of the story in a maze of utterly impossible names.

The hero is a physician named Zhivago. I caught on to that right away. But it wasn't until Page 261 that I realized he was also known as Yuril Andreievich, who I thought was another character altogether.   

1959_0312_duncan This, of course, put a different light on the story, and I had to go back and read the whole thing over again.

On another occasion, I got hung up for an hour of reading in reverse while I tried to recall the identity of Prov Afanasievich Sokolov, only to find that he was somebody's cousin twice removed, and didn't add a thing to the plot.

Sifting Out Identities

Finally, I was able to eke out the reliable information that Antonina Alexandrovna was not Zhivago's brother. It was his wife. And he loved her with a kind of melancholy, Russian passion. But he couldn't keep his grubby little hands off the wife of a man named Pavel Antipov who was also known, for reasons far beyond me, as Strelnikov. 

In their tender, clandestine meetings, Yurii Andreievich calls Pavel Antipov's wife "Lara," except for one scene when he takes her in his arms and calls her "Larisa Feodorovna."

1959_0312_abby Now, if we don't assume that Lara and Larisa Feodorovna are the same person, we are left only to believe that Yuril Andreievich is an adulterer on a wholesale scale.

Just at the point in Pasternak's book when I began to get all these characters fairly well fixed in my mind, everybody becomes a Bolshevik, goes underground and starts using aliases.

This whole experience has left me with only one conclusion. I want peace in our time as much as the next person. But coexistence is impossible, unless the Russians agree to shorten their names.