Pain, Betrayal and Love in Old Russia Doctor Zhivago offers a day-by-day portrait of the lives of ordinary Russians through the Revolution of 1917. Nearly 40 years after reading it for the first time, Ursula Le Guin credits Boris Pasternak's sweeping epic for making her the novelist she is today.
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Pain, Betrayal and Love in Old Russia

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Pain, Betrayal and Love in Old Russia

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Pain, Betrayal and Love in Old Russia

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host.

Well, now to a novel that famously captured the tumult of the Russian revolution. The book is "Doctor Zhivago" and it is the pick of author Ursula Le Guin for our series You Must Read This.

Ms. URSULA LE GUIN (Writer): Fifty years ago this September, Boris Pasternak's novel "Doctor Zhivago" came out here in English. It was my birthday present that October. I was 28. It bowled me over. The Cold War muddied our thinking in the '50s. I didn't really understand the political stance of the book. But it's a book you understand emotionally. It's fiercely intelligent but it must be understood with the heart.

Pasternak was a mystical realist, equipped to tell us about a strange time in human history, what living through the great revolution of 1917 was like day by day for ordinary Russians. What a joy it is to come back to the great passages. The book's full of unforgettable images, like the long empty trains standing on the tracks in the snow in Siberia - black, dead. And the quiet, terrifying sentences that tell of ripe grain fields heaving and rustling, not with wind but with mice. The villagers are dead, the grain uncut, mice breeding in it by millions, as Yuri makes his way on foot alone, all the way back from the Urals to Moscow.

I realize now how much I learned about how to write a novel from Pasternak, how you can leap across miles and years so long as you land in the right place. How accuracy of detail embodies emotion. How by leaving more out you can get more in.

It's a huge book; 500 pages isn't long to contain all Russia, 40 years of history, a man's life and dreams, but it's vast like a human soul. It holds immensities of pain, betrayal and love. I love it, this maybe last of the great Russian novels, this beautiful, noble testimony from a terrible century.

SIEGEL: Ursula Le Guin. Her latest novel is called "Lavinia," and you can find more recommendations from our series, You Must Read This, at npr.org in our summer book section.

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