Book review: ‘Lara: the untold story that inspired Doctor Zhivago’ by Anna Pasternak

We all have favourite authors and books, but often we don’t dig deeper in order to find out the story of the author or the way that a certain novel came about, particularly so, when it is a known classic. Irrespective of age, many people if not read, but have heard about or watched ‘Doctor Zhivago’. The book’s author, Boris Pasternak, is a Russian writer & poet, whose work has worldwide appreciation and recognition & whose books I studied as part of my Russian literature curriculum. However, when I received an advanced copy of Anna Pasternak‘s new book, simply titled ‘Lara, the untold story that inspired Doctor Zhivago’, I couldn’t imagine on what an intense journey of discovery of Boris Pasternak’s own life story it would take me.

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Boris Pasternak, a Nobel Prize winning novelist, was Anna Pasternak’s great-uncle, whom she sadly never met. Having said that, in the course of her research for this book, she not only got unprecedented access to the archives, but spoke to Boris’s relatives, including his sister Josephine & son Evgeny from Pasternak’s first marriage. No less importantly, she also got to speak in person to Irina, the daughter of Boris’s greatest love, Olga Ivinskaya, who was also his literary muse and ardent supporter. Olga was also the person who not only helped shape the book that Boris Pasternak was most proud of, but was the main inspiration behind ‘Doctor Zhivago’ lead character, Lara Guichard, even though Pasternak hasn’t met her at the time when he actually started writing the novel.

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For various reasons the role of Olga Vsevolodovna in Boris’s life has been repressed by both Pasternak’s immediate family, as well as some biographers, however, in writing this book, Anna Pasternak’s intention was ‘to show that, rather, his great omission was that he did not match her cast-iron loyalty and moral fortitude. He did not do the one thing in his power to do: he did not save her’. In some ways, Pasternak, a man of emotion and heart, in this instance, put his ambition before his heart and in the process achieved timeless success beyond his physical life, while the woman he loved feverishly, suffered immensely, both emotionally, as well as physically, and was imprisoned twice simply for loving him and being loyal to his work.

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Pasternak was born into a family of a famous painter Leonid Pasternak, who among other things, illustrated some of Leo Tolstoy’s books and whom the writer considered exceptionally talented. Boris’s mother, on the other hand, was a very gifted musician, who gave up her musical career to be a wife and a mother, creating a very loving environment, in which Pasternak children were raised. However, in later life, the family was separated, with Pasternak’s parents leaving Russia for Europe for political reasons and only Boris and his brother remaining in Russia. That separation had a significant impact on Pasternak, both as a man & a writer, throughout his life.

When Pasternak met Olga, he was on his second marriage and in his 50s, while Olga Ivinskaya, aged 34, worked in the leading Soviet literary monthly publication ‘Novyi Mir’ and was a twice-divorced mother of two. She was already a big fan of his work, as Pasternak was hero-worshipped as a poet, in a way modern rock or pop stars are, but I don’t think many people could have predicted the endurance of this love story and the way it shaped Pasternak’s work on the novel.  It is incredibly hard to comprehend that it actually took him twenty years to write this book and that after the initial publication of the book in Italy, many reprints and translation into 23 other languages, the first version published in Russian was done with the help of CIA, while Russian authorities looked for many pretexts not to do so – that is not to say that the book wasn’t smuggled in and passed from one eager reader to another. The book was officially published in Russia only in 1988….

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Anna masterfully weaves historical research and context into her book, drawing you into the dramatism of life of the Russian society, particularly during Stalin’s reign. If you are not Russian and aren’t particularly familiar with Russia’s painful and very complicated history, this book will become an educational marvel, helping to understand the duress under which intelligencia had to function. Writing of any kind, be it poetry, books or articles was only allowed to flourish when it praised the party’s dogma and if you dared to swim against the tide, you were mercilessly crushed, mentally and physically. Something that not many people could tolerate for long, before giving in, taking their own lives, towing the party line or perishing in the labour camps or after interrogations.

Anna’s storytelling about Pasternak’s life is interwoven with personal correspondence with friends, colleges and family members, which Anna manged to find in archives and through family connections, all of which, helped to create a book that while is incredibly sad overall , is hard to put down. It paints a very vivid picture of Pasternak’s life, from childhood till his death, with incredible depth and attention to detail. The book doesn’t paint Pasternak as an angel, but neither does it demonize him, so as you turn the pages, you end up coming to your own conclusions. Anna prefers to give the reader plenty of facts, without casting her own emotional shadow over the narrative – not an easy feast to achieve, when the man in the centre of this book is your relative.

Personally I found reading this book almost as interesting, as the actual ‘Doctor Zhivago’, which I read in senior school. As sentences swam fluidly like the tidal sea waves before my eyes, I learnt new facts, absorbed information or felt my own memory jolts, skilfully reminded by Anna of something that I might have studied or heard in the past myself. At times I actually questioned how it was even possible that ‘Doctor Zhivago’ came to life and why it was his Western friends and colleagues who made the publication of this book possible, while Russian writers actively condoned Pasternak, wounding him mercilessly time and time again and party members turned him into a human and professional pariah.

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Reading this book will take you back in time and make you reflect on the subject of love, talent and endurance of the human spirit, reinforcing the notion that behind a great man or his work is a very special woman. In case of Boris Pasternak, the woman whom he never made his official wife, suffered greatly, yet never gave up on the man she loved, nurturing him personally and creatively, while never getting public recognition for it. In our day and age, when love is often equated with convenience and raised public profile, it is almost unfathomable to think that someone can love someone so truly and so selflessly.

Anna Pasternak, ‘Lara: the untold love story that inspired Doctor Zhivago’, 310 pages, William Collins, £20

Categories: Culture

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