LARA: THE UNTOLD STORY AND THE INSPIRATION FOR ‘DOCTOR ZHIVAGO’
By Anna Pasternak
Ecco, $27.99, 310 pages, illustrated
Sometimes when you read a novel, you just know that the love story at its heart has to be based on a real relationship. This takes nothing away from the author’s craft: it’s simply that the fabric he has woven is redolent of someone who has actually loved and been loved. The Russian novelist Boris Pasternak’s magnum opus “Doctor Zhivago” — which won him the Nobel Prize the Soviet authorities would not allow him to accept — is a prime example of this phenomenon. The object of its eponymous hero’s passion, Lara, seems so obviously the reflection of a great love affair.
So it is no surprise that the author’s great-niece Anna Pasternak states right at the beginning of her authoritative study, based on family knowledge and wider research that “‘Doctor Zhivago” is based on Boris’s relationship with the love of his life, Olga Vsevolodovna Ivinskaya, who was to become the muse for Lara, the novel’s spirited heroine. Central to the novel is the passionate love affair shared by Yury Zhivago. and Lara Guichard Their love is tormented as Yury, like Boris, is married Yury Zhivago is a semi-autobiographical hero; this is the book of a survivor.”
What is surprising is the cover-up, not by the Soviets this time, that she goes on to recount: “‘Doctor Zhivago’ has sold in its millions yet the true love story behind it has never been fully explored before. The role of Olga Ivinskaya in Boris’s life has been consistently repressed both by the Pasternak family and Boris’s biographers. Olga has regularly been belittled and dismissed as an ‘adventurous,’ ‘a temptress,’ a woman on the make, a bit part in the history of the man and his book.”
Ms. Pasternal has experienced the familial venom first hand from Boris’s sister Josephine who “told me furiously: ‘It is a mistaken idea that this . acquaintance ever appeared in ‘Zhivago.’ In fact, her feelings for ‘that seductress’ were so strong she refused to even sully her lips with her name.” Yet the author convincingly establishes the unmistakable link between Lara and Olga and shows that from the time Pasternak met his muse in 1946, he and his novel were changed.
This is all the more remarkable because she informs us that “when Pasternak started writing the novel, he had not yet met Olga . However, as soon as Boris met and fell in love with Olga, his Lara changed and flowered to completely embody her.” In other words, the character Yury (and readers) loved could not have existed had he not met Olga Ivinskaya.
Pasternak may have suffered in real life the guilt of an unfaithful husband, as Yury does in the novel, but, Ms. Pasternak writes, “Olga Ivinsksaya paid an enormous price for loving her ‘her Boria.’ She became a pawn in a highly political game. Her story is one of unimaginable courage, loyalty, suffering, tragedy, drama and loss.”
Even while he was writing his novel, she was harassed, interrogated and twice imprisoned in Siberian labor camps by those deeply suspicious, concerned and worried about what he was putting down on paper. As Olga was by now his secretary typing the manuscript, she knew it all, but such was her loyalty and devotion that she refused to talk.
This is partly why Anna Pasternak writes “I feel passionately that if it were not for Olga, not only would ‘Doctor Zhivago’ never have been completed but it would never have been published.” Of course, it never was published in the Soviet Union during its author’s lifetime, the manuscript having been smuggled out and published to great acclaim everywhere else. Not until Mikhail Gorbachev’s era of openness in the late 1980s did it appear on its native heath.
One of the fascinating details revealed in “Lara” is that Olga was very uncomfortable with the surreptitious export of the novel and desperately wanted it published at home. She entertained hopes, not without foundation, that it might happen, as had been promised “in an atmosphere of growing social liberalization.” But now, Ms. Pasternak writes, she realized that “the Hungarian uprising in the autumn of 1956 prompted Moscow to once again tighten its screws, leaving Pasternak and his novel out in the cold.” Only then did she reluctantly acquiesce in the foreign publication, although she continued her efforts to persuade the authorities to allow it to appear first in the USSR.
Boris Pasternak’s belief that the Soviets would “tear him limb from limb” may not have been literally carried out, but they certainly made the remaining years before his death from lung cancer in 1960 miserable in a host of ways. For Olga, the torments continued and even accelerated after he was gone. After brutal interrogation at the infamous Lubyanka prison, during which she was accused of being the actual author of “Doctor Zhivago,” she and her daughter were put on trial on other bogus charges and sent to the gulag, where Olga served almost half of her eight-year sentence. She certainly paid a heavy price for her role as muse and her immortality as Lara.
• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, California.
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