At the beginning, I need to make two things clear: this is an excellent book, and I almost couldn’t bring myself to read it because of the packaging. I realized by the time I had read a dozen pages that the title, the cover illustrations, and the blurbs were exceedingly deceptive. They make it appear as if the book is some sort of ethereal and light-hearted romantic adventure, while in fact it is a profoundly dark tragedy. They also lead prospective readers to believe that Boris Pasternak’s lover Olga is the book’s main character, and that she was the main impetus for the writing of the novel Doctor Zhivago. In fact, as this book admits, Pasternak had conceived the idea of writing the epic novel that became Doctor Zhivago long before he met Olga, and although the relationship between Pasternak and Olga was inspiration for numerous facets of the relationship between Yuri Zhivago and Lara, the book also explains that Pasternak took aspects of the backgrounds of his two wives to deepen the character of Lara. She is a composite. As for the cover, instead of mirroring the stark reality of the actual contents, it is strewn with brightly colored flowers as if it is illustrating a fairy tale. After you read the actual text, this phony gaiety is very off-putting.
The main storyline of this book, at least what makes it outstanding for me, is the process of the writing of the novel Doctor Zhivago. It is Pasternak’s only major piece of prose apart from his translations. He was already a famous poet when he undertook to begin his epic novel. The book explains that poets in Russia were lionized like rock stars are today. Pasternak was considered one of Russia’s finest poets after the publication of his first volume of poetry in 1921. He worked on Doctor Zhivago, which eventually covered a sweep of time from the Russian Revolution of 1905 to World War II, for decades until completing it in 1956.
The Russian government’s rejection of the novel and refusal to publish it is one of the great scandals in literature. Publishing houses led Pasternak on, promising to publish it but never having any intention of doing so. Eventually, an Italian smuggled a copy out of the country and presented it to an Italian publishing company, which brought forth an Italian translation that became an immediate bestseller. Shortly afterwards, the book came out in multitudes of other languages. The CIA was responsible for putting out the first Russian edition, which it distributed clandestinely to Russian visitors to Europe.
In 1958, Boris Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. The rest of the world rejoiced, but in Russia this was an outrageous scandal. The KGB, the Writer’s Union, and the Russian government made life hell for Pasternak. They harassed him relentlessly until he was forced to decline the prize. During the era of the great purge in Russia, Stalin, for superstitious reasons, had given orders that Pasternak was not to be touched. Instead, to punish him for his unorthodox writings, the police had arrested his lover Olga and sent her to a labor camp. After Pasternak’s death, they arrested her again along with her daughter, and they both did time in prison and work camps.
I don’t want to diminish the importance of Olga to Pasternak. I only want to emphasize that that is one thread in a complex story concerning the life of the writer and the creation of his novel. Lara also has extensive sections about Pasternak’s two marriages, his fight to get the book published, and his deterioration in the aftermath of the fracas about the Nobel Prize.
One thing that hit me hard while I was reading the tragic closing chapters of this book was how uncertain fame and fortune are even to writers of exceptional quality. Pasternak’s is not an isolated case. Many internationally acclaimed writers led tragic lives and came to tragic conclusions. Pasternak devoted his life to the completion of his novel; it was his overwhelming priority for decades. He managed to get it published and it achieved astounding success. However, although his publishers made millions off the book, Pasternak was unable to personally profit, as he couldn’t get his royalties into the country. The rest of the world lauded him as a novelist of genius, while in Russia he was shunned, isolated, and thrown out of the Writer’s Union. When he died, the location and time was not officially publicized, but word got round underground, and despite the risk, his funeral was attended by thousands. Doctor Zhivago was not published in Russia until 1988, and it was not until 1989 that one of Pasternak’s sons was able to go to Stockholm to receive his posthumous Nobel Prize.
Not too long ago I read the novel Doctor Zhivago for the first time; I have been a fan of David Lean’s film since I was a young teen. Pasternak’s life illustrates for me the profound responsibilities of a writer. He wrote Doctor Zhivago because he felt he had to, in the face of intense pressure and approbation. He remained true to his artistic vision despite almost insurmountable obstacles. Being a real writer is not about becoming famous or making lots of money; it’s about writing the words you have inside you that need to be written, no matter what it costs you personally. It cost Pasternak everything. I recently read a Paris Review article by the late Ursula Le Guin in which she said that the Sartre Prize for Prize Refusal should have been called the Boris Pasternak Prize. She emphasized that Pasternak was one of her true heroes. I think that he has been a true hero to a lot of people, and to writers in particular he epitomizes the need to place art above other petty and selfish considerations.