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Boris Pasternak and the Lost Story of Lara

By Audrey Golden. Sep 27, 2017. 9:00 AM.

Topics: Literature, Book History, Nobel Prize Winners

Maybe you’ve read Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago or you’ve seen the film of the same name from 1965, directed by David Lean and starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie. Or perhaps you’re familiar with “Lara’s Theme,” the song from the movie. At any rate, we bet you’re at least a little bit familiar with the love affair between the fictional characters of Yuri and Lara. A new book by Anna Pasternak, the granddaughter of Boris’s sister Josephine, reveals details of the love affair between Boris Pasternak and Olga Ivinskaya, which served as the inspiration for the novel. The book is entitled Lara: the Untold Love Story and the Inspiration for Doctor Zhivago. It was released in January 2017.

Olga Ivinskaya and the Story Behind Doctor Zhivago

Boris_Pasternak.jpgWait—Boris Pasternak’s own life and love affair was what led him to write Doctor Zhivago? In part, according to Anna Pasternak’s new book, the answer is yes. Boris met Olga in 1946 at the offices of Novy Mir, the Soviet literary journal. The Nobel Prize winner was already 56 years old and in a second marriage, and Olga was only 34 years old at the time.

The relationship lasted from 1946 until Boris’s death in 1960. At that time, according to Anna, both Olga and her daughter Irina suffered the consequences of the affair—both were sent to a labor camp soon after the novelist’s death. And even prior to his death, Olga was held in Lubyanka prison in Moscow and interrogated about Boris and eventually was sent to Potma labor camp. Boris wrote to her throughout her imprisonment. Indeed, as an NPR review of Lara explains, “Pasternak’s long public affair with Olga left her woefully vulnerable.”

Details of the Book and its Revelations

Pasternak_Biography_BTYW.jpgIn terms of the book itself, Lara has some interesting features that we particularly like. Most notably, it begins with a two-page Pasternak family tree that begins with Boris’s parents, Leonid Pasternak (1862-1945) and Rosa Kaufman (1867-1939), then traces the births and marriages of Boris (1890-1960) and his siblings, as well as their children and grandchildren. In effect, the family tree traces four generations of Pasternak family members, ending with Anna, the author of the book who was born in 1967.

In the prologue, Anna Pasternak explains that most Russians remember Boris as a poet, yet he longed to write a famous novel. She says: “It was in 1935 that [Boris] . . . first spoke of his intent to fulfill his artistic potential by writing an epic Russian novel . . . . Boris told Josephine that the seeds of a book were germinating in his mind; an iconic, enduring love story set in the period between the Russian Revolution and the Second World War.”

Why is Anna telling the story now? As she clarifies, “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.” In other words, part of Anna’s goal in writing Lara was to remedy the salient omission of Olga in the history of Boris’s life and in the writing of Doctor Zhivago. Indeed, as Anna writes, Olga’s story is one that should be told, given that it is “one of unimaginable courage, loyalty, suffering, tragedy, drama, and loss.”

You might be thinking that Lara is less about Boris Pasternak and the story behind Doctor Zhivago and more about a recovery effort for Olga Ivinskaya. In large part, this is true. But as the NPR review points out, the book is also “a dramatic account of the sheer determination it took to write and publish an uncompromising literary masterpiece under dismal circumstances.” Anyone interested in Doctor Zhivago should be very interested in reading Lara and learning more about the tragic affair between Boris and Olga, and how it made its way into one of the most well-read works of twentieth-century Russian fiction.

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Audrey Golden
World literature scholar and erstwhile lawyer. Lover of international travel, outdoor markets, and rare books.


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