The untold love story that inspired Doctor Zhivago, written by regular guest to 131 and No 38 Anna Pasternak (whose daughter is at a school in Cheltenham) and reviewed by the Financial Times as “an irresistible account of joy, suffering and passion”. Here we deliver an exclusive interview with Anna about why this story matters so much to her as the great niece of the Nobel Prize winning novelist Boris Pasternak.
So, tell us, what inspired you to write the book?
In 1995 the London Evening Standard asked me to write an obituary of Boris’s mistress and muse, Olga Ivinksaya. I did some research into her life and was left with the haunting sense that so much was left unsaid about her role in Boris’s personal and literary life. I believed then that she was the inspiration for Lara in the novel, immortalised on screen by Julie Christie in David Lean’s epic film of Doctor Zhivago. I then interviewed my grandmother, Josephine – she was Boris Pasternak’s sister (she married a Pasternak cousin, hence the continuation of the Pasternak surname.)
My grandmother was vituperative in her dismissal of the important role that Olga played in Boris’s literary life. She said that Olga was not the inspiration for Lara, which I did not wholly believe. I knew then that this was a story that I wanted to further research as I sensed that there was much more behind my family’s refusal to acknowledge Olga. I was astonished, when I did over a decade’s worth of research to discover that the real life story behind Doctor Zhivago was as turbulent, passionate and heartbreaking as my great uncle’s Nobel Prize winning novel.
It’s the tale of a woman history forgot then?
It is not that history forgot her, more it is that historians and my own family deliberately wrote her out of history.
In writing Lara, I feel like I have at last righted an ancestral wrong. I have put Olga centre stage where she belongs. If it was not for her not only would Doctor Zhivago never have been completed, it would never have been published. When the Soviet authorities learned that Boris was writing an anti-revolutionary novel, they sent his lover, Olga, to a prison camp, where she was interrogated about the book her lover was writing.
Despite three and a half punishing years in a gulag, not once did she betray him.
Are you a feminist?
I believe in being feminine but not in a ball-breaking anti-men way. What was given me great pleasure in writing Larathough, has been bringing the woman behind the man into the spot light.
How important was Boris Pasternak in Russia?
Hugely important. He is primarily known as a poet in Russia. In the early 1920s he enjoyed rock star status. When he gave poetry recitals, if he paused, the entire crowd would roar in unison his verse back to him, as they do at rock concerts today. He is still revered by Russians to this day, mainly for his poetry and because he was so loyal to them and his adored “Mother Russia.” Unlike other Russian writers like Nabokov, he never emigrated despite being hounded by the Soviet authorities and the Russian people adore him for his loyalty.
What was your greatest ‘discovery’ researching the book?
The extent to which Olga suffered in loving Boris. She miscarried his child in the Moscow Lubyanka. When the KGB discovered that she was pregnant with Boris’s child, they deliberately left her in the morgue to induce a still born at six months old. Olga’s daughter, Irina, whom I interviewed at length told me she believed that this was a deliberate ploy on behalf of the Soviet officials. As Boris was so famous in the West, they would have been embarrassed had word got out that his lover was pregnant with his child in prison. Also, I never knew that Boris was nominated for the Nobel Prize six times before he won it for his translations of Shakespeare.
You are Boris’ great niece. How did being related to your subject matter affect your writing? What are the pros and cons?
The cons were that it took me fifteen years to pluck up the courage to write the book. I needed to find my literary voice in a way that I felt would do justice to my surname and make Boris proud. Obviously, being related to a writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature is a hard act to follow. I never considered myself in Boris’s league but I knew that I had something of value to say and that only I could say it in this way. As I come from a family of academics, who aren’t so interested in emotion – and Boris Pasternak was an intense and emotional man – I felt like I had an innate understanding of him. The pros were that I had unprecedented access to the material and publishers took my voice seriously.
I deliberately set out with an as objective approach as possible. I knew that I didn’t want to come across as a gushing relative and I feel that in certain areas of the book I have been quite critical of my great uncle and his behaviour.
Was it a difficult process looking into your family’s history?
No, it was wonderfully enjoyable. As Boris was such a prolific letter writer and I read all his correspondence to my relations, it was a source of rich pleasure for me to learn so much about my grandparents and great grandparents.
And what about the actual writing?
I wrote the whole book in four and half months under rather punishing exam like conditions. This worked for me but I would not recommend it as it was intense, stressful but ultimately satisfying.
What do you hope your daughter will learn from the book?
Not to marry a tortured creative genius!
Are you happy with the final result?
I am absolutely thrilled. The book has been incredibly well received by the critics and I feel inordinately proud that I had the courage, as a Pasternak, to stand up and challenge the prevailing view.
What is your hope for the book?
It is very exciting because the film rights have been bought by Carnival Films Ltd who made Downton Abbey. It is to be made into a six-part television series and I am so honoured, as Sir Ronald Harwood – who won an Oscar for his screenplay for Roman Polanski film The Pianist is adapting Lara for the screen.