I must have been about fourteen when I first saw David Lean’s hauntingly beautiful film of Boris Pasternak's Dr Zhivago. Set in and after the time of the Russian Revolution, it starred Omar Sharif as Yuri Zhivago, a young doctor; and Julie Christie as Lara, the woman with whom he falls deeply in love. Geraldine Chaplin was Tonya, his wife – whom he also loves, but in a much quieter way. Rod Steiger was the brutal realist and seducer of the young Lara, and Tom Courtenay was the young revolutionary whom she marries. But the backdrop was a huge part of the magic too: the vast forest and steppes of Russia; slender birches with leaves stirred by a restless wind; the snowy streets of St Petersburg, splashed with the blood of the poor.
|Julie Christie and Omar Sharif as Lara and Yuri|
The story matched the sweep of the landscape, and Omar Sharif – dark, sensitive, tender – and Julie Christie – passionate, vulnerable, and so beautiful – were the perfect vehicles to drive it. I, along with at least a generation, was bewitched by it – and so when I saw this book, called Lara and with a picture of Julie Christie on the front (though, rather oddly, the picture is not from the film), I immediately reached for it.
But it’s not, of course, the story of Lara – that was Dr Zhivago itself. This is the story of Olga Ivinskaya, the woman who inspired much of the character of Lara. Not all: the inciting incident, Lara’s seduction by Komarovsky, is based on something that happened to Pasternak’s second wife, Zinaida, whom he had wooed away from her first husband (who happened to be one of his best friends). In order to be with her, he left his first wife and child. But they turned out to be very different people; she had little interest in his career as a highly successful poet and was fearful that his determination to speak out freely would cause trouble with the authorities. (She was quite right: it did.) It seems typical of Pasternak's devotion to his art that he would take whatever he needed from the lives of both his wife and his mistress to create his heroine.
Boris met Olga in 1946, when he was 56 and she was 34, twelve years after his marriage to Zinaida. They met in the offices of a literary magazine where she worked. She was blonde and very pretty, and she was a passionate fan. Her romantic life, like his, had been eventful: her first husband killed himself when he discovered that she was having an affair with the man who later became her second husband - who in turn died young, from lung disease.
Boris courted Olga, and they were soon lovers. They had a great deal in common. As Anna Pasternak writes: Both were melodramatic romantics given to extraordinary flights of fantasy. ‘And now there he was at my desk by the window,’ she (Olga) later wrote, ‘the most unstinting man in the world, to whom it had been given to speak in the name of the clouds, the stars and the wind…’ Epic romantics indeed. They were together until Pasternak’s death; their lives were closely intertwined. She supported and encouraged his writing, he relied on her utterly, he had a close relationship with her daughter Irina – but he never left Zinaida for her, even though, had he done so, his name would probably have protected her from a great deal of suffering - including two stints in the Gulag.
Interestingly, Anna Pasternak is Boris’s great-niece, so she has access to sources which would have been less easily available to another author. She tells us that 'both Olga and her daughter, Irina, have received a bad rap from my family. The Pasternaks have always been keen to play down the role of Olga in Boris’s life and literary achievements…for him to have had two wives… and a public mistress was indigestible to their staunch moral code.' Anna clearly sees things differently. She writes towards the end of the book: 'When I began Lara, I was secretly concerned that I would discover that Boris used Olga…' but as she went on, she concluded that this was not the case, and she was surprised to develop a more tolerant affection for Boris.
|Olga as a young woman|
Olga inspired the character of Lara, but she assisted at the birth of the novel in another way too. When, in 1957, after twenty years in the writing, it was finally ready for publication, the Russian authorities were outraged by its critical portrayal of the Revolution. They refused to allow publication unless Boris would agree to water it down considerably. Unlike Zinaida, Olga supported his refusal to do this, and worked with him and with an Italian publisher to enable it to be published, first in Italy, later all over the world. Pasternak was held in high regard in Russia, and had been for many years – even Stalin had been an admirer. He was shielded from the fallout – but Olga was not. She was sent to Siberia twice because of her association with Boris and the book.
The story of Olga and Boris has almost the romantic, epic sweep as that of Lara and Yuri – and it gives us a sobering glimpse into how life was in an autocratic society which lacked the freedoms which we take for granted. It’s a fascinating read - and it really makes me want to see that film again...
A version of this review appeared early last week on Writers Review.