Monday, 2 January 2017

Guest review by Sue Purkiss: LARA by Anna Pasternak

Sue Purkiss writes books for children and young people. She has been a Royal Literary Fellow at Exeter and Bristol Universities, and has also taught English and worked with young offenders. But above all, she is, and always has been, an avid reader of other people's books! For more information about Sue's books, see her website. She also has her own literary review blog, A Fool on a Hill, and is a contributor to The History Girls, blogging there once each month.

I must have been about fourteen when I first saw David Lean’s film of 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 profoundly 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 also a star: 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.

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, the book by Boris Pasternak on which the film was based. 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 was one of his best friends. In order to be with her, he left his first wife and child. But they were very different people; she had little interest in his career as a successful and popular poet and was fearful that his determination to speak out freely would cause trouble with the authorities. (And she was quite right: it did.) It seems typical of Pasternak that he would take what 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 had also 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, and then 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.

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 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 the gulag 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 fascinating, and very readable.

Olga, the real subject of the book

Lara: The Untold Love Story that inspired Dr Zhivago is published by William Collins.


  1. I saw Dr Zhivago as a teenager, too. Fascinating to know the real story, every bit as tragic and dramatic as Dr Z and always instructive to see how the novelist uses real life to feed his fiction. Thanks, Sue, for an excellent review.

  2. Yes, me too! I can remember reading Dr Z under the blankets by torchlight. This is very interesting!

  3. This makes me want to read (and see) DR ZHIVAGO again!