Literally Flirting With Death

Posted on January 20, 2017 by Cape Rebel

From Lara – The Untold Story That Inspired Doctor Zhivago
by Anna Pasternak


Boris was certainly working hard on his novel. On 12 December he wrote to Frederick, Josephine and Lydia from Moscow, addressing them as: ‘My dear Fedia and girls!’ In the letter he makes it clear that he is doing everything he can to get the first half of Doctor Zhivago, already in manuscript form, to them. Did they know of a good Russian copy-typist? he asks. And if he is owed any money in England from translation work, could they pay the typist to make three copies and check them? He wanted the manuscript to be sent to Maurice Bowra (the eminent English literary historian), Stefan Schimanski (an English critic and translator of Pasternak’s works in Russian) and their friend, the English historian and philosopher, Isaiah Berlin.

‘Printing it – I mean, publishing it in print – is absolutely out of the question, whether in the original or in translation – you must make this absolutely clear to the literary people whom I should like to show it to,’ he continued, updating them about his work in progress: ‘Firstly, it isn’t completed, this is only half of it, needing a continuation. Secondly, publication abroad would expose me to the most catastrophic, not to say fatal, dangers. Both the spirit of the work itself, and my situation as it has developed here, mean that the novel can’t appear in public; and the only Russian works allowed to circulate abroad are translations of those published here.’

Fearing criticism from his sisters, he wrote: ‘You won’t like the novel because it lacks cohesion, and was written in such haste. One reason is that I couldn’t drag it out, I’m not young any more, and anyway, anything could happen from one day to the next, and there were a number of things I wanted to get written down. And I was writing it in my own time, unpaid and in a hurry so as not to overstretch my budget, but to try and make time to get down to some paid work.’

In spite of his self-deprecation with his family, praise was mounting from literary friends to whom he had managed to send the first typescript. On 29 November 1948, he received the following letter from his cousin Olga Freidenberg, from St Petersburg, who was a distinguished scholar and later a university professor: ‘Your book is above any judgment. Everything that you say of history as the second universe can be referred to in your book … It is a special variation of Genesis. It makes my skin tingle to read the philosophical discourses in it. I am just afraid that I am on the verge of discovering the final mystery that one hides inside himself and all his life he wishes to express it and waiting for its expression in art or science and is frightened to death of this, because it must remain an eternal mystery.’

Pasternak felt intense pressure to get his work read by those he respected, as he was inordinately proud of his book. It was his answer to a lifelong dream to produce a long prose work about his generation and its historical fate. All writers are prone to frustrations and fears that their work will not get published, let alone stand the test of time. Pasternak, who had already been working on the novel for thirteen years, knew that he was taking monumental risks in privately distributing the politically controversial material. At first, he had been optimistic about the Bolshevik revolution, believing it would liberate the masses, but when he saw the reality of the war it created, he became a fierce opponent of the Soviet regime. He blamed collectivisation for ruining the rural economy and destroying the lives of millions.

Boris Pasternak could not have made his scorn for the political elite any clearer. As Yury Zhivago states: ‘Ordinarily, people are anxious to test their theories in practice, to learn from experience, but those who wield power are so anxious to establish the myth of their own infallibility that they turn their back on truth as squarely as they can. Politics means nothing to me. I don’t like people who are indifferent to the truth.’

As Pasternak had no idea that Stalin had issued orders to protect him, and ordinary citizens were killed or sent to the gulag for expressing anti-Stalinist views in their own homes, to be circulating his trenchant views in his novel was literally flirting with death.

Pasternak recognised the dangers, describing them in what would be his last letter to his family for almost a decade. (Due to the ‘era of suspicion’, he was forced to halt all correspondence with his sisters; he resumed contact with them in the summer of 1956, during the Krushchev ‘thaw’.) ‘Even if you should hear one day that I’ve been hung, drawn and quartered,’ he told them, ‘you must know that I’ve lived a most happy life, better than I could ever have imagined, and my most solid and stable state of happiness is right now, and in all the recent past, because I have finally learned the art of expressing my thoughts – I possess this skill to the degree that I need it, which was never the case before.’

He wrote this letter at the zenith of his affair with Olga. As his son Evgeny explained: ‘The impact of their happy relations during the first three years was revealed in Lara’s image, her appearance and the lyric warmth of the chapters devoted to her. My father always believed that it was the awakening of “an acute and happy personal impression” that gave him the strength to cope with the difficulties of the work on the novel.’

Little did Olga know that due to widespread knowledge of her affair with Boris, and her unflinching support of the book that he was writing, it was not Boris who would be ‘hung, drawn and quartered’ but she herself who would shortly receive unwelcome visitors.

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