A British journalist investigates her great-uncle’s love affair.
Boris Pasternak (1890-1960) was 56 and married to his second wife, Zinaida, when he met 34-year-old Olga Ivinskaya and immediately fell in love: “She is so enchanting, such a radiant, golden person,” he exulted. “I never thought I would still know such joy.” Flattered by the attentions of Russia’s most lauded poet, Olga reciprocated his passion. Pasternak (Daisy Dooley Does Divorce, 2007, etc.) draws on family correspondence; memoirs by Olga, her daughter (whom Pasternak interviewed), Boris’ sister and son; and Boris’ own writings to sensitively examine the dramatic relationship as well as to rescue the reputation of the woman whom the Pasternak family derided and denounced. At first, Pasternak worried about discovering that Boris “used Olga” but concluded that he did his best “within the constraints of his domestic situation to honour her and her family,” supporting them financially and trusting Olga “with his most precious commodity—his work. He sought her advice, her editing and typing assistance” and showed his love in his novel Doctor Zhivago, which Pasternak reads as a “long and heartfelt love letter to her.” Nevertheless, Boris comes across as self-absorbed, at best naively romantic, enjoying “the drama of anguish” and torment that he created for long-suffering Olga and his wife and children. He seemed to care nothing about putting them at risk with his defiance of Stalinist policy. He was somewhat protected by fame, but Olga was vulnerable: twice she was arrested, sentenced to years in gulags. “I owe my life and the fact that they did not touch me in those years to her heroism and endurance,” Boris admitted. Yet he was so insensitive that upon her release from prison, he asked her daughter to tell her that their relationship was over. Pasternak’s recounting of the publication of Doctor Zhivago, and Soviet pressure for him to renounce the Nobel Prize in Literature, draws largely on Peter Finn and Petra Couvée’s The Zhivago Affair (2014).
A sympathetic portrait of a woman who saw her lover in the same “heroic light” as he saw himself.