Stranger Than Fiction: The Tale Of Doctor Zhivago

If you liked The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott, and it seems many of you did, I have a suggested reading list for you. If you haven't read Prescott's book yet, you're in for a treat: the publication of Doctor Zhivago. Boris Pasternak, the author, can't get his book published in the USSR, so the CIA recruits two women, Sally and Irina, to spearhead getting it disseminated in both the West and behind the Iron Curtain. Based on actual events, this is a tale full of spycraft, sacrifice, and forbidden love. From desolate gulags to the tony Mayflower Room, Prescott sweeps us around the globe in a time where literature could change the world.

One of the books Prescott relies on for the facts of her book is The Zhivago Affair by Peter Finn. It quickly becomes clear why a novelist would be interested in the story: here is some great real-life drama. The KGB tormented Pasternak and his family along with Olga Ivinskaya, the inspiration for Lara. The CIA thought Pasternak's novel would foment unrest in the Soviet Union as well as unite the rest of the world against the Communist Bloc, and made sure it was widely available. Indeed, there was a firestorm of protest when the Soviets banned the book, and Pasternak was forced to refuse the Nobel for it. Finn writes in an engaging style, and this is a good companion to The Secrets We Kept.

Lara by Anna Pasternak (yes, she's related) deals in depth with the romance between Boris and Olga, the model for the central relationship in Doctor Zhivago. Sent to the gulag twice and scorned by Pasternak's family, Ivinskaya payed a heavy price for Pasternak's art and fame. Not that Boris didn't suffer, but he seemed to enjoy the drama in this recounting of one of the lesser-known true romances of the 20th century.

Of course, if you want Boris P's version of affairs, there's I Remember, billed as a sketch for an autobiography.  Pasternak focuses mostly on his early life and how it influenced his later experiences and decisions.

If you're wondering what Prescott's character Sally's life was like in the OSS, there's Elizabeth McIntosh's Sisterhood of Spies. Focusing on a different woman for each branch of the spy agency, McIntosh details just how involved women were in intelligence activities for the Allies. Moving seamlessly between chapters, McIntosh makes clear that even if not all the women carried guns (and some did, others, knives) they were instrumental in America's total war.

Of course, while the CIA was highly invested in Pasternak's novel, he was hardly the only writer the Agency promoted, or cultivated. In Finks, Joel Whitney shows the manipulation of print and other media by the Agency, including the establishment of the Paris Review as a cover for one of its founders, the surveillance of Ernest Hemingway, and the often-unwitting cooperation of many great novelists, journalists, and poets.  

This post would be incomplete if it did not give a little information about the book at its center, Doctor Zhivago. While the love story between Yuri and Lara is the primary focus, the Russian Revolution provides many of the plot points. The novel's portrait of the revolution is not a flattering one: chaos, strife, want, oppression. Through it all, Zhivago clings to private life and art in a nation increasingly hostile to both. Lush prose (Pasternak was also a poet, like Yuri) and sweeping scope show why this was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Liked The Secrets We Kept or any of the other books mentioned here? Tell us in the comments.