The Guardian

Dr Zhivago’s heroine takes centre stage in plagiarism row

July 3, 2022
Julie Christie as Lara in David Lean’s 1965 film Dr Zhivago
Boris Pasternak with his mistress Olga Ivinskaya, believed to be the inspiration for Lara, and their daughter Irina. Photograph: Ullstein Bild/Getty

Courtroom battle looms as author argues her book revealing inspiration for character became basis of an American novel

Two authors are to go head to head in the high court in London this week in a bitter literary plagiarism row that revolves around the love life one of the most romantic of all heroines, Lara Antipova from the Russian epic Dr Zhivago.

British author Anna Pasternak, a descendant of the Russian author of the original novel, will argue in court that substantial sections of her own factual account of the real-life inspiration for the character of Lara have since been copied and exploited in an American novel.

Lara’s enigmatic beauty is at the heart of Boris Pasternak’s 1957 story, and she was notably played by Julie Christie in a much-loved David Lean film of the book. In 2016 Pasternak, a journalist and great niece of Boris, brought out a book which pinpointed the real person behind the character of Lara.

She was, it argued, based largely on Olga Ivinskaya, the author’s secret mistress and literary muse. Research by Anna Pasternak for her book Lara: The Untold Love Story and the Inspiration for Doctor Zhivago, published by Harper Collins, traced previous generations of her family, including finding and interviewing Ivinskaya’s daughter Irina.

But in 2019 the publisher Penguin Random House brought out a new piece of American historical fiction that used the Cold War response to the publication of Dr Zhivago as part of its narrative. This book, The Secrets We Kept, tells how the CIA smuggled copies of Boris Pasternak’s romantic novel into the Soviet Union after the communist regime banned it. The plot describes how American agents distributed Russian language copies throughout Soviet territory because it was critical of the revolutionary zeal that swept through Russia early in the 20th century. Alongside its political themes, the new American novel features sex scenes involving Ivinskaya which have upset members of the Pasternak family.

According to Anna Pasternak, passages of her non-fiction study have been used to anchor the American novel, which, confusingly, is written by a woman also called Lara – Lara Prescott.

The 54-year-old British author has claimed that Prescott failed to properly acknowledge the use of her work and that she initially apologised for the “oversight”, offering to “buy her a drink”. It is understood that Pasternak has also claimed that when she met Prescott at the London Book Fair in 2019 she was thanked with the words: “Your book was an invaluable resource. I couldn’t have written my book without it. I based the whole Boris and Olga story on it.”

Pasternak is now hoping a legal decision this summer in the high court will help clarify just how much historical research can be reused by a novelist in a fictionalised account and when it might be considered to amount to literary plagiarism. There is a real need, she has suggested, for establishing a new “Lara’s law” in precedent. As it stands, intellectual property law offers little guidance to the rules that should govern historical fiction.

But Prescott, who lives in New Hampshire, claims her own book is also the result of painstaking original endeavour. In a statement to the Observer, she said: “These allegations are meritless and opportunistic. The Secrets We Kept is my original work and the result of years of research, writing and editing. I’m grateful to Penguin Random House for its support. I’m looking forward to having this experience behind me so that I can focus on what really matters in my life: writing my second novel and being a good mother to my two-year-old son.”

Prescott’s novel was published in a $2.5m (£2m) two-book deal and the film rights were sold. Her publisher has taken over the defence, as costs have been predicted to rise into the millions.

“Lara Prescott has created an original work of fiction from her own historical research and creative ideas,” a statement from her publisher said this weekend. “The claim against her is in our view unfounded and without merit. Penguin Random House UK has a long and proud history of supporting its authors and we have no hesitation in standing behind Ms Prescott.”

Anna Pasternak, on the other hand, is thought to have received the support of anonymous backers to help her through the case. The original Russian novel and the film released 57 years ago have left a lasting cultural impact, with the haunting Lara’s Theme remaining one of the most popular pieces of film music of all time. But perhaps Lara’s law will be its new literary legacy.

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