Zhivago’s great passion inspires plagiarism row

September 29, 2019
The novel by Lara Prescott, left, became a bestseller. Anna Pasternak’s book about her great-uncle’s muse was published in 2016

Boris Pasternak’s great-niece says parts of her book about the writer and his epic work have been copied by a novelist

More than 50 years after Omar Sharif and Julie Christie helped turn Dr Zhivago into one of Hollywood’s most memorable romances, Boris Pasternak’s epic tale of a doomed Russian love triangle has spawned a legal battle.

The late author’s great-niece, Anna Pasternak, has sent a legal letter to Lara Prescott, an American novelist who received a $2m advance for her fictionalised account of the CIA’s involvement in the publication of the original 1957 novel. The CIA smuggled copies of Dr Zhivago into Russia after it was banned by Soviet censors.

According to the lawyers, sections of Prescott’s bestselling novel, The Secrets We Kept, include “an astonishing number of substantial elements” copied from an Anna Pasternak book published three years ago. Pasternak’s non-fiction book was about Olga Ivinskaya, her great-uncle’s longtime mistress and muse and the inspiration for his character Lara, played by Christie in the 1965 film.

Pasternak claims that the similarities between her book and Prescott’s novel “exceed the mere inspiration a novelist may legitimately draw from a work of non-fiction”.

She alleges too that Prescott has misled the public by “passing off” her novel as the “untold story” of Ivinskaya.

Pasternak, who is seeking damages or compensation for the alleged infringement of copyright, published her memoir, Lara: The Untold Love Story and the Inspiration for Doctor Zhivago, to good reviews in 2016.

The two authors had been invited to discuss their books next Sunday at the Cheltenham literary festival, which is sponsored by this newspaper. But on Friday the festival’s website announced that the event, Dr Zhivago: Love and Secrets, had been cancelled because of “unforeseen circumstances”.

Pasternak said she had been aware for some time that Prescott was working on a novel about Dr Zhivago, and they had met last March to discuss the project. She said she had felt no reason to worry, because Prescott was writing what seemed to be a spy thriller very different from her biography.

The original manuscript of Dr Zhivago was smuggled out of Russia in 1956. It was published in Italy the following year, prompting the CIA to produce a clandestine Russian-language edition.

The Secrets We Kept was published this month to widespread acclaim. But Pasternak was contacted by an Irish reviewer who noticed striking similarities to her Lara book. She decided to commission an independent review of the texts and said she was “shocked” by the results.

Prescott and her publisher, Penguin Random House, said they considered the claim “unfounded”. A statement yesterday said Prescott’s novel would be “robustly defended” in any legal proceedings.


Pasternak’s book
“You have listened to the ‘voice of America’. You have slandered Soviet writers who had patriotic views and you have praised to the skies Pasternak’s work, a writer with anti-establishment opinions.”

“Boris was still unhappy. He hated the lack of privacy and the large panes of glass.”

“This book will take us down a spiral from which there will be no return.”

Prescott’s book
“You have listened to Voice of America. You have slandered Soviet writers with patriotic views and you have praised to the skies Pasternak’s work, a writer with anti-establishment opinions.”

“When Boris first saw the cottage, he scolded me, saying a glass house offered no privacy.”

“’The book was going to take us down a spiral,’ wrote Irina.”

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