Book Review: "The Zhivago Affair" by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée
5/5 - the most dangerous time in Russian literary history...
“The roof over the whole of Russia has been torn off.” The quotation at the beginning of chapter one, just after a powerful prologue, is something of pure beauty as it puts the reader within the time from of Boris Pasternak as a young man growing up in the midst of the Russian Revolution. The writer of great books would go on to bear witness to some of the most challenging times in Russian History including the regimes of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. This book covers his persecution at the hands of the Soviets due to the book that most consider to be the most dangerous book ever written in 20th century Russia - “Dr. Zhivago”.
The book begins with telling us a little bit about the subject at hand - the composition and the man behind “Dr. Zhivago”, looking at the way it was influenced by the world around him and in reality, who he was in difference to the myths that have been told about him over the years. I think that in many cases, a prologue is not really needed but in this book it definitely helps if you read it thoroughly. The book will come back to reference the prologue and so, I highly suggest that those of you who don’t read prologues (yes, I know you’re out there) change that for this book.
Within the beginning, we get the way in which Boris Pasternak had an impression on others. We get the ways in which Pasternak did not obey the regime like the author Maxim Gorky, who is considered the most Soviet writer in Russian History. Marina Tsvetaeva, the poet, is also covered. She remembers writing about how Pasternak looked in comparison to other Russians and how he almost had an eastern quality about him. It is useful in order to give Boris Pasternak a face of someone who is considered to be a literary rebel. Later on, the book discusses how Boris Pasternak chose to go with publication after speaking with people in Berlin, against the wishes of the Soviet Regime and the KGB. He was ‘prepared to suffer’. And I think those were the words that really stuck with me. He did not care if his book angered many people who were trying to censor life itself - he wanted that book published and I think that “Dr. Zhivago” has certainly made the world a better place having read it myself years ago. I cannot imagine life without it now.
When we hear that Boris Pasternak has received the Nobel Prize in 1958, we see this crowd of journalists just descend upon him, asking him how he feels. And stating he feels great about it, he is later told that it is neither political and neither is it for “Dr. Zhivago” (but in reality, everyone in Switzerland knew that it was - they just did not want to say it in Russia). I think that this part is especially well written because by now, we can really see the state of Boris Pasternak’s life, living in exile in his own country as a man who rebelled against a system built on injustice shadowed in the myth of equality.
All in all, I would recommend reading this if you have read “Dr. Zhivago” and of course, you will understand it more therefore. But if you have not then I would suggest reading the source text first and then reading “The Zhivago Affair” because it would make the reading experience a whole lot better. I thought that this was a wonderful book that covers a lot of what we do not realise about the publication of books in a time of great political turmoil. It makes us appreciate our own freedoms when it comes to speech, publications, ideas and justice.