Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Zhivago Affair

I am a sucker for Soviet Russian history. The Cold War. Guys in red uniforms (my loves for Mounties and the red army undoubtedly are linked. Mmmm...Cossacks). A country with a cultural history of lauding writers even while oppressing thought. This is my golden age of history. You bet I was eager to read The Zhivago Affair.

What I knew before reading the book: Boris Pasternak wrote only one novel, Doctor Zhivago, which was made into a pretty good movie with a soundtrack that sticks in your head. Pasternak was a poet. He won the Nobel Prize. He didn't accept it. I knew that the early translation of Doctor Zhivago wasn't great because I sold the new translation a few years ago and we were told that the early translation wasn't great. Holy cow, though, there's so much more to this story.
Boris Pasternak on
the cover of Time

In The Zhivago Affair, authors Peter Finn and Petra Couvee dig into the history of Pasternak, the novel, and how it came to be. Pasternak was the biggest writer of his era in Russia, a celebrity whose prestige earned him sweet housing from the communist regime. He started writing a novel set during the Russian Revolution, and as he wrote it, he gave readings at parties. People knew that the book existed. Some of those people, though, were Communist Party members who worried that the book was subversive and anticommunist. The Soviets never hesitated to smack down free expression that wasn't pro-Revolution. So here is the greatest writer in the largest country in the world and he can't publish his book. Enter the CIA.

The CIA edition of the novel,
published in Europe and
smuggled back into the USSR.
Peter Finn and Petra Couvee utilized previously sealed documents to tell the story of Doctor Zhivago's publication. His Italian publisher smuggled the manuscript out of Russia. The CIA, seeing an opportunity to strike a cultural blow to the Soviet Union, worked to publish copies in Russian and then worldwide. As Doctor Zhivago jumped to the top of the US bestseller lists, Russians couldn't read it. Then some Russians attended the World's Fair, where they left to return home with black market, free copies of Doctor Zhivago tucked in their luggage. The hottest book in Soviet Russia wasn't even available technically.

The Zhivago Affair is a great cultural history of Russia, a fascinating biography of Pasternak (wife, mistress, writing career, and death), and espionage thriller too good to be true...except that it is. If you are a Liz-esque nerd, here's what you do:
Read this translation of
Doctor Zhivago

Step One: Read Doctor Zhivago. I'd give you a pass and say watch the movie, but A) that soundtrack will get stuck in your head, and B) you need to buy the book so I can stay employed. If you already have read the book or seen the movie, proceed to the next step.

Step Two: Read The Zhivago Affair. Go ahead and imagine Boris Pasternak dressed in a red uniform. That adds to the experience (Fifty Shades of Grey my ass. Fifty Shades of RED. Mmmmm.)

Step Three: Read Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan. This novel plays with the cultural manipulation at play during the Cold War and is a good literary thriller from a Booker Prize-winning author with a new book out this fall.

Step Four: Add The Children Act by Ian McEwan to your list of fall books to buy when they are released. You'll be hearing more about it later (unless you're smart enough to quit reading this blog).

Step Five: Read Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore. It's a great history of Stalin's dictatorship, isn't at all dry, and really gives a sense of what life inside the Soviet Union was like.

Step Six: Read Alice Munro. She won the Nobel Prize. Boris Pasternak won the Nobel Prize. Read all of the Nobel Prize winners.

Post photographic proof that you've completed all six steps to our Facebook page and Gianna will bake you cookies. Cookies...that look like Stalin!

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