I had known about my uncle since my early childhood, because my mother (his sister) and my grandfather, the painter Leonid Pasternak, had told us all about their Russian family. We felt as close to them as to our Oxford cousins. But we couldn’t communicate with them, shut away behind the Iron Curtain. Telephoning was unthinkable, letters never got through, and only a very occasional telegram broke the silence, on important occasions such as a birth or death. We spoke Russian at home in Oxford, since my English doctor father was away during the war, and then my parents separated. Soon after that, my mother arranged for Pasternak to be added to our names by deed poll. I was rather proud of my exotic double surname.
Just after the end of the war, a returning diplomat brought a smuggled letter from Boris to my family. I remember my mother’s incredulous excitement and her breathless telephone call to her sister to announce it. Those rare letters – there were just three in 11 years – were thrilling events. In this one, Boris wrote that he was starting to write a novel about the revolution and its aftermath. “I should like,” he wrote, “to relate the main events, particularly in our country, in a prose … far simpler and more open than I have used so far. I have started on this, but it’s all so remote from what’s wanted from us here that it’s difficult …” In her reply, my mother also enclosed a letter to Boris from me, in the best Russian I could manage.
Another letter from him got through three years later, by which time the first half of Doctor Zhivago was written. Boris had never been popular with the Soviet authorities. His intensely personal writing, his utter indifference to party directives about what should and shouldn’t be written, his apolitical lyrical poems, had many times jeopardised his freedom and even his life. On one occasion he seems to have been saved by the fact that Stalin liked his poetry. And now he wrote: “Publishing [the novel] is absolutely out of the question, whether in the original or in translation. Both the spirit of the work itself, and my situation here, mean that it can’t appear in public.” There was also a message for me: “What a wonderful letter Nicky wrote me! Lyonia [his son] is delighted and is preparing to reply, but I think he’s dreaming of the time when he’ll be able to reply in English.”
Then came a gap of eight years when no letters got through at all. Finally, in 1956, when Stalin had died and chinks were appearing in the Iron Curtain, a letter from Boris arrived safely by ordinary post, full of incredulous joy at being able to communicate normally at last. And at the same time, another smuggled package, containing two fat volumes of bound typescript. Doctor Zhivago had arrived in England, brought over via diplomatic bag by our family friend, the philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin.
The typed pages were very hard to read. The typist had had to make six or more carbon copies at once, and this was one of the faintest. Other copies had already been smuggled to Italy, Poland and France, where they were being used to prepare translations; and our own copy soon disappeared from our house for the same reason. I barely had time to read the first chapter. Translated at great speed, the novel came out in English the following year and was an instant bestseller. (I remember my mother’s irritation at newspaper articles and reviews that lumped together Doctor Zhivago with another new and controversial Russian novel, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.)
When Boris Pasternak was awarded the Nobel prize in 1958, it unleashed a storm of vilification in the Soviet Union. For the Communist authorities, the novel was anathema. The tale of a man who grows up in pre-revolutionary Russia, living through the First World War, the revolution and the civil war, marrying and raising a son, then falling in love for a second time – it extolled the value of the individual over “society”, relating chaotic historical events from a personal viewpoint without a Marxist slant, and worst of all, it was imbued with a Christian ethic.
In response, the authorities organised mass meetings at which workers, writers and ordinary citizens (none of whom had ever seen the novel, and most of whom had never heard of Pasternak) were ordered to condemn him unanimously as a sordid traitor and to demand his arrest, imprisonment or exile. Letters from family members in Moscow told of their fear and distress, and also of their disagreements – Boris, encouraged by his lover Olga Ivinskaya, was now determined that his novel should appear all over the world and reach as many people as possible, while his wife Zina and his brother Alexander begged him to keep his head down.
By 1959, when I was still an undergraduate reading Russian at Oxford, Doctor Zhivago had appeared in the West in the original Russian as well. My Russian tutor at the time was Max Hayward, one of the English translators of the novel, and he and I had long discussions about it. What he did not tell me, though he must have known, was that the Russian text had been acquired by the CIA, which had a strong interest in getting it printed in the West, and smuggled to the Soviet Union by returning travellers to score a propaganda victory over the Soviet authorities who were still trying their hardest to prevent that. (The complex story of how and where the Russian text got printed, and which typescript was microfilmed for the purpose, is not yet fully known. It may even have been my mother’s volumes that were copied.)
In Oxford, my mother Lydia and her sister Josephine had to cope with newspaper reports of fresh threats and denunciations, and with English and foreign reporters desperate for a story from the horse’s mouth. It was an anguished time for the sisters, torn between delight at the novel’s success and dread of saying anything that might be quoted in Moscow and somehow harm their brother. For the most part, they avoided answering the telephone; instead, they would get my youngest sister Ann to take the calls and say “no comment”. At the age of 12, she really could have no comment to make.
Five years after Boris’s death, the film of Doctor Zhivago appeared, with Omar Sharif playing the title role and Julie Christie as Lara. My mother and I attended the premiere. It’s a spectacular production, and the love affair between Zhivago and Lara is unforgettable. But we both felt that the historical side was trivialised; and of course the character of Zhivago as a thinker and a poet, with considered views on the revolution, human dignity, art and religion, is skated over. As a “translation” of the novel, it’s a very one-sided one. Its success annoyed the Soviet authorities even more, but Boris was now beyond their reach.
With the passing of time, the name Doctor Zhivago in many people’s minds has come to mean the film rather than the book. That’s a shame – no film could have done justice to the book’s variety, the astounding natural descriptions, or the fascinating glimpses of private life in those fast-moving years of the early 20th century. All written by a man who never forgot he was a poet, even when writing prose. His text is rich, forceful and musical, in a way that neither of the two English translations in existence quite capture, so I resolved to translate it myself.
The original English translation, by Max Hayward with Manya Harari, was done under great pressure in 1957, when the novel was hot news and translations into Italian, French and English had to be rushed out. The story runs smoothly and fluently, but the original Russian is treated quite cavalierly. In many places, Hayward adds something of his own, or discards whole ideas, sometimes whole sentences, from the original text. Hayward liked a brisk, snappy pace, whereas Pasternak can often write long, involved and contemplative sentences. For instance, there’s a passage where Lara runs into the street carrying a revolver, looking for her seducer. She’s in such an emotional turmoil that she barely knows where she is or what she’s doing. In my new translation, it reads: “Not until she emerged into the street for the second time did Lara take a proper look around her. It was winter. This was the town. It was evening.” The abrupt sentences echo her dazed perceptions. Hayward, in his version, wastes the effect: “Only now, when she came out for the second time, did she take a look round her at the town and the winter night.”
In 2010, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky published a second translation, which – in reaction to the 1957 version – sticks extremely close to the Russian, faithfully matching the vocabulary and sentence structure. That may give a feel of what the Russian language is like, but it’s so different from normal English, so stilted, that it doesn’t read at all easily. For instance, when Zhivago is having a heart-to-heart talk with Lara, and mentions the name of Komarovsky – the man who seduced her in her teens – he asks her why she’s blushing. In Pevear and Volokhonsky, she replies: “From the sound of ‘Komarovsky’ on your lips. From the unwontedness and the unexpectedness.” That’s a cumbersome mouthful for a girl blurting out a spontaneous answer. In my version, she says: “It’s the sound of Komarovsky’s name when you say it. I’m not used to hearing that – it was unexpected.”
Boris wrote to my mother that a translation “must be in good, very simple language that sounds natural to an English ear and doesn’t draw attention to itself”. In an interview, talking about the translators of Doctor Zhivago, he said: “Do not blame them too much. It’s not their fault. They are used, like translators everywhere, to reproduce the literal sense rather than the tone of what is said – and, of course, it is the tone that matters.”
In the novel, he describes his hero Yuri Zhivago composing a poem, at the moment when he gets into the creative flow and language itself seems to take over. “Language … becomes music … Like the massive, rolling current of a river whose very movement polishes the stones on its bed and turns mill wheels as it passes, the flow of speech itself, through the force of its own laws, creates measure and rhyme …” A translator, too, has to strive for something like that.
The Daily Telegraph