The heroine of Dr. Zhivago takes center stage in plagiarism row | Boris Pasternak

Two authors will go head-to-head this week in London’s Supreme Court in a bitter literary plagiarism series that revolves around the love life of one of the most romantic of all heroines, Lara Antipova from the Russian epic dr. Zhivago

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

Lara’s enigmatic beauty is at the heart of Boris Pasternak’s 1957 story, and she was most notably played by Julie Christie in a much-loved David Lean film of the book. In 2016, Pasternak, a journalist and grandniece of Boris, released a book that pinpoints the real person behind Lara’s character.

She was, she claimed, 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 Zhivagoedited by Harper Collins, traced past generations of her family, including finding and interviewing Ivinskaya’s daughter Irina.

But in 2019, publisher Penguin Random House released a new piece of American historical fiction that depicts the Cold War’s response to the publication of dr. Zhivago as part of his story. 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 across Soviet territory as they criticized the revolutionary zeal that swept through Russia in the early 20th century. In addition to the political themes, the new American novel features sex scenes with Ivinskaya that upset members of the Pasternak family.

According to Anna Pasternak, passages from her nonfiction study have been used to anchor the American novel, which, confusingly, was written by a woman also known as 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 apologized for the “oblivion” and offered to “buy her a drink.” In written comments at a pre-trial hearing, Pasternak has also claimed that when she met Prescott at the 2019 London Book Fair, she was thanked, saying, “Your book was an invaluable resource. I wouldn’t have my book without it.” I based the whole story of Boris and Olga on it.”

Pasternak now hopes a legal decision in the Supreme Court this summer will help clarify how much historical research can be reused by a novelist in a fictional account and when it can be considered literary plagiarism. There’s a real need, she’s suggested, to set a new “Lara’s law” as precedent. As it stands, intellectual property law offers little guidance for the rules that apply to historical fiction.

Boris Pasternak with his mistress Olga Ivinskaya, believed to be the inspiration for Lara, and their daughter Irina.
Boris Pasternak with his mistress Olga Ivinskaya, believed to be the inspiration for Lara, and their daughter Irina. Photographer: Ullstein Bild/Getty

But Prescott, who lives in Texas, claims her own book is also the result of painstaking original effort. In a statement to the Observershe said: “These allegations are undeserved and opportunistic. The secrets we kept is my original work and the result of years of research, writing and editing. I am grateful to Penguin Random House for its support. I look 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 $2.5 million two-book deal and the film rights were sold. Her publisher has taken over the defense, as costs are expected to run into the millions.

“Lara Prescott has created an original work of fiction based on her own historical research and creative ideas,” said a statement from her publisher this weekend. “The claim against her is, in our opinion, unfounded and unfounded. Penguin Random House UK has a long and proud history of supporting the authors and we have no hesitation in standing behind Ms Prescott.”

Anna Pasternak, on the other hand, is said to have had the support of anonymous donors to help her through the case. The original Russian novel and film released 57 years ago made a lasting cultural impact, with the haunting Lara’s Theme remaining one of the most popular film scores of all time. But maybe Lara’s law will become the new literary legacy.

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