The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle over a Forbidden Book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee

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The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle over a Forbidden Book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee

Category: Biography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: What I seek in non-fiction reading – a story you knew nothing of, told in a way you can't imagine improving, and with an expertise you can't see other authors bettering.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: July 2015
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9780099581345

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One of the many things to come out of this incredibly clear and readable book is that we Brits, for all our literary heritage, have got nothing like an equivalent to Boris Pasternak. He or she would have to sell like Rowling, regularly capture the enjoyment and spirit of the nation a la Danny Boyle's Olympics ceremonies, and at the same time have the cultural heft of Larkin, Rushdie, Graham Greene and more combined. Someone connected with choosing recipients of the Nobel Prize declare him here to be the Soviet TS Eliot, but that's nothing like. So the reader probably has to stretch herself to see someone so well-respected and well-loved for his verse, who spent twelve years and more on a huge, society-defining novel, only for the country to nix every plan to get it published.

Pasternak had an edgy, touchy relationship with that country, it has to be said. Again you have to empathise with a world where authors are unionised as a matter of routine, which makes censorship, control and mastery – and of course adulation by association – all easier to be handled. Often here Pasternak says or does something against the Soviet thinking, acting for himself, going his own way regardless. But only when the burgeoning novel, Doctor Zhivago, proves to be reactionary in its attitude to looking back on the 1917 Revolutions, does he try and pull back and protect those (wife, children, lover) who might face collateral damage if he proves to be too inflammatory. Still it ended up abroad, and published by an Italian Communist before the Soviets ever gave a light, either red or green, about its release. And with the authorities still dithering, stifling and moaning about the book, it befell to a completely different source for the Soviet citizens to get their copy – the CIA.

It was this factor of this book that I remembered from the press when it first came out in hardback, in 2014. And it is a newsworthy story, how a campaign by the Americans to infringe on the Communist society by infiltrating it with relevant texts, like Doctor Zhivago and George Orwell, was funded discretely and was an actual success, with the likes of the Vatican City presence at the Brussels Expo being a way to smuggle the books in. But by concentrating on that element of this story, newly declassified CIA archives and more regardless – and it's clear the authors, the publishers and the publicity people want to – the book in hand here is actually underserved.

I would go as far as to say it's entirely mis-classified. I would never flag it up as Literature/History, for to me what we have is a different kind of story. It's a biography, and a very good one – and while it only really covers the last twenty years of Pasternak, it could be called if anything the biography of a book. Here in incredible detail, which in these authors' hands always feels like the right amount of detail, and the story something we should always be interested in, we see the nature of Doctor Zhivago 's author, the troubles he had when the book was on its way around the world, the high drama of whether he would/could validly collect a Nobel Prize or not, and more.

Pasternak the man deserves a forensic look such as this. Russia had already had their Shakespeare figure – he's Pushkin, I'd guess. And like I say, few are the equivalents to Pasternak, so it's books like these that show us what we're missing, and how important these 20th Century figures still are. While it didn't exactly persuade me to take the plunge and read all 700+ pages of his novel (or even to watch the movie), this volume certainly made me happy to know a lot more about it than I did beforehand. And trust me, there is a lot more story here than just the CIA purloining it for propaganda, and sending it back to its origin country in a coals-to-Newcastle manner. This volume has all the academic would need – the notes etc are definitely copious – but the value of it as entertainment was shown by how tiny the print is and yet how quickly I read it. It's very, very enjoyable, eye-opening, and really is a sterling, entertaining effort.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

For some background reading featuring several of the characters in this drama, we can point you to Enlightening: Letters 1946 - 1960 by Isaiah Berlin.

Booklists.jpg The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle over a Forbidden Book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee is in the Top Ten History Books 2015.
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Buy The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle over a Forbidden Book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle over a Forbidden Book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee at Amazon.com.


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