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From the Writer’s Almanac

05 Sep
Boris Pasternak during the First Congress of S...

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It was on this day in 1958 that the novel Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak (books by this author), was published in the United States. Doctor Zhivago isset during the Russian Revolution and World War I, and it tells the story of Yuri Zhivago, a doctor and poet, and his love for a woman named Lara. Pasternak worked on his novel for decades, and finished it in 1956. He submitted the book for publication, but although Pasternak was a famous writer by then, his manuscript was rejected —the publishers explained that Doctor Zhivago was not in line with the spirit of the revolution, too concerned with individualism. An Italian journalist visited Pasternak at his country house and convinced the novelist to let him smuggle a copy of Doctor Zhivago out of the country to the leftist Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli.

Pasternak is said to have declared as he handed over the manuscript: “You are hereby invited to watch me face the firing squad!” He was not executed, but when the upcoming publication was announced in Italy, Soviet authorities were furious, and forced Pasternak to send Feltrinelli telegrams insisting that he halt publication of the novel. One of them said: “I have come to the profound conviction that what I wrote cannot be regarded as a finished work,” and in another Pasternak called his novel “in need of serious improvement.” But Feltrinelli was not fooled, and continued with publication.

Soon enough, Feltrinelli received a private, scribbled note from Pasternak begging him to continue. Pasternak wrote: “I wrote the novel to be published and read. That remains my only wish.” Feltrinelli published Doctor Zhivago, and helped get it published all over the world. The Soviet Union’s attempts to stop its publication only made it more interesting to readers. When it was first published in Italy in November of 1957, the first printing of 6,000 copies sold out within the first day.

Doctor Zhivago was published in the United States on this day in 1958, and even though it wasn’t published until September, it was the best-selling book of 1958. It quickly became a bestseller in 24 languages. Pasternak was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1958, and when he first head of the award, he sent a telegram to the Swedish Academy that said: “Immensely thankful, touched, proud, astonished, abashed.” Two days later, Soviet authorities forced him to write again, this time to say he would refuse the prize.

Pasternak died two years later, in 1960, and Doctor Zhivago was not published in the Soviet Union until 1988. Doctor Zhivago begins: “On they went, singing ‘Rest Eternal,’ and whenever they stopped, their feet, the horses, and the gusts of wind seemed to carry on their singing. Passers-by made way for the procession, counted the wreaths, and crossed themselves. Some joined in out of curiosity and asked: ‘Who is being buried?’—’Zhivago,’ they were told.—’Oh, I see. That’s what it is.’—’It isn’t him. It’s his wife.’—’Well, it comes to the same thing. May her soul rest in peace. It’s a fine funeral.'”

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Posted by on September 5, 2011 in Russian Literature

 

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