“I want to read something non-fiction but not like, with history or presidents or anything”: on The Zhivago Affair



Non-fiction is a tricky business, isn’t it? Most people avoid it altogether or if they are reading non-fiction titles they’re going for true crime or Kim Kardashian biographies (not sure if that’s a thing but I bet it would be a best-seller). As I was reading The Zhivago affair: the Kremlin, the CIA, and the battle over a forbidden book this week I came across the quote I’ve used to title this blog post (not in the aforementioned book, I probably saw it on Buzzfeed).

Look at the photo above this post: sitting out in the sun, a cocktail just out of frame, I’m having a splendid summer afternoon engrossed in a book that is non-fiction and includes history and presidents and stuff. I didn’t choose The Zhivago affair because I’m a history buff or to look smart on the subway (well maybe a little); I chose it because this is compelling reading. You want to know the best thing about good non-fiction? No one could ever make this stuff up.

I used this advice when recommending The empathy exams but I think it will be valuable here as well. If you’re ever wavering about whether or not a non-fiction title will be worth your time just pretend it is fiction. If you can’t bring yourself to wonder at how crazy our world is, then wonder at the crazy imagination of the writer.

Peter Finn and Petra Couvee did an extraordinary amount of research to prepare this book but let’s pretend they didn’t. Let’s pretend they made this shit up and let’s marvel at their story line.

1) Their hero Pasternak is married his whole life but also publicly supports his mistress’s family. Pasternak’s publisher defers to the mistress, not the wife, when it comes to business affairs. Love triangle; how saucy.

2) Pasternak is expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers by his peers. His novel Dr. Zhivago is rejected for publication in the Soviet Union, allegedly because of lack of literary merit. Envy! Intrigue!

3) The CIA runs a publishing house and secretly publishes an edition of Dr. Zhivago in Russian. They distribute the novel at the World’s Fair in Brussels to undermine the communist regime. Wrap your head around that. In the world that Finn and Couvee have imagined, an American spy agency is battling foreign enemies by publishing works of literary genius and trying to get lots of people to read them.

4) There’a a bit with a bunch of money smuggled in suitcases. Because that’s how poets and novelists roll in the fictional world written by Finn and Couvee.

5) The mistress ends up in a forced labour camp in northern Russia because that is a totally reasonable consequence for getting your swerve on with a Nobel prize winning writer.

You couldn’t make this stuff up but because it is about history and presidents and stuff it must be boring.





3 thoughts on ““I want to read something non-fiction but not like, with history or presidents or anything”: on The Zhivago Affair

  1. Ooh, cool, I didn’t know this book existed, but it looks cool. Dr. Zhivago is one of those books that I started a long time ago, got about halfway through, and then gave up because of all of those long Russian names. I had to study the life of Boris Pasternak for a class though so it’d be interesting to retouch the subject with this book.

    And by the way, the Kardashians may not have a biography (I have no idea) but they did write a book. I think it’s called Dollhouse.

    • I haven’t read Dr. Zhivago either but I’ve heard that in some more recent translations of the major Russian works they standardize the names to make thinks a bit easier. So you won’t have a character called Alexander on one page and Sasha on another etc etc. It makes things a lot easier!

      • Oh, that’s so wonderful. There’s this one character who had literally three different names, and I was just like ‘what is this madness?’. That would make it much easier to read.

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