It's marvelous to find a fascinating story, then dig deeper and find a fascinating story behind that, and dig deeper yet and still be fascinated. This is one of those stories.

Few tales have been more intriguing, heartbreaking and compelling than that of Yuri Zhivago and Lara Guishar, navigating love, poverty, idealism and the fading of their humanity during the Russian Revolution. The book, of course, is Boris Pasternak's classic, controversial novel Doctor Zhivago. Some call it a love story, but that classification is far too simple for a novel of this scope. With themes of loss, disillusionment, and estrangement from one's home, country and beliefs, the story includes love, but is far from limited by it.

AbeBooks recently sold an original, Russian-language copy of the novel for US$11,000 (£7,500). From the bookseller's description: "Original blue cloth. The true first edition in Russian, one of 1,160 copies, which was printed as part of a covert CIA publishing and propaganda program for distributing banned material to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe."

How could we not delve further into that story? And so we researched, and dug, and dug some more, and discovered something unusual and fantastic - the tale of how Doctor Zhivago came to be was even more compelling than the book itself, and a very close call. There were forces working to prevent the book's publication. Fortunately, there were forces working harder on the other side.

Pasternak wrote Doctor Zhivago in the early 20th century, but the novel didn't see the light of day until 1957, when it was met with wildly divergent opinions from critics. Literary reviews ran the gamut from negative - trite, unbelievable and overwrought - all the way to overwhelmingly positive - landmark, revolutionary and important. Regardless, Boris Pasternak was awarded the 1958 Nobel Prize for Literature a year after its publication, and the novel went on to be adapted into a 1965 film, which won five Academy Awards. As of 2014, the film, starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, remained the eighth highest-grossing movie of all time, accounting for inflationary adjustments.

The most interesting part of Doctor Zhivago, however, is not necessarily the book itself, but the story of how it came to be published in the first place. It is a tangled story which is outlined in great detail in the book Inside the Zhivago Storm: The Editiorial Adventures of Pasternak's Masterpiece, and worth investigation. After all, its publication has been called the greatest literary event of postwar Russia - and it was never published in Russia at all until 1988, more than three decades after its Western release. We'll cover the basics here.

The climate in which Doctor Zhivago came to be was the post-Stalin Soviet Union, when the remnants of Stalinism hung heavy in the air. Russia was a vast country buzzing with constant clashes between political modernists who sought to bring the nation forward, and traditionalists who staunchly resisted progress. Pasternak was renowned in Russia for his poetry long before anyone knew of Doctor Zhivago. As a poet and humanist, he could not stomach the harsh decrees of Stalinism and its refusal to acknowledge the importance of art, romance and culture, not to mention the rights of people as individuals, rather than just cogs for the greater good. Doctor Zhivago reflected that sentiment, and offered perhaps-too-keen insights into Soviet society, and as a result, earned criticism from censors, who blocked its publication in Russia and even had Pasternak expelled from the Soviet Writers' Union.

Enter an Italian publisher, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who, once having learned of the existence of Doctor Zhivago through his literature scout, felt a powerful responsibility to see it published. The original plan had been to simultaneously publish in Russia and Italy, but with the Russian publication blocked, Feltrinelli arranged for the manuscript to be smuggled out of Russia and into Milan, where he published an Italian translation of the book in November, 1957, despite attempts from the KGB (including communication, from Pasternak himself but written under force and duress, to halt publication). Eleven months later, over 1,000 copies were secretly published in the United States in the original Russian, after Dutch publisher Mouton was approached to handle the publication, with neither Feltrinelli's permission, nor his knowledge (though the book lists him as the publisher). Pasternak was irritated and disappointed, because the copy the CIA had published (and also presented to the Nobel Prize committee) was not complete in its editing and was full of errors. The publication occurred as part of a CIA plot to undermine the USSR. The CIA-Mouton editions were bound in nondescript, blue cloth covers, and the CIA surreptitiously distributed copies among Soviet visitors to Expo '58, the Brussels World's Fair. The rationale was that not only would the novel's content cause outrage among Soviet citizens, but that also seeds of doubt would be planted when it came to light that the government had refused to allow publication of a novel by Russia's most respected and celebrated writer. It was one of these original, covert copies that AbeBooks sold.

Nearly 100 CIA documents detailing the plan were declassified at last in April of 2014. More details on the fascinating story of the CIA's part in publishing Dr. Zhivago can be found in the 2015 book The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, The CIA and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee.

Right around the same time in 1958, Boris Pasternak was announced winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Sadly, intense pressure from the Communist Party (including threats of exile) resulted in Pasternak declining the prize, and he died two years later at age 70, of lung cancer. His family accepted the prize posthumously on his behalf in 1988.

 

Various Editions of Zhivago Throughout the Years

I Sotterranei (The Subterraneans) by Jack Kerouac 1986 Two-Volume by Easton Press

Bound in full red leather, using first translation from Russian to English by Manya Harari and Max Hayward

I Sotterranei (The Subterraneans) by Jack Kerouac 1958 Illustrated Edition by Pantheon Books

An attractive presentation of Zhivago, elaborately illustrated throughout by Alexander Alexeieff.

I Sotterranei (The Subterraneans) by Jack Kerouac 1965 Screenplay Adaptation by Collins & Harvill

The screenplay for David Lean’s film of Doctor Zhivago by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

I Sotterranei (The Subterraneans) by Jack Kerouac 1997 Edition by the Folio Society

Introduction by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Pictorial cover illustrated by Veronique Bour.

I Sotterranei (The Subterraneans) by Jack Kerouac 1958 Collins & Harvill Press Edition

English-language, complete with the rare Nobel Prize wraparound band.

 

And what of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, the Italian publisher responsible for the world's first familiarity with Doctor Zhivago? He was a man with an intriguing background, and the rare and dubious distinction of being both exceedingly wealthy, and an underground revolutionary fighting for the people. Feltrinelli was born in 1926 Milan into a highly influential Italian family. Feltrinelli's father died when he was nine; his mother was remarried five years later to Luigi Barzini, editor of the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. At the insistence of his mother, Feltrinelli was not only enrolled in the Italian Fascist Youth Movement, but also crowned the Marquess of Gargnano at the age of 12, by none other than Benito Mussolini.

Despite (or perhaps because of) his own wealth and station, Feltrinelli became aware of and interested in the differences between the classes, and the experiences of the poor. Having discussed the matters at length with servants of his family, he came to believe that capitalism was an unfair and untenable system, designed to keep poor people downtrodden and dependent. His own childhood, though lacking in nothing material, was very much wanting in love, and he suffered the terrible loneliness of an unhappy upbringing, which money did nothing to fix. Feltrinelli enrolled in the Italian Communist Party during the Second World War and ardently fought to free Italy from the fascist regime headed by Mussolini, whose favor he had received years before.

When he reached the age of adulthood in 1947, Feltrinelli inherited the bulk of his late father's estate, including control of an Italian bank. In 1948, he created a library in Milan, devoted to the preservation and documentation of the labour and socialist party movements and progress in Italy. That library became part of the Feltrinelli foundation and now boasts a collection of well over 100,000 works detailing socialist history.

Whether he was inspired by his stepfather's newspaper is uncertain, but Feltrinelli founded his own publishing house, Feltrinelli Editore, in 1954. The very first volume he published was the autobiography of Jawarhalal Nehru, India's prime minister at the time. Just a couple of years later, Feltrinelli was introduced to Doctor Zhivago and became determined the book should reach its readership.

Possibly, Feltrinelli not only thought the book important for its criticism of what he saw as a broken system, but also related to the experiences of the titular character. Yuriy Zhivago was a physician from a background of privilege, who through the course of the book becomes increasingly disillusioned in the state of the world and politics around him, developing his own identity and distancing himself from his upbringing. Feltrinelli himself was a wealthy, respected and successful publisher in Italy, who throughout his life, saw what went on around him and became unable to complacently accept the status quo. He grew increasingly left-wing in heart, in word, and eventually, in deed.

In 1958, Feltrinelli met a German photographer by the name of Inge Schoenthal. Schoenthal's own career and life story were riveting and full of excitement: in her work and travels as a photographer, she had occasion to photograph John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, Greta Garbo, Ernest Hemingway (in fact, she took a quite well-known shot of Hemingway passed-out drunk on the floor one afternoon in Cuba in 1953), Allen Ginsberg, Pablo Picasso, Simone de Beauvoir, Fidel Castro, Gunter Grass, Nadine Gordimer and more. A compendium of her photographs (rough translation of the title: "Conquer the World with Photos") was published in 2013.

Giangiacomo and Inge fell in love, were married in 1960, and had a son, Carlo Fitzgerald Feltrinelli, in 1962. Inge retired from the photography business to pursue her other passion: books and publishing. She quickly became an integral part of publishing house, as head of the firm's international relations. As her husband descended further into political fervor over the years, she eventually became the head of the entire publishing house.

In the 1960s, Feltrinelli began to pursue his underground interests in earnest, becoming increasingly devoted to the downfall of capitalism and the protection and promotion of the working class. He used money from his amassed fortune to fund radical leftist guerilla sects. His zeal for politics and resultant distancing from the publishing house put strain on the marriage. In 1969, as he sought to become involved in more revolutionary, dangerous and necessarily secret political activities, Feltrinelli appointed his wife as vice-president of the company, remaining at the helm as a figurehead only. Inge disapproved of and disliked Giangiacomo's clandestine activities, but nevertheless agreed to take over the firm, which had become her passion. The couple split later that year.

In 1972, just three years after Inge Feltrinelli became the head of the publishing house, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli died. His body was found badly burned and mutilated at the foot of an electrical tower in Milan. The identity papers he carried with him were false, and the reports were initially stories of the body of "a terrorist", without realising it was that of Feltrinelli, one of the era's great intellectuals, revolutionaries and contradictions.

While Feltrinelli's death was ruled accidental - the official story was that he climbed to the top of the electrical tower with dynamite in an attempt to sabotage communications, and clumsily blew himself up - there has always been much outcry at the notion, and suspicion of foul play abounded then and now. Speculation ran the gamut from betrayal to a murder and cover-up by the KGB and more. Much more detail about Feltrinelli's life and death can be found in the book Feltrinelli: A Story of Riches, Revolution, and Violent Death by Carlo Feltrinelli.

Giangiacomo Feltrinelli's funeral was attended by ~8,000 mourners and guests, and nearly as many carabanieri - Italian military police. There were helicopters patrolling the service, and the crowd was full of chanting and shouting, promises of revenge for "Comrade Feltrinelli". He was just 44 years old at the time of his death. The publishing company is still alive and well and can be found online at http://www.lafeltrinelli.it. Inge Feltrinelli took over as president when Giangiacomo died, and now in her eighties, still oversees the firm with her son, Carlo.

To this day, Doctor Zhivago remains the publishing house's #1 global bestseller.


 

Would you call Dr. Zhivago the greatest novel of the 20th century? If not, what?