Boris Pasternak's great-niece accused of copying other works in trial

Boris Pasternak’s great-niece Anna who accuses US novelist Lara Prescott of copying from her book about Dr Zhivago stole ‘lengthy passages’ of her own work from other sources, £2m plagiarism trial hears

  • Ms Prescott and Ms Pasternak both wrote novels about the author’s life and work
  • Ms Pasternak is suing the US novelist for £2 million over breach of copyright
  • Ms Prescott denies the allegations and wishes she had ‘never written’ her book
  • Her lawyer accused Ms Pasternak of copying ‘staggering’ amounts from others

A novelist in the midst of a £2 million plagiarism fight with a descendant of Dr Zhivago author Boris Pasternak has accused his great-niece of stealing ‘lengthy passages’ from other works.

Anna Pasternak, great niece of Pasternak, has sued US novelist Lara Prescott for £2 million over claims she stole important parts of a book she wrote about her uncle’s novel from her own biography.

Lara Prescott wrote the 2019 bestseller The Secrets We Kept by taking parts of Anna Pasternak’s work Lara: The Untold Love Story and the Inspiration for Doctor Zhivago, Ms Pasternak is claiming.

Both works are based on the story behind Dr Zhivago, Boris Pasternak’s most famous work and the subject of David Lean’s 1965 blockbuster of the same title, starring Julie Christie and Omar Sharif. 

Anna Pasternak (right) left court today appearing up-beat, despite allegations from defendant Lara Prescott that she copied other sources to write and publish her book

Lara Prescott wrote the 2019 bestseller The Secrets We Kept and is now working on a second novel – but she says the court case has caused her so much stress she may never write about real historical figures again

Omar Sharif and Julie Christie starred in the 1965 movie adaptation of Doctor Zhivago, directed by David Lean

Both Ms Pasternak’s and Ms Prescott’s works also rely on a part-translation of the memoirs of Irina Kosovi, Olga’s daughter.

In 2014, while writing her book, Ms Pasternak commissioned the translation and alleges Ms Prescott infringed copyright by taking translated passages from Lara and using them in her own work.

In her book, Ms Pasternak sets out her theory that Olga Ivinskaya, Boris Pasternak’s mistress and literary muse, was the real-life inspiration behind Lara Antipova, the central character in his much-loved novel. 

British journalist Anna Pasternak does not claim Prescott ‘textually copied’ her work but claims she took her selection and arrangement of material to be included and excluded in the story. 

Ms Prescott, who is named after Boris Pasternak’s heroine, accepts some copying from the Anna Pasternak book but denies it is ‘substantial.’ 

She says she now ‘wishes she had never written’ her bestselling book due to the stress of being sued. 

But in the witness box at the High Court, Ms Prescott accused her rival of herself having ‘copied and pasted’ sections of earlier books about her uncle for her own work, which Ms Prescott’s lawyers say contains a ‘staggering’ amount of ‘copying’.

Ms Prescott’s barrister Andrew Lykiardopoulos QC told Mr Justice Edwin Johnson that she has ‘enjoyed a lifetime fascination with Doctor Zhivago’.

‘I knew I was named after Lara, the character in the movie,’ she said in her evidence.

‘As a girl, my mother had loved David Lean’s film adaptation of Doctor Zhivago, as well as the book it was based on. 

‘As a child, I’d wind-up her musical jewellery box again and again to hear it play “Lara’s Theme” and watch the tiny ballerina inside slowly spin.’

She told the judge that publishing her novel was the ‘realisation of a lifelong dream’ but that the court case turned the success of her award-winning bestseller into a nightmare.

‘Today, I’m working on a second novel while being a first-time mother to a toddler during a pandemic. These allegations and this claim have been highly stressful, to say the least.

Laura Prescott says she sometimes regrets writing the bestseller because ‘the book and its success put me in her [Anna Pasternak, pictured] crosshairs’

‘Publishing The Secrets We Kept was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream and I’ve been very proud of it.

‘Still, at times, I wish I hadn’t written it.

‘Not because Anna Pasternak is right, but because the book and its success put me in her crosshairs. 

‘I’ve often thought that I’ll never write about real historical figures again.’

She added: ‘I felt such anger and sadness upon receiving these claims and threats. I couldn’t believe what was happening.’

Ms Prescott admits she read Ms Pasternak’s book and included it in the acknowledgements in her novel.

But she says she was already two years into the process of writing before she saw her rival’s book and denies its influence was ‘substantial.’

Instead, she claims that both she and Ms Pasternak relied on the same historical source material, including Olga Ivinskaya’s memoirs A Captive of Time, and The Pasternak Affair by Sergio D’Angelo.

Mr Lykiardopoulos told the judge it is ‘striking’ that ‘so much of the claimant’s work is itself copied from the earlier works’.

Dr Zhivago is Boris Pasternak’s most famous work and the subject of David Lean’s 1965 blockbuster of the same title, in which Lara is played by Julie Christie

Ms Pasternak’s book, Lara: The Untold Love Story and the Inspiration for Doctor Zhivago by Anna Pasternak, is a biography of Boris Pasternak and his mistress Olga Ivinskaya, who she claims is the inspiration for Lara in the classic 1957 novel

He went on to claim that 95% of the material put before the court as having been copied from her rival by Ms Prescott was in fact ‘lifted or merely minimally adapted from the source materials’ by Ms Pasternak.

‘The degree of the claimant’s own copying is staggering,’ he added.

Ms Prescott told the judge that ‘lengthy passages – some of which spanned pages – from these books seemed to have been copied and pasted into Lara.’

She told the judge that ‘she was excited’ when she first learned about Ms Pasternak’s book, claiming that she ‘did nothing wrong’ by ‘using it to obtain ideas or details’.

Mr Lykiardopoulos told the judge: ‘Copyright does not protect ideas. It only protects an author’s original expression of their ideas.

‘The defendant says the end result she produced is different from Lara and is expressed differently using the defendant’s own unique writing style and includes the defendant’s decisions as to what to include and how to include it.

‘Of course there are similarities. The similarities arise because both books detail the lives of real people… and both used the same principle sources for their material.’

Nicholas Caddick, QC, for Pasternak, put it to Prescott that many scenes in her work closely resembled those in Lara, Pasternak’s book.

According to Caddick, the details of these scenes were not in Prescott’s early drafts, before she read ‘Lara’.

Prescott told the court: ‘Some people take years to write novels, some people research for decades to write their book before they put pen to paper.

‘That does not mean the first thing they write, their very first draft, is going to resemble the last draft.

‘As you can see from my records, after I got ‘Lara’, I wrote for two more years.

‘Your assertion that everything changed because I got ‘Lara’… is out of context. I was still researching.’

Caddick highlighted a scene, present in both books, where Olga sees Boris read his poetry for the first time.

In Pasternak’s work, when Boris finishes his performance, the crowd surge forward and ‘engulf’ the stage.

In her own book, Prescott describes the crowd ‘surrounding’ the stage.

Caddick said Prescott amended the scene after reading Lara.

‘It’s the addition of the yelling out and the crowd rushing up and engulfing the stage.

‘The scene itself isn’t described in [the other sources], the idea that when he’s reading his poetry the crowd would yell out and complete his lines for him.

‘You added [this] to this scene very shortly after getting ‘Lara’, didn’t you?

‘At a time when ‘Lara’ was clearly in front of you, and fresh in your mind and you added it as a result of this.’

Prescott denied the allegation and told the court: ‘I wrote that the men surrounded Boris as he left the stage.’

She added: ‘I believe that in A Captive of Time [Ivinskaya’s memoirs] it says if he would pause, even for a second, the crowd would yell out the lines of the poetry that come next and it was said that he was so overcome with emotion that the large surging crowds at the height of his popularity would do that.’

Prescott continued: ‘If you’re asking me if I had Lara open in front of me, I did not. I don’t write like that. I wasn’t writing with the books open in front of me.’

In her witness statement, Prescott wrote: ‘I remember hoping there’d be more original content and analysis about Olga [in Lara] – things I hadn’t already read in other books.

‘There was some new information, but I’d hoped it might contain a treasure trove of historical factual details from the Pasternak family and remember being disappointed that it didn’t.’

In her evidence, Anna Pasternak denied being a ‘mere copyist’.

She told the court: ‘You are trying to suggest that I have somehow copied something, that I am a mere copyist, and I am saying no, I absolutely categorically am not.’

Pasternak and Prescott have only met once before, at a drinks party hosted by Prescott’s agents in 2019.

Initially there was some suggestion the two would collaborate on some publicity events, but three months later tensions arose over the acknowledgements in Prescott’s book, eventually culminating in legal action being brought.

In her statement, Prescott said the ‘whole affair’ had been a ‘major hardship’ and had ‘stalled [her] budding career’.

Dr Zhivago is Boris Pasternak’s most famous work and the subject of David Lean’s 1965 blockbuster of the same title, in which Lara is played by Julie Christie.

The novel follows the love story of two main characters, Yuri Zhivago and Lara Antipova, during the Russian Revolution and First World War.

The hearing continues.

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