US Novelist 'copied work of Boris Pasternak's great niece 44 times'

US novelist Lara Prescott copied work of Boris Pasternak’s great-niece Anna at least 44 times for book about Dr Zhivago, £2m High Court plagiarism trial hears

  • Lara Prescott published her best selling book – The Secrets We Kept – in 2019 
  • But Anna Pasternak believes large parts were lifted from biography she wrote
  • 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 

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

A US novelist embroiled in a £2million plagiarism lawsuit copied the work of Boris Pasternak’s great niece at least 44 times, the High Court was told today.

British journalist Anna Pasternak is suing Lara Prescott over claims she stole important parts of a book she wrote about her Russian poet uncle’s iconic novel – Dr Zhivago – from her biography.

Ms Prescott wrote the 2019 bestseller The Secrets We Kept by taking parts of Ms Pasternak’s work Lara: The Untold Love Story And The Inspiration For Doctor Zhivago, it is alleged. 

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

The character of Lara Antipova – who Ms Prescott is named after – is widely believed to be inspired by Pasternak’s mistress and literary muse, Olga Ivinskaya.

Both Ms Pasternak’s and Ms Prescott’s works 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 of the memoirs and alleges Ms Prescott infringed copyright by taking translated passages from ‘Lara’ and using them in her own work. 

Ms Pasternak’s work set out her theory that mistress Olga Ivinskaya was the real-life inspiration behind Lara Antipova.

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 accepts some copying but denies it is ‘substantial’.

Ms Pasternak and Ms Prescott have only met once before, at a drinks party hosted by the latter’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, with closing arguments taking place today. 

In his closing speech, Nicholas Caddick, QC, for Ms Pasternak, told the court in central London that ‘one got the idea’ that Ms Prescott looked at the ‘Lara’ book on ‘a reasonably frequent basis’ and that it was ‘more than just a secondary source.’

He said it was ‘inevitable’ that Ms Prescott would change her ‘original position that it was just four words, one concept and one phrase’ that she had copied, ‘given the evidence we have now seen.’

He said: ‘Her own disclosure clearly shows far more extensive use than her defence would have us believe. I have identified in my closing some 44 examples of copying.

Anna Pasternak (pictured leaving court earlier this year) is suing US novelist Lara Prescott over claims she stole important parts of a book she wrote about her Russian poet uncle’s iconic novel – Dr Zhivago – from her own biography

‘It does beg the question of why was this only dragged out of the defendant post-disclosure and in the witness box, and that is important because this case turns on the credibility of where did the defendant get her information and structure from.

‘Essentially, she has copied it from somewhere, and the issue for the court is did she copy it from ‘A Captive of Time’ [Ivinskaya’s memoires] and ‘The Zhivago Affair’ principally…and did she then just use ‘Lara’ as a cross-check or is it really the opposite and did she use ‘Lara’ as the main thing and the others as a cross-check.

‘We, of course, say it is the latter.’ 

Mr Caddick said Ms Prescott had the other sources ‘for a long time’ while writing her book, but alleged that there was a ‘sudden outburst of activity and output in the very time she had ‘Lara’ in front of her’, mainly between October 2016 and January 2017.

Ms Pasternak does not claim Ms Prescott copied the text of her work, but the structure and arrangement of information and facts – so-called ‘linguistic copying’.

Mr Caddick continued: ‘If the defendant is looking carefully enough at the text of ‘Lara’ to copy it, then it is likely, we say, that she is also looking at ‘Lara’ for the arrangement of material.

‘Regarding the writing process itself, in this regard it’s funny – you often sort of wonder whether the parties are talking about the same case sometimes.

‘It’s the defence’s submission that the defendant is a careful and meticulous writer, whereas the claimant a collatorist.’

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

Lara Prescott told the High Court last week that she now ‘wishes she had never written’ her bestselling book about the inspiration behind Dr Zhivago due to the stress of being sued by its author Boris Pasternak’s great niece Anna. 

Anna claims the US journalist copied sections from her own biography about her late and great relative. 

But in the witness box, 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.

‘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’.

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.’

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.’

In her own evidence, Ms Pasternak denied the defence’s insinuation that she herself was a ‘mere copyist’ and that her work was not original.

Her lawyer Mr Caddick said that the fact that ‘Lara’ took just over four months to write does not ‘suggest a lack of originality or a low level of originality as a result.’

‘The claimant is writing a history book, relying on sources. It’s not her role to invent much, to do so would mean she wasn’t writing a history book; she’d be writing fiction,’ he said. 

‘One of the reasons she’s been able to write this book in such a short time [is that] she’s been working in this industry for 26 years and she’s writing about something which is of deep interest to her.

‘The fact she did this in four months isn’t a basis on which to conclude she is a plagiarist with a low level of originality.

‘The defendant is, in effect, a novice writer. This is her first book. It didn’t take her years to write this book because she’s been meticulous.

‘Yes, she did a huge amount of work. She says she relied on numerous sources…but, as she admitted in cross-examination, she doesn’t have any notes on any of them, which is an extraordinary [thing] for a meticulous writer to do.

‘I would suggest that the story of sources is a bit of a smoke screen to hide the fact that the defendant is principally relying on very few sources and the question for the court today is which of those was uppermost in her mind when drafting those particular chapters.

‘The lack of notes, even of ‘A Captive of Time’ and ‘The Zhivago Affair’ – there’s no notes to remind you where things are – is important in this case because it suggests that what the defendant last read is likely to be the most influential.’

Mr Caddick said Ms Prescott took her selection of material directly from ‘Lara’. 

‘All of these chapters we are now concerned with were essentially written in that period where the defendant acquired a copy of ‘Lara,’ he said.

‘Other than a few presentational changes made afterwards…there’s remarkably few changes to the selection of events.

‘So, the fact those events came into the defendant’s book at that time is of importance.

‘In that period, between October 2016 and January 2017, the defendant accepted that she hadn’t consulted any other relevant resource for these matters.

‘She might have read an article, I think was her comment, but she was unable to identify it.

‘This is a time when she had ‘The Zhivago Affair’ for two-and-a-half years and she’s had ‘A Captive of Time’ for about a year.

‘As ‘Lara’ was the only new source she had in [the period she was writing], it is probable that ‘Lara’ was what she had in her mind at the time.’

Judge Edwin Johnson queried whether any writer, writing about factual historical events such as Olga’s imprisonment and interrogation, must write about those events in a defined order, the way they actually happened.

Mr Caddick said: ‘They may, they may not. They may describe what [Olga] had for dinner that night.

‘Those are all facts. What the claimant is claiming is protected is her selection of which facts to include.

‘My client can’t monopolise the individual facts, but if there’s artistic creation in gathering together a number of facts, then that collation can be protected.

‘We’re not trying to protect a fact, say that Olga discovers she’s pregnant, we’re trying to protect the collection of facts.’

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

The hearing continues, with the defence closing statements due this afternoon.

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