Undying Love

updated 12/02/1996 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/02/1996 01:00AM

THE LETTERS ARE WRITTEN IN pencil, in a sweeping script that soars across yellowed pages, expressing words of love from a man to his "treasure," his "precious girl." In one he writes, "I am bound to you by life, by the sun shining through my window." In others he signs off as "Your B."

The paper is fading, but the sentiments bring to vivid life one of the great romances of the 20th century, between Russia's celebrated poet Boris Pasternak and his longtime mistress Olga Ivinskaya, the model for the Julie Christie character, Lara, in the 1965 film version of Pasternak's Nobel Prize-winning novel, Doctor Zhivago. The 22 letters, written in the last three years of Pasternak's life—he died of lung cancer in 1960—are part of a cache of his notes and manuscripts set to be auctioned on Nov. 27 at Christie's in London. The material is expected to fetch at least $750,000.

"It was a dramatic affair, and the letters were produced in dramatic circumstances," says Pasternak scholar Christopher Barnes of the collection put on the block by anonymous relatives of Ivinskaya, who died last year. "Anybody who owns them or can afford to buy them will be sitting on a treasure."

Pasternak had already begun his novel of revolutionary Russia when he met Ivinskaya, 34—22 years his junior—while she was working for a Moscow literary journal in 1946. Each had been married twice and had two children. After succumbing to his persistent wooing, Ivinskaya "reigned as empress of his heart," wrote Pasternak biographer, Ronald Hingley, even though Pasternak never left his second wife, Zinaida Nikolaevna.

Ivinskaya would pay dearly for being mistress and muse to Pasternak, an opponent of the Stalinist state. In 1949, pregnant with Pasternak's child, she was imprisoned because of her association with him and suffered a miscarriage Even after Pasternak's death, his beloved "Oliusha" was sentenced to a labor camp for eight years. Unbowed, she wrote A Captive of Time, the story of her life with Pasternak, which was not published until 1978.

The couple's enduring passion remains in their letters, many of which were written while a vulnerable Pasternak was being treated for a heart condition and during his final bout with lung cancer. "I am with you all day long," reads one letter. "I feel you are so much part of me, it's like writing letters to myself." In another he wrote, "I hold you terribly, terribly close to me, and almost faint from tenderness, and nearly weep."

Ivinskaya died in Moscow. She was 83. Financial hardship had forced her to sell some of the cherished letters from Pasternak, but she kept those that were dearest to her. Hingley says Olga always sought to "portray herself to posterity as the great inspirer and love of his life." These poignant postscripts to a grand and tragic affair support that claim.

ALEX TRESNIOWSKI
MOIRA BAILEY in London

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