Milan, a hot morning in late May, 1956. Giangiacomo Feltrinelli is in his office at his newly-founded publishing house and is reading the Corriere della Sera. An article immediately catches his eye: “Work has begun on the Autostrada del Sole in the San Donato Milanese countryside …”. He smooths down his moustache, quickly adjusts his thick-framed glasses between his bushy eyebrows with his forefinger which then slips down to trace the words of the article as if he were afraid of losing the thread: “What will become the most modern and longest artery to swiftly connect the North and South in less than 8 years’ time …”. A motorway that will bring Italy’s cities closer together, an admirable project, he thinks. And then his mind wanders to his personal project, which is in some way more ambitious, namely to bring Italy closer to the rest of the world by culturally unprovincializing it.
He folds the paper and taking a drag on his cigarette wonders what Sergio d’Angelo is up to, the young man who works for Editori Riuniti who has been sent by the Communist Partyto the USSR to contribute to Radio Moscow. They met just a few days earlier in Rome at the Communist Party’s bookshop run by Sergio, sharing the same passion for politics and publishing. They get on famously, to the extent that Giangiacomo hasn’t thought twice of asking him to act as talent scout for his own publishing house.
Peredèlkino, twenty-five kilometres south of Moscow, not far from Vnùkovo airport the same morning in May, same year. Sergio d’Angelo has just got off the train at the small station of the so-called village of writers. He walks rapidly along the dirt roads that connect the various country houses immersed in the green landscape. He passes a small birch wood and excitement mounts when he catches sight of the house he is looking for. He goes up to the gate and in the garden there is a man in a jacket and rough canvas trousers pruning a plant with a pair of secateurs. It is the season for it.
“Boris Pasternak?” he enquires in a slight Italian accent. The man approaches the gate and nods, holding out his hand. A firm handshake marks the first form of contact between the two. He has been waiting for him, having made arrangements a few days earlier on the phone. They sit down on a wooden bench and after exchanging pleasantries Sergio gets down to the point. After all, he has come to the countryside from Moscow to talk about an unpublished novel and the opportunity to have it published by Feltrinelli. Pasternak agrees, the manuscript of the novel is finished and he knows that it will never be published in the USSR. The contents are political dynamite. However, he is glad to know that there is an Italian publisher who may be interested in the novel, provided that it is not only published in Italy. Angelo believes that this is certainly possible, or rather inevitable. This is what publishers do. They publish the book and then try to sell the copyright abroad. So, without further delay the writer gets up, goes into his house and comes out again with a parcel. He hands it over to his guest and briefly says: “This is Doctor Zhivago. Let him see the world!”.
West Berlin, Tempelhof airport, a few days later in the same year. The plane from Italy has just landed. On board there is Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who has flown to the German capital, ideologically but not yet physically split into two with brick and mortar, as soon as Sergio d’Angelo told him about the great literary work to be published. The talent scout has gone to collect him as the purpose of his visit is crucial. He has booked Feltrinelli a room in the same hotel where he is staying and where, for the moment, the manuscript of Doctor Zhivago is held in a suitcase that has passed unnoticed at both the Russian and East German customs. The two have not yet really realized the significance of the affair they have set in motion, but nevertheless they still feel a secret thrill at committing this kind of cultural espionage. It is warm in Berlin that afternoon in late May and Giangiacomo has draped his coat over his arm, whether because summer is coming or else because he feels tense. He is carrying a small bag as he is staying only a few days, just enough time to fetch the novel and while he is there, perhaps to spend the evening in a club in the capital. First, however, he wants to pass by the hotel in Kurfusterdamm Strasse to see his future for himself. When they reach d’Angelo’s room he can’t wait and asks for the manuscript. Despite not understanding a word of Cyrillic, he sits on the bed and excitedly leafs through the manuscript. Here lies the modern age, his breakthrough for his publishing house and Italian culture which is about to make that longed-for leap of opening up to the world. And it’s here on these pages.
He reaches for a cigarette in his pocket and then suddenly stops. This is an exceptional occasion and should be treated as such. He removes his hand from his pocket and reaches for his bag from which he takes out a leather pouch containing pipe and tobacco. The cigarette is too quick, and in this case each puff should be savoured.
Then they both go out to dinner taking the manuscript with them. At the restaurant they meet two blonde girls, who work for Siemens and they all dance the night away, while Doctor Zhivago lies on the table wrapped in Giangiacomo’s coat. This occasion needs celebrating, even though they are not quite sure exactly what. The young publisher will find out once he has got back to Milan, when he telegraphs Pietro Zvetermich, an expert on Slavic languages, to ask his advice on what he has brought back from Germany. A few days later the manuscript evaluation arrives and Zvetermich’s comment leaves no doubt as to what action to take: “Not publishing such a novel constitutes a crime against culture”.
Doctor Zhivago was first published by Feltrinelli in Italy, on 23 November, 1957. In the name chosen by the author with its stem ZHIV, which means ALIVE in Russian, lies the force of truth that cannot be stifled. Although the Soviet authorities did all they could to prevent this, Boris Paternak was awarded the Nobel Prize on 23 October, 1958. The poet sent the Secretary of the Swedish Academy a telegram which read: “Immensely thankful, touched, proud, astonished, abashed”.