Meeting Sergio d’Angelo

Pasternak described the story of the publication of Doctor Zhivago as “the novel about the novel”.

Sergio d'Angelo in the Soviet Union (1956)

Sergio d’Angelo in the Soviet Union (1957)

One of the protagonists of that story is Sergio d’Angelo and my book, accordingly, devotes quite a bit of attention to his role. Most importantly, d’Angelo was the person who physically received the manuscript of Doctor Zhivago from Pasternak on May 20, 1956 and handed it over to Feltrinelli a week later in West Berlin. At the time d’Angelo was employed at the Italian section of Radio Moscow and was also acting as Feltrinelli’s literary scout in the Soviet Union. In late April 1956 he happened to read a piece of news from the central office of Radio Moscow announcing the imminent publication of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. He made a note to himself in a notebook he used to keep a record of interesting publications to bring to the attention of the Feltrinelli publishing house (see picture below) .

Having informed the publishing house about this possible scoop, he received the go ahead from Milan and went to visit Pasternak on May 20, 1956. It was the beginning of “the novel about the novel”.

D'Angelo's notebook (April 1956)

D’Angelo’s notebook (April 1956)

D’Angelo’s role in the story goes well beyond this initial encounter with Pasternak. He remained very close to Pasternak and Olga during his stay in Moscow and even after he went back to Italy (in December 1957). During 1959 and 1960 he was instrumental in the scheme, approved by Pasternak, to deliver some of the Zhivago royalties to Pasternak. This was done through couriers, usually members of the Italian Communist Party visiting Moscow.

The last of these deliveries of rubles in August 1960 (hence two months after Pasternak’s death in May 1960), was ill-fated, because it gave the Soviets an excuse for prosecuting and condemning Olga and her daughter Irina to eight and three years, respectively, of hard labor camp. This led in 1961 to an international campaign in favor of the two women to which d’Angelo participated with an open letter to Surkov, Pasternak’s irreducible enemy in the Soviet Writers’ Union, and with a private letter to Khrushchev.

Finally, Sergio d’Angelo was involved in a protracted legal battle against Feltrinelli concerning Pasternak’s royalties which began in 1965 and went on for several years. Some of these aspects of d’Angelo’s role have been analyzed in my book and d’Angelo provides his first-hand account of the facts in his captivating book Il Caso Pasternak (Bietti, 2006) that can be downloaded in English from his website

Il Caso Pasternak (Bietti 2006)

Il Caso Pasternak (Bietti 2006)

I had tried to contact Sergio d’Angelo when I was writing my book but he had changed email and my attempt was unsuccessful. I was thus very happy when I got an email from him on January 18, 2014, in which he congratulated me on Inside the Zhivago Storm. This quickly led to an intense exchange of emails, for this was a splendid opportunity to clarify many things that I would have gladly asked him while I was writing the book. Quickly it was resolved that I should go and visit him in his town close to Viterbo, San Martino al Cimino. I went to visit him on February 22. In addition to being a most generous host, he had also prepared for me all the documents in his possession that related to his involvement in the Zhivago affair. There were unpublished autographed letters by Pasternak and by Olga, drafts of d’Angelo’s letters to them, the notebook where he had jotted down the news of the impending publication of Doctor Zhivago, and many other important documents. I was thrilled and even more so as Sergio allowed me to take pictures of all these materials and to use them in my further research on the Zhivago story. We spoke for eight hours. We did not always agree on the interpretation of the events, but that was part of the fun, for while Sergio is a man of strong opinions, he also respects the fact that one might take different stands in interpreting such complex events as those that made up the odyssey of Zhivago. During my visit, he also brought up his desire to donate his papers to an international institution where scholars would be able to consult them. This he has since done by donating all his materials on the Zhivago affair to the Hoover Institution Archive at Stanford.

Meeting Sergio d’Angelo was a delightful experience. Given his role in the Zhivago story, one can’t get any closer to the eye of the Zhivago storm.