A MUSE SHOULD LEAVE the writing to the genius she inspires - if she wants to preserve the myth of the genius. I dislike this melancholy conclusion, but Olga Ivinskaya's book about Boris Pasternak makes it very hard to escape.

Pasternak was one of Russia's great lyric poets, and an important novelist. Ivinskaya was his mistress for 14 years and the principal model for the character of Lara in Doctor Zkivago , which no doubt explains a first printing of 75,000 copies and selection as a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate.

Unfortunately, as a love story, Lara's book about Yuri's is a cross between Back Street and As the World Turns - inferior soap opera, in which the hero turns out to be a vain and foolish man who exploits the women around him as naturally and unthinkingly as he breathes, and the heroine a silly, whining, defensive woman who was born to be exploited. Ivinskaya did not intend such portraits; they emerge from an artless candor and an innocence that is devastating in a woman who survived a troubled life with a genius and eight years in Soviet camps.

Ivinskaya was sent to prison in 1949 to punish Pasternak for resisting literary policy, when arresting him would have stirred repercussions in the West. She was imprisoned again in 1960 for receiving money from the foreign publication of Doctor Zhivago ; Pasternak had escaped the Kremlin's power by dying and the authorities may have hoped to redeem his name for propaganda purposes by making Ivinskaya the villain. But she is soap operatic even in recounting that, saying that if only she had borne his name, things might have been different.

In this spirit, Olga Vesvolodovna insists on calling the house in the writers' suburb of Peredelkino where Pasternak lived with his wife and children "the big house." She and her children lived with another family nearby, where Pasternak could visit her every day. He could not bring himself to leave his second wife, Zinaida (a model for Zhivago's wife, Tonya), though most accounts describe her unpleasantly and she was famous for saying. "My sons love Stalin most of all - and then their Mummy."

When Pasternak was pushed into vacationing with Zinaida in Soviet Georgia in 1959, he wrote to Ivinskaya, "One day things may be as you (perhaps mistakenly and wrongly) want them to be. But meanwhile, my beloved and adored one, for the very reason that I am pampered by the happiness you give me and lit by the light of your angelic sweetness, for the sake of the charity in which you yourself are always unwittingly instructing me, let us be generous to others." This is certainly evidence that he loved Ivinskaya, which is not visible in the letters that his son Yevgeni recently released to The New York Times Magazine . But the words belong in the mouth of an adulterous husband on my television set on a rainy afternoon.

As a historical document, A Captive of Times is important. Scholars, sovietologists and literary politicians will make good (and no doubt bad) use of its unique perspective on a major battle in the endless war that the rulers of Russia wage against their country's poets. Ivinskaya was not only Pasternak's mistress but his adviser and representative in dealing with Soviet authorities and western publishers, and she is full of previously unknown details and previously unpublished poems and letters.

One example concerns Alexander Fadeyev, the former chief of the Writers' Union, who killed himself after Khrushchev denounced Stalin's "cult of personality" in 1956. At Fadeyev's funeral, Pasternak said, "Alexander Alexandrovich has rehabilitated himself!" - an act of courage just to speak aloud. Then he wrote a poem saying that the cult of personality had been replaced by the cult of hollow words and philistines, "So people shoot themselves from drunkenness,/Because they cannot stand it anymore."

But in the document as in the love story, Olga Vsevolodovna's candor and innocence do not always cover Pasternak with glory. He emerges as a man who recognized the evils of the system but who seldom understood how to armor himself against them - who learned only near his death what others had known decades earlier: that in the Soviet Union, rulers and poets are bound to oppose each other.

Ivinskaya tries in vain to defend him against the view through the simplifying political lens in which he looks weak compared to Osip Mandelstam, another great poet who died in one of Stalin's camps, or Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who accepted the Nobel Prize that Pasternak avoided. Pasternak himself felt guilty that he had never been sent to prison. He and Ivinskaya should both have heeded the advice he gave her: "Never try to justify yourself if people accuse you of something or other. Those who know you will never believe you capable of theft or murder." Pasternak's nobility is attested by the way dissidents and poetry-lovers alike gather at his grave on the anniversary of his death every year.

It's more interesting to read Ivinskaya's story of the publication of Zhivago abroad and the authorities' reactions. She herself collaborated with an agent of literary officialdom in writing a letter of Khrushchev renouncing the Nobel Prize and pleading not to be exiled abroad, which she persuaded Pasternak to sign. She now believes this was a mistake, that the letter should not have been sent, that there was no need to express repentance. But at the time, without the knowledge that the Pasternak case and other persecutions gave to later resisters, things seemed too threatening for such simple courage.

The second half of the book is crowded with fascinating bits and pieces like that. At first the authorities considered rushing a suitably censored version of Zhivago into print in the Soviet Union, to avoid looking bad in the eyes of the West when it was published abroad. The rhetoric of denunciation was as frightening and disheartening as that used later against Solzhenitsyn. Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who often looks like an opportunist, was supportive and courageous.

Ivinskaya has peculiar literary sensibilities. She shows little knowledge of Pasternak's role in keeping the beauties of the Russian language alive beneath the paralytic viruses of ideology. She goes not understand the real relationships of Pasternak, Mandelstam, and the poets Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetayeva, relationships formed when she was still a child. She is unable even to mention the name of Andrei Sinyavsky, the novelist and critic whose arrest in 1965 started the great chain of dissident protest, who wrote the introduction to the last volume of Pasternak's selected poems that was officially published and who carried Pasternak's coffin out of the "big house" at the funeral.

Ivinskaya, in short, does not understand poetry or the world as well as Nadezhda Mandelstam, who wrote classic memoirs about her husband as man and poet. It is impossible to escape the suspicion that Olga Vsevelodovna wanted to prove that she could do as well by her man as Nadezhda Yakovlevna did by hers. She failed. But Ivinskaya has still contributed to our understanding of a great writer in a great and tormented country.

Max Hayward has done the same excellent job of translating and editing for her that he did for Nadezhda Mandelstam, with an introduction, biographical notes and footnotes that make the intricacies of Soviet literary wars a hundred times easier to understand.