Pasternak in His Letters

Letters to Georgian Friends

by Boris Pasternak, translated by David Magarshack
Harcourt, Brace & World, 190 pp., $4.75

Boris Pasternak
Boris Pasternak; drawing by David Levine

Georgia is a region of Transcaucasia with a 2,000-year-old history. Obliged for centuries to rely on Russia for protection, it became a Russian province in 1801. Its culture is European, its religion predominantly Greek Orthodox; and while its people are obliged to learn Russian, they have a language of their own that does not seem to belong to the Indo-European family, though its alphabet resembles the Arabic, and a literature that goes back to the Middle Ages and is especially rich in twentieth-century lyric poetry. Stalin, who was a Georgian, spoke Russian with an accent. Mayakovsky, born in Georgia of Russian parents, defended the Georgian tongue in boyhood against a chauvinistic schoolmaster and, after he had become famous, flaunted proudly what little of it he knew when he revisited his birthplace.

To Pasternak Georgia came as an experience equal in importance to those major steps in his spiritual progress which he described in his early autobiography, Safe Conduct, and designated by the names of the men or the places on which they were focused: “Chopin,” “Scriabin,” “Marburg,” “Venice,” “Rilke.” Each had entered his life as a kind of happy accident, filling him with a sense of gratitude and wonder at the beneficence of an incomprehensible providence. Georgia was another such experience. It too came to him providentially at a moment of crisis and engulfed his emotions and his mind, inspiring a cycle of beautiful lyrics and superb translations, affecting him so radically that without it, one is tempted to say, Doctor Zhivago would have been a different book, lacking that underlying force of magic on which, as a principle of life, the story is carried, and through which all that is purely rational, political, or consciously willed is reduced to size within the vast, implicit context of fate and eternity. Not that Georgia initiated this philosophy—Pasternak had always felt the power of the inexplicable and the fortuitous—but it confirmed it; the experience became an intricate blend of tragedy and happiness, magnificence, love, creativity, and death. At any rate, so it seemed to him: a fairy tale of real people, real things, and shattering events in a majestic, legendary setting.

It happened in 1930. Mayakovsky had killed himself. Safe Conduct was coming out in a Moscow journal. It was a time, as Pasternak was to write twenty-seven years later in his second autobiographical sketch, I Remember, when “according to Bely’s witty definition the triumph of materialism had abolished matter. There was nothing to eat, there was nothing to wear. There was nothing tangible around, only ideas,” and when also Pasternak’s personal life was very difficult, with “all sorts of upheavals, complications and changes…very painful to those implicated in them.” His marriage had foundered, and now, he wrote, “my companion, who was to become my second wife, and I had no roof over our heads.” At this juncture, Paolo Yashvili appeared unexpectedly and invited…

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