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Pasternak in His Letters

Letters to Georgian Friends

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

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 him and his companion to his home in Tiflis. There they met the other major poets of Georgia, among them Georgy Leonidze, Nikolai Baratashvili, Titian Tabidze. Pasternak’s letters to his Georgian friends span almost exactly the period between his two autobiographies: the first is dated December 13 1931, the last March 17, 1959. In I Remember he devotes a chapter, which Mr. Magarshack includes in his informative introduction, to the two dearest of these friends, Yashvili and Tabidze. It is a vivid portrait, a fine appreciation; and it contains the following lines:

Why were these two men sent to me? How shall I describe our relations? Both became integral parts of my personal world…. The fate of these two men, and that of Marina Tsvetaeva, was to become my greatest sorrow.

Marina Tsvetaeva, an outstanding Russian poet, “Left Russia in 1922,” says Mr. Magarshack in a terse note, “but returned with her family in 1939. She was banished to the provinces where she could find no employment and hanged herself.” This was in 1941. Yashvili and Tabidze both perished in 1937. Tabidze “vanished” in the familiar manner of those years and was executed soon after his arrest. But this was known neither to his wife nor to his friends who, until 1955, when the news was brought them, lived in the hope of his return. Yashvili committed suicide. He “went to the headquarters of the Union of Georgian Writers, of which he was secretary,” says Mr. Magarshack, “and blew out his brains with the shot of his double-barrelled gun.” Pasternak’s letter to Yashvili’s widow, a letter about his own shock and grief, more moving than any condolences could have been, recreates the image of the poet, distanced and made clear by death. “Just as one moves away from something very, very big, his outlines began to take shape only at the fateful distance of his loss.” The precision and intensity of this letter are typical of the others also, as of Pasternak’s writings generally. They are never chaotic, however passionate they may be: the emotion in them is always given shape and substance by his exacting mind.

His letters are about feelings and opinions, not current events, though the war is mentioned in an account of his efforts to obtain a post as correspondent at the front. (He did go, finally, but only fragments of his reports, I believe, have been published, and these posthumously.) He alludes to Zhdanov’s attack on Zoshchenko and Akhmatova and rejoices over Akhmatova’s “rehabilitation.” But the sense of a petty, oppressive world is unmistakably in the background. Pasternak is hurt by triviality, pompousness, cruelty, artificiality; he is uncomfortable at stupid parties where “wingless and unimaginative men” are “so disgracefully lower than the wines and snacks,” and annoyed by commonplaces: “Why do you make me a present of such polite phrases as that I am remembered and loved in Georgia, that you have heard a lot about my new works, etc., etc.?… Why should we resort to words in their polite, ephemeral sense? Are we really so poor?” But there is more happiness than annoyance in these letters. “How are we getting along?” he writes in 1946, four months after the Zhdanov outburst, “I suppose one must not complain, or, perhaps, one must. I find it difficult to judge, so blinded am I by the inner happiness of my existence.” And four years later: “I live as I like, and am well and happy in this right, for which I am ready to pay with my life.”

LIVING AS HE LIKED meant writing as he pleased. To make a living he did translations, but this for him was creative work. The relation between an original and its translation, he had once said, was like that between a layer in the trunk of a tree and the trunk itself. His translations grew within him as his own poems did. He “carried his best translations within himself for years on end, preparing himself for them in the very process of his inner development. In a certain sense they were even autobiographic,” wrote Andrei Sinyavsky in a brilliant introduction to Pasternak’s collected poems, luckily completed before his arrest and exile. Sinyavsky remarks that the Georgian translations were “reinforced” by his trips to Georgia, by “his friendship with a group of Georgian poets, and finally by that grateful love of that region, people and culture with which many of his own original poems are imbued.” Made from literal versions provided by the poets themselves—for Pasternak did not know the language—they were a labor of love. In undertaking the work, “One has to make Russian poetry of it,” he said, “as I have already made it of Shakespeare, Shevchenko, Verlaine and others. This is how I understand my task.” For the rest, he never courted public favor and was indeed delighted that the absence of a large audience left him free to be himself:

Not a day passes without my realizing in some new way the advantages I derive from the fact that fate has not spoilt me by outward success, that it has treated me with apparent severity, that I have always lived productively, by practical work, and advanced in my trade, and was not busy with carrying about a questionably acquired name—ought I not to thank heaven for all that?

He was pleased with his life as he thought back on it: “such a happy life, for which I am so grateful to heaven, a life, which, like a book, was full of such quiet, concentrated meaning.” The “fundamental thing about it” was “The example of my father’s work, love of music and Scriabin, two or three chords in my own writings, a night in the Russian countryside, the revolution, Georgia.”

THIS FUSION of the broadly objective and the wholly personal, of history and individual feeling, love of music and the revolution, is characteristic of Pasternak, for whom distinctions between the public and the private were unimportant. What mattered was the implicit quality of any event, its depth and largeness, its significance, that “quiet, concentrated meaning” which he perceived beneath the chaos of the revolution, in the fairy tale magnificence of Georgia, and in the “two or three chords” of his own writings. Of these he himself was the best judge, and when his “most trusted friends” found fault with his new things, lamenting that their simplicity was “a decline, an impairment…a retreat into ordinariness,” he was not upset. Maybe they were right and maybe they were wrong. It was possible that he had “gone only a little further on the road of their own destinies.” However that might be, his new style had been achieved inwardly, not in answer to outside pressures. In his early work he had wished his poems to approach the effect of “extemporisation,” to use only “the turn of phrase” that “seemed to escape…of its own accord,” and this tended to be metaphorical. Now, through his “respect for human suffering and [his] readiness to share it,” he had evolved, with much effort, the more straightforward mode which his friends deplored. In I Remember he repudiated all his early work: “Quite recently, I completed my chief and most important work, the only one I am not ashamed of and for which I can answer with the utmost confidence, a novel in prose with a supplement in verse, Doctor Zhivago.” Doctor Zhivago had been in the writing for over ten years, and while it was in progress, the majority of those who read it were “dissatisfied,” he said. “They say it is a failure and that they expected more from me, that it is colourless, that it is not worthy of me, but I, acknowledging all this, just grin as though this abuse and condemnation were praise.”

In one of many letters to Nina, Titian Tabidze’s widow, there is a passage that is the prose equivalent of a poem written some years later—a wonderful example of the closeness, almost the identity, of life and poetry in Pasternak’s experience. (The poem, called “In Hospital,” has been excellently translated by Pasternak’s sister, Lydia Slater.) In 1952 Pasternak was felled by a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. He expected to die, and his letter begins with the surprised joy of survival: “Ninotchka, I am still alive. I am at home.” The details that follow have that Proustian reverence for the ordinary which is habitual to Pasternak: the night spent “in the corridor of an ordinary, huge, and overcrowded city hospital…a mile-long corridor with bodies of sleeping patients plunged in darkness and silence,” and at the end of it, a window “through which one caught a glimpse of the inky haze of a rainy night with the reflection of the glow of the street lights of Moscow behind the treetops.” “Things stood out so vividly, shadows fell so sharply,” and in the midst of all this, “in the intervals between loss of consciousness and attacks of sickness and vomiting…a wonderful feeling of calm and bliss.” As he lay there, prepared for death, everything he saw, thought, and felt coalesced into a poem:

This corridor, the green glow of the lampshade on the table of the night-nurse, the stillness, the shadows of the nurses, the proximity of death behind the window and behind my back—all this taken together was, by its concentration, such an unfathomable, such a superhuman poem!

At a moment which seemed to be the last in my life, I wanted more than ever to talk to God, to glorify everything I saw, to catch and imprint it on my memory. “Lord,” I whispered, “I thank you for having laid on the paints so thickly and for having made life and death the same as your language—majestic and musical, for having made me a creative artist, for having made creative work your school, and for having prepared me all my life for this night.

The poem follows this narrative exactly, only adding further details about the ambulance on its way to the hospital through the night:

They stood, almost blocking the pavement
As though at a window display;
The stretcher was pushed in position,
The ambulance started away….

the reception there; and in the closing stanza, a simile through which his feeling of gratitude is transmuted into a startling image. The patient reflects that he is in the hands of God:

The hands that have made me and hold me
And hide like a ring in a case.

This image, the few added details, the omission of two proper names that appear in the letter are the only differences, apart from rhyme and rhythm, between the informal prose passage and the poem.

THIS LETTER, with its love of life and acceptance of death, its ecstatic and humble thankfulness for the gratuitously given happiness of creation, is an epitome of Pasternak, for whom to live was to experience poetically and to write was to express what one had lived. Not only this letter, however, but all of them, taut, concentrated, intense, like his poems and his novel, are a revelation of the man, a spontaneous expression of his perfectly integrated philosophy, moving and convincing evidence of its depth and consistency. There is a letter written to Titian Tabidze on April 8, 1936, which, in the form of advice to the man he loved and the poet he admired, is a statement of his own credo:

Why are you not coming?…I wanted to tell you not to lose heart, to believe in yourself and stand firm in spite of temporary misunderstandings…. There is a great deal that is deceptive and indefinite in the painful discords of the recent past…. If there is a particle of truth in anything that has been published and discussed, it is only that it coincides with the overall plan of the times, with its historic infinity…. Believe in yourself, Titian Tabidze, for say what you like, the chemistry of your way of thinking dissolves everything in the world, whatever you may call it, at a higher temperature than is acceptable to the “Literaries” or the “Evenings.” And even if you did not want it, the revolution has been dissolved by us more strongly and more strikingly than you could decant it from a debating tap. Do not turn to public charity, my friend. Rely on yourself. Dig more deeply with your drill without fear or favour, but inside yourself, inside yourself. If you do not find the people, the earth and the heaven there, then give up your search, for there is nowhere else to search…. Believe in revolution as a whole, believe in the future, the new promptings of your heart, the spectacle of life, and not the construction put on things by the Union of Soviet Writers, which will be changed before you have had time to sneeze—believe in the Age and not in the week of the formalist.

Pasternak was referring to the debates on “Formalism” in literary journals, by means of which, through the connivance of Stalin’s henchman Beria, Tabidze was being hounded to death in the Union of Soviet Writers. He was not aware of the impending catastrophe, did not fully realize the ominousness of “the painful discords of the recent past,” and this lends a tragic aura to his letter. But had he known, he would not have shifted his stand, as he did not, some twenty years later, when he himself was caught in the mesh of Soviet Russia’s “temporary misunderstandings.”

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