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Wives and Mistresses

Just before Olga’s release he seemed to fall into a kind of panic, perhaps a dream of retreat. A message was sent to her daughter, saying that perhaps “a change might come about in our relationship,” meaning that it would not fall back into the previous fixed and settled intimacy. As always, Olga, writing in retrospect, skates around this rock as if it were a pebble. And indeed she must, having set for herself two mind-numbing conditions: first, an idealized human being, Pasternak, and secondly an idealized love, without pause, for herself. His hesitation on the doorstep of reunion is described as “candor, guileless charm and undeniable heartlessness.” Olga’s words, in moments of distress, always war with each other, although it is a rhetorical slaughter between dummies on horseback. And always the nouns and adjectives of a sunny armistice prevail. They reunite: “In short, our life, after being torn apart by sudden separation, all at once bestowed an unexpected gift on him—so once more nothing mattered except the “living sorcery of hot embraces,’ the triumph of two people alone in the bacchanalia of the world.” Bacchanalia?

There is nothing she will not write. “While I was with him it was not given to him to grow old.” She presses us to read between the lines to find any of the reality of this now ill man, with the desperate personal and financial conditions of his life, with his devotion above all to finding peace in which to work, with his past, his age, his love for her which like any love, especially an additional one, brings along the moonbeams of guilt and confusion with its happiness. Other tarred statements of his offered in direct quotations: “Let us not look ahead, or complicate matters, or hurt other people’s feelings…. Would you want to be in the place of that unfortunate woman?” Indeed, yes, she would.

He reassures: “For years now we have been deaf to each other…and of course she is only to be pitied—she has been deaf all her life—the dove tapped at her window in vain…. And now she is angry because something real has come to me—but so late in life!” Olga’s own thoughts sum up: “Happy as I felt at being his chosen one, I had to listen to narrow-minded reproaches and expressions of sympathy, and this upset me…. I suppose I longed for recognition and wanted people to envy me.”

Ivinskaya speaks of her book as one he wanted her to write. Pasternak, with the miraculous purity and lyricism of his own style in poems and in prose, with his brilliant portrait in Safe Conduct of Mayakovsky and the “black velvet” of his talent, and the magical sweep of Doctor Zhivago, her book, did not catch her ear. As a reminder of his own way with a sliver of imagined speech, his thoughts on the suicide of the gifted, corrupt Fadeyev, head of the Writers Union:

And it seems to me that Fadeyev, with that guilty smile which he managed to preserve through all the cunning intricacies of politics, could bid farewell to himself at the last moment before pulling the trigger with, I should imagine, words like these: “Well, it’s all over! Good-bye, Sasha!”

[from I Remember]

Olga’s jealousy of Mrs. Pasternak is not mitigated by her own reports of Pasternak’s discreditable animadversions on Zinaida, who died in 1966 and thus was not an impediment to discourteous description. A meeting between the two women is left for “history” by Olga and here she admits that she was ill and perhaps hasn’t got it quite straight. “I no longer remember exactly what passed between me and this heavily built, strong-minded woman, who kept repeating how she didn’t give a damn for our love and that, although she no longer loved BL [Pasternak] herself, she would not allow her family to be broken up.” There is no reason this scene should be credited literally, especially since the notion that a rival does not love, but is instead moved only by the slyest attention to self-interest, is a provincial vulgarity.

Zinaida Pasternak does not get a good “press” from any account readily at hand, unless it may be considered that Pasternak’s legal, “semi” fidelity is a sort of remote credit. In Hope Abandoned, Mrs. Mandelstam tells of a visit to Peredelkino: “He told us he thought his wife was baking a cake down in the kitchen. He went to tell of our arrival, but came back looking glum; she clearly wanted to have nothing to do with us.” A few years later, during a time of their great suffering, Zinaida said on the telephone to the Mandelstams: “Please don’t come out here to Peredelkino.” Worst of all, the scandal of the wife of Pasternak saying, “My children love Stalin most of all, and me only second.”

A scene for which research turned up two versions: Toward the end of his life, Pasternak went with his wife for a visit to the Caucasus: as Olga puts it, Zinaida “took him off to Tiblis with her.” Olga was wounded and angry and Pasternak begs her not to talk like a bad novel. She went off to Leningrad and refused to answer his sad, lonely letters—but of course soon she is remorseful. “To this very day the misery of this last quarrel in our life still gnaws at me.”

An account of the visit is given in the introduction Lydia Pasternak wrote for her translation of an English selection of her brother’s poems. “This short visit to the Caucasus had a wonderful effect on my brother. The wild majestic scenery, the universal love and admiration for him of the Georgians, the freedom and the recollections of the happy days they had both spent in the same surroundings in the Thirties, before their marriage—all of this gave Pasternak new strength and a feeling of peace and fulfillment. He returned to Peredelkino happy and rejuvenated….” Who can say? Sisters often incline toward the status quo.

Lara in Doctor Zhivago—when a friend from abroad meets Olga: “She said we were exactly as she had imagined us—BL and me,” “‘Lara,”’ Pasternak wrote in a letter to a Swedish correspondent: “Lara, the heroine of the novel, is someone in real life. She is a woman very close to me.” Zinaida is also, he says, somewhere in the conception of Tonia, Zhivago’s wife. In this respect, Pasternak wrote, on this occasion in a quoted letter, “my wife’s passionate love of work, her eager skill in everything—in washing, cooking, cleaning, bringing up the children—has created domestic comfort, a garden, a way of life and daily routine, the calm and quiet needed for work.”

In A Captive of Time, the dilemmas of Pasternak’s career are examined with the fullest compassion: his survival, his leanings toward Christianity, the famous telephone conversation with Stalin when Mandelstam was arrested, his response to the desperation of Tsvetaeva just before her suicide, the cringing letter to Khrushchev renouncing the Nobel Prize, a letter Ivinskaya says she wrote herself and urged upon Pasternak. There is much of interest in all of this even if it comes, also, under the disaster of Ivinskaya’s style and the hallucinated folly of the transformation of life and history into questions of their love.

What is the intention of her book and to whom is it addressed? All we know is that it has been sent out to the West, to us, and in some odd fashion sent back to herself, her memories. “My love! I now come to the end of the book you wanted me to write…. The greater part of my conscious life has been devoted to you—and what is left of it will also be devoted to you.” What is the meaning of conscious?

After Pasternak’s death, Ivinskaya and her daughter were arrested on the claim, or pretext, of dealing with rubles smuggled into the country by way of the Feltrinelli firm, Italian publishers of Doctor Zhivago. She served another four years. The misery of this life seemed to have no ending. It must be said of Ivinskaya that she can take a cold, icy bullet into her flesh, pull it out with a wince, sugar it and offer it to the world, to herself mostly, as a marsh-mallow. Out of prison once more, she speaks of the “total lack of sympathy for me in influential Soviet circles.” Here she is not speaking only of party hacks, but of the hostility of such persons as the courageous novelist, Lidia Chukovskaya, who even at this moment is being persecuted in the Soviet Union as a defender of human rights. Another puzzle.

Ivinskaya is now old, poor, and bereft. Pasternak’s death certainly left her quite undefended, without, as she says somewhere, “the protection of his name.” She has occupied herself with this book, a success in the West. There is much awry in her character and understanding, and thus Pasternak, one of the great writers of the century and a man who seemed to have no enemies, is much reduced. But that is the turn of the wheel of history for him. Her own apotheosis, so beautifully accomplished in Pasternak’s poems to her and in the novel, in the many hundreds of letters in her keeping, might better have been left to stand alone.

At the end of Hope Abandoned, Mrs. Mandelstam prints a letter she wrote to Mandelstam just before she learned of his death. It was never sent, was put away, retrieved thirty years later. She speaks of her love in a way that her quirky, thorny nature might not have allowed years before. It is one of the most beautiful letters we have:

…You came to me every night in my sleep, and I kept asking what had happened, but you did not reply. In my last dream I was buying food for you in a filthy hotel restaurant…. When I had bought it, I realized I did not know where to take it, because I do not know where you are. When I woke up, I said to Shura, “Osia is dead.”

The letter ends: “It’s me, Nadia. Where are you? Farewell.”

Postscript: Husbands

From Close to Colette by Maurice Goudeket:

There is great temptation to consider that the intimate hours of a person or a couple, whatever their public position may be, belong to themselves alone. But when a wave of fervour such as has rarely been seen irradiated the last years of Colette…would it be fair not to offer in exchange the most precious thing one has kept?

Mmmmm. So, a modest memoir, not very interesting. Houses, gardens, animals, food, journeys in motor cars, holidays on handsome yachts, writing, the German occupation, death. “Suddenly there was silence and Colette’s head bent slowly to one side, with a movement of infinite grace.”

Katherine Mansfield, Letters and Journals, edited by C.K. Stead.

From the introduction by Stead:

Murry’s promotion of his wife’s literary remains brought him royalties and opprobrium and increased her fame. The good and the bad seem inextricably mixed in his work on her behalf. He transcribed, edited, and wrote commentaries tirelessly but in a way which encouraged a sentimental, and sometimes a falsely mystical interest in her talent. He could not keep himself out of the picture either, seeing the development of her art always in relation to the development of her feeling for him.

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