My Sister, Life and Other Poems
Pasternak, A Collection of Critical Essays
Boris Pasternak’s Translations of Shakespeare
Pasternak’s one-time brother in Futurism, Vladimir Mayakovsky, had projected a huge image of himself in his writing. His career was stormy, public, and short. When in 1930 he put a violent end to it, Pasternak wrote a farewell poem, “Death of a Poet,” setting the strength and courage of the poet who “with one bound” had taken his place in the “category of young legends” against the hypocrisy and cowardice of those who were left. The feeling for Mayakovsky which he shows here and in his autobiographical writings is echoed, I think, in the figure of Pasha Antipov (later Strelnikov) in Doctor Zhivago. Antipov is the “antipode” for Pasternak, he is the lost child who makes a violent myth of himself, bringing pain and destruction, ending in baffled suicide. For him, as for Mayakovsky—and indeed for many of the young actors in the early revolutionary drama—Pasternak seems to feel admiration and love. Their headlong daring, like the skater’s élan, was an inspiring sight, a public parallel to the verbal and emotional giving of self of the young poet of My Sister, Life.
But their way was not Pasternak’s. At about the same time as “Death of a Poet” he wrote his first autobiography, Safe Conduct, also much preoccupied with Mayakovsky; here he explains how he had chosen a different path, abandoning what he calls the “romantic manner” and the spectacular conception of the “poet who sets himself up as a measure for life.” This conception, he writes, is false because it demands a whole world of non-poets or philistines against whom the poet can stand out—as Mayakovsky had stood out with his yellow shirt and painted face in the prewar Futurist happenings. This led all too easily to the world of the ham actor, or the great public poetry reading in which the poet becomes for his audience a quasi-religious figure. In contrast to this, and perhaps increasingly in his later years as he felt himself condemned to being a public figure, Pasternak wanted the poet to efface himself. “To be famous is not a beautiful thing,” he wrote. “Leave gaps in your life-story, not your writings.” “It is shameful, being insignificant, to be a fable on everyone’s lips.”
This stress on ordinariness had implications too for his poetry; it meant speaking “the language of a provincial” aiming for the famous “unprecedented simplicity”which he praised in a poem of 1931. But “simplicity” was a provocative word for a writer whose early poems were (and still are) notoriously difficult, and whose great novel is far from straightforward. How are we to understand it?
Partly simplicity is an aggressive, negative concept. The stanza following the words “unprecedented simplicity” reads:
But we shall not be spared
If we do not hide it.
It is what people most need,
But they understand what is complex more easily.
“What is complex” is the accretion of dead language which hides the world from us, for instance the bureaucratic …