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Private Lives

The Correspondence of Boris Pasternak and Olga Freidenberg, 1910-1954

complied and edited by Elliott Mossman, translated by Elliott Mossman, by Margaret Wettlin
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book), 365 pp., $19.95

From despotisms like the Soviet Union the only voices that tell one anything are the voices of private life. These distinguish the sporadic correspondence of Olga Freidenberg with her first cousin Boris Pasternak between 1910 and 1954. She was in Leningrad, he mostly in Moscow. Forty-five years of this harassed exchange of news and affection come out of their cold envelopes and bring us close to the dire and confusing realities of their time. The cousins were born in 1890 in distinguished and cultivated families who were assimilated Jews. (One can guess at their hopeful childhood and youth in Pasternak’s early writings.) We see them first in 1910 and—after the long gap of the First World War—in touch with each other again through the Second World War and the Stalinist terror, until 1954, the year before she died.

They write to each other as loving friends who are co-equals—as Elliott Mossman, the editor of the letters, says—she the academic, classical scholar whose interests are philology and the history of culture, who has been able to take advantage of the opening of the Academy to women after the Revolution. She became a professor. She was never famous. She survived the Stalin purges by the skin of her teeth—as she wrote in her vigorous diaries that were somehow hidden and now lie in Oxford. (Many passages from these are interleaved with her part of the correspondence.) Her thesis Poetics of Plot and Genre was published in 1936 but in a few weeks was confiscated and denounced because of its “formalism” and scholarly style.

She is said to have been alluring and mischievous as a young girl. Pasternak fell in love with her and this shocked her. She thought of him strictly as a brother. He was too vain, “difficult,” egotistical, incalculable, and elusive; whereas she was strong, settled, and determined in will. Pasternak impatiently threw away letters and records; she was the born archivist who hoarded copies—an alarming gift in a country where all records could be incriminating—but it is thanks to this gift that their letters have survived. A lifetime of letters between two people who rarely met but who had the family bond is a chaos, but Mr. Mossman has made them intelligible by inserting a series of historical introductions to each period of their lives. Her diaries are at their most dramatic in their pictures of the siege of Leningrad and in her account of the scandalous attempt of powerful Party hacks (and Izvestia) to get her dismissed for not being in accord with the changing directives of Marxism. Her difficult and feckless brother Sasha and his uncongenial wife were sent to a labor camp. This imperiled her own embittering situation.

The Pasternak family bond was of great importance to her. She felt it was at the heart of her passionate concern for history. She knew she belonged to a family that was “great and exceptional” in its culture:

In this lies my faith, my faith and absolute reverence for the objective process above and beyond human beings…. I am speaking, of course, not of written history, but of history as a world process. In this process nothing is discarded or forgotten. The ideas about heaven, immortality, the other world, conceived by the peoples of the earth are all true—not as heaven or paradise or Valhalla, but as history. It is impossible to deceive history no matter how documents are falsified or facts distorted and concealed.

She fought back desperately during the purges, when she was officially called upon to fake. The students were directed by the Party to shadow and inform on their professors. She was directed to lower the marks of white-collar workers and to raise those of blue-collar workers. She refused point blank.

Although they had accepted the revolution, the Pasternak clan—simply because they were cultivated people—were inevitable victims, although Pasternak had mysterious courage and ingenuity in surviving the Stalinist purges. The two cousins were both appalled by the cynicism and hypocrisy that were its byproducts. She described this as Skloka, of which she wrote, in 1952, that it pervaded all Soviet institutions:

Skloka is a phenomenon born of our social order, an entirely new term and concept, not to be translated into any language of the civilized world. It is hard to define. It stands for base, trivial hostility, unconscionable spite breeding petty intrigues, the vicious pitting of one clique against another. It thrives on calumny, informing, spying, scheming, slander, the igniting of base passions….Skloka is natural for people who have been incited to attack one another, who have been made bestial by desperation, who have been driven to the wall.

She was more downright than Pasternak. She lived in Leningrad. In Moscow he, with his ear for intrigue and knowing his prestige sometimes had effect, was more adroit and perhaps divided. Or rather, as he put it, he was astonished. He had the resource of living in his imagination even when he was forced as a professional to live by “someone else’s clock.” Much of what was going on in Russia in 1935 was savage.

…then again one is astonished. There is no denying that, taking into account Russia’s resources, basically untapped, the people have never before looked so far ahead, and with such a sense of self-esteem…. At times, in even the worst of times, everything seems very subtle and astute.

But when he came to write Dr. Zhivago he, too, defined the disease of the Revolution:

In his heart everyone was utterly different from his words and the outward appearance he assumed. No one had a clear conscience. Everyone had some reason to feel that he was guilty of everything, that he was an imposter, an undetected criminal…. People slandered and accused themselves, not only out of terror but of their own free will, from a morbidly destructive impulse, in a state of metaphysical trance….

In this correspondence, although he is often complaining of his health and of the silence of his inspiration, one is looking at a writer well advanced in maturity. He is continually autobiographical. In the letters he is writing on the spur of the moment, often the self-conscious anti-hero, or often bewildered. He is, for example, having a partition put into a room so that he will not have to sleep, eat, and work with the family. He smokes while he works and that is bad for the baby! And most of the time he is thinking of how he’ll get money to pay the carpenter and painter. Then he suddenly forgets his comic misery and breaks into speculation—interesting because of the undoubted influence of his youthful desire to be a pianist and because of the sudden precisions of music that are so marked in his poetry and prose and, indeed, in the dramatic transitions of his thought:

There is in man an inborn and widespread need directly connected with the music of consciousness.

Years pass, he says, one is lost among changes of thought, feeling, and experience. And now his aphorism turns into improvisation:

And so one wants to go back to before the answer, that is to talk about oneself in such a way that the talk, sad or gay, as it may be, embraces,’ dominates and rises above the answer to form the melody of everyday concerns, the human story, even the human law…. Without its imaginativeness the formula for the soul and its growth would be stripped of meaning and fall apart.

The eternal Russian passion for examining one’s “convictions” often breaks out inconsequently in the letters of both parties; neither misses an opportunity for being “deep” or splitting an emotional hair. There is also common ground in family gossip which leads Pasternak to ask if they were even too bound up in family ties: the emotions are almost swamping. Their past was so unlike the past of the new order or disorder: Pasternak has by now turned to the political shelter of his translations of Shakespeare, which helped to keep the suspicious ideologists of the Writers’ Union at bay.

As a reporter of events Olga is the more vivid. She was shut up, in the terrible bombing and siege of Leningrad. The entries in her diary are grim. The frozen city was without fuel, wood, kerosene, or electricity. People were down to four and one half ounces of bread per day; no transport. Families traipsed out to the suburbs, during the bombing and the bombardment, dragging sleds loaded with boards, beams, and poles, over the ice—anything for fuel. People swollen by starvation dropped dead in the queues for food. Thousands were killed. Olga’s sick mother blamed her for the catastrophe. “You asked for it!” the old lady said. The arrest of academics had begun. Olga herself got scurvy. She distracted herself during the bombardment by continuing to work on Homeric similes and writing lectures on folklore!

Vitamin C saved her. When the spring came the city was, at any rate, smokeless and transfigured. It had the freshness of a half-deserted provincial town and was cleaner. It had become for her “a holy city.” Not so holy when the war was over: anti-Semitism broke out in the university. The reader of her diary and this correspondence has to be prepared to sail through gales of emotion. For her, a disciple of Lévi-Strauss, kinship was everything: a fact but also a metaphysical vision.

Forgive me for repeating myself, but I must tell you again and again that in you our family barque has ventured so far out on the open sea that even I (through you) have been able to extend my capabilities to the uttermost…. Have I ever told you what it means for a person to experience the singular joy of recognizing his kinship to art? It is a joy that throws him down and to one side, like a shadow.

That, she said, “is the answer to our familial charades.”

Perhaps a correspondence between friends so bound, because of their distance from each other, is as teasing as a charade, with its strange gaps in which the real personages appear most forcibly when the acting stops and human losses become stark. We, their readers, can think we detect the elusive Pasternak because we know his work; but Olga steps out of her work, which we do not know, anonymously, injured but strong in her isolation. One of her bitter sayings strikes home: “All I ask of Mother Russia is something legal plus something edible—a minimum of each.”

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