Indomitable Pasternak

Boris Pasternak: A Literary Biography Volume I, 1890–1928

by Christopher Barnes
Cambridge University Press, 507 pp., $69.50

Boris Pasternak

by Peter Levi
Hutchinson, 310 pp., £17.95

Boris Pasternak: The Tragic Years, 1930–60

by Evgeny Pasternak, translated by Michael Duncan, the poetry of Pasternak translated by Anne Pasternak Slater, by Craig Raine
Collins Harvill, 278 pp., £15.00

In 1945 Boris Pasternak wrote an essay on Chopin in which he repeated the somewhat paradoxical view of the composer that he had expressed more than once in his poetry. “Chopin,” he contended, “is a realist in just the same sense as Lev Tolstoy.” He also associated Chopin with Bach. “Their music abounds in details and gives the impression of being a chronicle of their lives.” A great realist, one who attains “the highest degree of an author’s exactitude,” is what Pasternak himself aspired to be in his novel Doctor Zhivago, on which he would begin intensive work a year later. The realist for him is always autobiographical, because only through attention to his own story can the artist understand human experience common to all.

Inescapably Pasternak was a lyric poet, even though wanting at first to paint like his father, then to compose music like Scriabin, and later still to become a philosopher. There were times when he rebelled against the restrictions of the lyric, as Blok had before him. It is unusual that from the beginning as a writer he should have tried his hand at verse and prose simultaneously, and surprising that he declared prose to have a certain advantage over poetry. Yury Zhivago (though we must avoid too facile an identification with his creator) planned in youth a great work to represent the age in its complexity. The poems of Zhivago, which are the chief glory of the novel, were to be no more than preliminary sketches.

Ten years earlier, in 1935, ill and reluctant, Pasternak had been dispatched, on the insistence of Gide and Malraux, to Paris as a belated Soviet representative at the International Writers’ Conference in Defense of Culture. His very short speech overwhelmed the audience. Poetry, he told them,

will always remain that celebrated height, higher than any alps, which lies in the grass underfoot, so that all one has to do is to bend down…and pick it up from the earth.

Here, he implied, was a reality that “will always be simpler than the things one can discuss at conferences.” He had already said in Safe Conduct (1931), his first attempt at autobiography, that “art is realistic as an activity and symbolic as fact.” He explained that it “did not invent metaphor, but found it in nature and reproduced it with reverence.” Neither Safe Conduct nor I Remember: Sketch for an Autobiography, written in 1956 as a corrective to Safe Conduct, is wholly reliable in the cold light of day. Lazar Fleishman sees in the latter book only a “kind of lyrical truth” in the account Pasternak gives of his first meeting with Tolstoy, as a child of four awakened by music. Again, his paper on “Symbolism and Immortality,” given in 1913, is moved forward to 1910 so that immediately afterward he may go with his father to the railway station in the steppe where Tolstoy lies dying. Pasternak’s kind of realism grew out of the symbolism …

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