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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.”1 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 dominant in his youth. He describes art in the passage already quoted as the impact of feeling upon actuality, which it displaces:

Details gain in vividness, losing their independent significance. Any one detail can replace another. Any one is of value. Any one you choose serves to witness the condition in which is held the actuality being transposed.

In Safe Conduct he defied all the rules of autobiography by speaking of himself only when his interest in other people demanded it. Pasternak stated that the “real hero” alone deserves to be made the subject of a biography. You cannot expect to find a poet’s true life, with its “acute slant,” in the “vertical” perspective that is right for a man of action. And the more self-enclosed a poet may seem, the greater the “collective” meaning of his story. Pasternak sees his own life as symbolic. What counts for him is not so much the details in themselves as what they signify for his own fate, and implicitly that of the artist in his generation. Doctor Zhivago, the intended summation of Pasternak’s experience, derives many of its episodes from incidents that happened to Pasternak, or that he witnessed, or had heard from his intimates as their testimony about themselves or the times. All his writings had been concerned with the same theme—the survival of art in circumstances that called forth all the resources of the artist’s being.

What would this willing destroyer of archives, who believed that the loss of a manuscript can prove beneficial, have made of the four biographies so far published in 1990, his centennial year? Lyrical poets don’t much appreciate the attentions of a biographer, whereas the public loves nothing more than the life of an artist to read. Christopher Barnes, well aware of Pasternak’s objections, faces the problem with the tact and good sense that characterize the very careful first volume of his biography. He argues that biography “remains a legitimate field of enquiry and can reveal things of value and interest even if the creative artist has no use for them.” Pasternak’s own record, he points out, is incomplete and sometimes falls into “an almost impenetrable Aesopian obliqueness.” Pasternak told a visitor not long before he died: “My generation found itself in the focal point of history.” Its pressures have to be understood to explain what he was compelled to say indirectly or in the form of obscure paradox.

These four biographies under review, as might be expected, overlap in many places. The life of Pasternak, in outline at least, is moderately well known. Fullscale biographies, by Guy de Mallac and Ronald Hingley, already exist.2 Each new biography needs to display its credentials and demonstrate that it can be justified. Peter Levi’s offering has a telltale air of improvisation. He admires Pasternak, extravagantly; he narrates the familiar episodes agreeably, and he quotes well. But though not devoid of perception, as one might take for granted when one poet writes of another who means much to him, the book is careless of detail, too often shockingly so, and it resembles an unbuttoned conversation on a lazy summer’s afternoon. The bibliography, for example, refers to Memoirs of Anna Akhmatova by one K. Chukovskaya, presumably Lydia, the distinguished daughter of the eminent writer Kornei Chukovsky. The tart comment—“Contains a lot of chatter about B. Pasternak”—is unjust. Mr. Levi doesn’t chatter about his hero, but he can allow himself throwaway asides such as that on one of the most important Russian poets of this century, Khlebnikov: “Personally I find him charming, and inspiring in short doses….” The reader new to Pasternak will find the book entertaining, but the sketchiness of the general background shows up in contrast to the thorough and patient scholarship underpinning its rivals.

The Tragic Years is described by the competent translator of the prose text, Michael Duncan, as “part of the author’s tribute to his father.” (The quotations from poetry are rendered with considerable verve by Ann Pasternak Slater, the niece of Boris, and her husband, the poet Craig Raine.) Evgeny Pasternak, aided by his wife Elena, has devoted many years to bringing out items of his father’s work, and a collected edition of the poetry, prose, and letters to be published soon, in at least five volumes. The book under review is a fragment, complete in itself, of the Russian text, Materials for a Biography of Boris Pasternak, the appearance of which “has been held up,” according to its author, “for a variety of reasons.”

The relation of a son toward his famous father always poses problems. Evgeny Pasternak has been able to keep his eye steadily on all that is strictly relevant to understanding what shaped his father’s work. Confining himself to the years between 1930 and 1960, he has to concentrate on Pasternak the public man. Pasternak became the most prominent among Soviet poets, a role he neither sought nor easily endured, full of hazard and anguish. The narrative is spare, on the reticent side, even-handed when dealing with tensions in the family—he writes altogether fairly about Zina, the poet’s second wife, and the later relationship with Olga Ivinskaya. And drawing on archives in Moscow and London, his account throws much light on Pasternak as he revealed himself in his letters to his family. Moreover, Evgeny Pasternak quotes freely from early drafts of poems already published and from others that fell by the wayside.

Lazar Fleishman began working on a study of Pasternak nearly thirty years ago when he was a student in the Soviet Union. At that time, he admits, “the choice of such a theme for scholarly research was somewhat risky.” Only after emigrating in 1974 to Israel could he settle down to write three indispensable books about Pasternak in Russian, which have established him as the unsurpassable chronicler of the poet’s defense of his artistic freedom under Soviet power. The new biography gives the essence of Fleishman’s earlier books, while four additional chapters carry the investigation onward, from Pasternak’s miraculous survival of the Ezhov terror in 1937. Two years later he said:

In those horrendous, blood-stained years anyone might have been arrested. We were shuffled like a pack of cards. I have no wish to give thanks, in a philistine way, for remaining alive while others did not.

There were many vicissitudes in the next twenty-three years. At the end of 1945 he declared: “Suddenly I am wonderfully free. Everything around me is wonderfully my own.” But, in Fleishman’s words, “the air darkened around Soviet culture once again in August 1946,” when Zhdanov began to force literature and all the arts back into a straitjacket, with triumphant brutality. Pasternak was skeptical about the new “thaw” following Stalin’s death, and by 1956 his troubles over the publication of Doctor Zhivago began. In September of that year the book was rejected by the journal Novy Mir where he had so often found a welcome. There followed the general crisis in his fortunes which the award of the Nobel prize in 1958 brought to a head. He achieved a world fame embarrassing both to himself and the Soviet government. The Writers’ Union expelled him; he was driven into isolation, and wrote in a despairing poem, published to his dismay by the London Daily Mail and the New York Herald Tribune:

I am finished, like a beast at the kill.
Somewhere are people, freedom, light,
But after me, the din of pursuit,
For me there is no way out.

Only on a trip to Georgia, where he was sent to keep out of the way while Harold Macmillan visited Moscow, did he encounter a large group of friends who made much of him.

In the essay on Chopin, Pasternak asks what makes an artist turn to realism. He suggests two things: “early impressionability in childhood,” followed by “conscientiousness in due course when he is mature.” Professor Barnes writes with balanced awareness about the effect of his parents upon the young Boris, “in many respects the most untypical of their four children”—he was the eldest—and “the most difficult.” To have grown up in the Pasternak household, dominated by the successful painter Leonid, whose wife, a virtuoso pianist, set aside her own career for the well-being of her husband and children, left the brilliant and sensitive boy no alternative to becoming an artist himself.

  1. 1

    Translated by Angela Livingstone in Pasternak on Art and Creativity (Cambridge University Press, 1985).

  2. 2

    Guy de Mallac, Boris Pasternak: His Life and Art (University of Oklahoma Press, 1981); Ronald Hingley, Pasternak: A Biography (Knopf, 1983).

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