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 and 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.

In what form that destiny was to be fulfilled would take all his adolescence to find out, and bring considerable pain both to himself and to his parents. Relations with Leonid, whom throughout his life he admired intensely, were strained in the process. Their father is described by Boris’s sister, Lydia Pasternak, as having “an exaggerated sense of responsibility and duty which made his personal life more austere and difficult than it need have been.” His severity was supported by his friendship with Tolstoy, who chose him to illustrate his last major novel, Resurrection, which he did superbly.

Tolstoy remained one of the controlling presences in Boris’s life. Pasternak took up as early as 1918 the theme of conscience, whereas “amoralism” was proclaimed by the Futurists as a right of the artist. Tolstoy’s devastating candor, his fearlessness in exposing the sham, served as a touchstone for Pasternak, until he turned, after the Second World War, to the restraint and gentle firmness of Chekhov.

The son of Leonid, the metaphorical godson of Tolstoy—what else could he become than an artist of unyielding principle? His father liked to relate how “I always said to him: Be honest in your art—and your enemies will be powerless against you.” This stern advice, as from a Roman father sending his son into battle, proved to be Pasternak’s salvation, though at a terrible cost. He defined himself in a letter of 1927:

I am the son of an artist, I have observed art and important people from my earliest days, and I have become accustomed to treating the sublime and exclusive as something natural, as the norm of life.

These are proud, almost arrogant words; but if the “sublime and exclusive” were “something natural,” then he wanted them to be, like joy for Wordsworth, “in widest commonalty spread.” That was the vision he saw realized, or so it seemed to him, in the first weeks after the February revolution of 1917. At such times of release, “people grow a head taller, and marvel at themselves, and do not recognize themselves—people become heroes of legend.” He would often contrast genius and mediocrity. Genius was man fully alive, man liberated, mediocrity the forces of cramping inertia that gradually overcame his nation.

The important people he met were not dissemblers of their own mediocrity. Rilke, for instance, who sat for his portrait by Leonid and became Leonid’s friend, and Scriabin, an intimate of the family, would both have a profound significance for the young Pasternak. He observed them, it goes without saying, in order to learn from their example as artists. Scriabin inspired him to follow in what he calls “the steps of my divinity” and to compose music on which Barnes as a musicologist and performer himself writes exceptionally well. He points out that Pasternak, though a brilliant improviser, was deficient in technique, and certainly in his earlier compositions had been “taken over by Scriabin.” Pasternak’s excuse that he lacked perfect pitch seems to have masked the awareness that his destiny lay elsewhere. Upon breaking with music, he would be guided by Scriabin to read philosophy. From Rilke he claims to have gained the inspiration for Safe Conduct.

Alexander Pasternak, his brother, tells how the children grew up to the sound of their mother’s piano playing, and with the smell of varnish newly laid on their father’s paintings. Normal life for them was the milieu in which art was practiced. Observing art means to have seen the process for himself in his father’s studio, or to have overheard Scriabin at work on the Third Symphony. He never lost his awareness, confirmed by the brief stay at Marburg as a philosophy student, that “a basic unity,” in Fleishman’s words, “permeates all human culture.” Pasternak, while very much a Muscovite, is no less European in his horizons than Mandelstam, and he would later in difficult times be sustained by English and German poetry. He never lost the sense of belonging to the European tradition of literature, philosophy, and the arts. And in his many reflections on aesthetics it is less often the poet than the artist in general that he considers. In one poem celebrating “the stubborn nature / Of the artist in his power,” the word he uses is artiste, with its associations of stage performance. Like Hamlet in Zhivago’s poem, the artist is exposed to a myriad watching eyes as he acts out a role he dare not refuse.

As a child Pasternak showed aptitude for drawing; though deficient in technique, he was highly musical; and as a promising philosopher he caught the eye of Hermann Cohen at Marburg. (It delighted him in the early weeks of the Second World War to discover that he could be a first-rate marksman.) And Pasternak grew up during a renaissance of the arts in Russia. No time could have been more propitious for his development than the last few years leading up to 1914—after that the twentieth century unveiled what it had in store. When he finally committed himself to literature in 1913, his singularity at once stood out. Even in the first tentative prose and poetry there was no question that a powerful talent was trying to find utterance. In the literary group to which he belonged, finding its way from Symbolism to meet the noisy challenge of the Futurists, Pasternak was already the theoretician.

It soon became evident that he did not care for group intrigue and literary politics. In the summer of 1914 he met Vladimir Mayakovsky, four years his junior, but already a poet who had discovered his own plangent and hectoring voice. They were immediately drawn to each other, and Pasternak’s loyalty continued long after Mayakovsky’s views following the Bolshevik revolution had become increasingly alien to him. Pasternak was the more percipient about the regime that Mayakovsky so vociferously supported, as well as about the consequences of the course Mayakovsky had chosen. Already by 1915 Pasternak had seen the necessity of defining a style for himself in contrast to Mayakovsky’s. When in the revolutionary summer of 1917 he wrote most of the poems making up My Sister Life, published in 1922, Pasternak felt assured that the authenticity of his own work was unassailable.

At this time, Viktor Shklovsky met Pasternak in Berlin, where he had gone with his young wife, an artist, to visit his parents and two sisters, who had left Soviet Russia. Shklovsky, a keen observer but in this case a less keen prophet, said: “He will surely be loved, pampered, and great to the end of his life.” However he did notice that Pasternak was “uneasy,” as though sensing that “Russian Berlin is going nowhere.” Shklovsky had presumed him to be a happy man. All the outward signs were there. Pasternak’s verse had come as a revelation to the younger poets who all tried to catch his note. Even the older poet Valery Briusov, once a formidable chieftain among the Symbolists, paid him that compliment. But celebrity was not a necessity to Pasternak. Dissatisfied with Berlin, he returned home to Moscow and threw in his lot with Mayakovsky and his Left Front of Art (Lef).

Among the heirs of Futurism, particularly the group led by Mayakovsky, which attracted younger poets like Aseev and Kirsanov, and literary theorists like Shklovsky and Osip Brik, Pasternak’s position toward the Futurists was ambiguous, as it was toward other developments in Soviet life throughout his career. He stood firmly with Lef against their lethal adversaries in RAPP (Russian Association of Proletarian Writers), because the latter could rely on official favor. At the same time he knew that his originality could not be accommodated in Lef; Mayakovsky’s creative power was already sapped by political loyalties. Most of all, Pasternak felt, as so often he would, that his own reputation was not wholly deserved. Later he expressed this as “living on credit.” The writings that had gained him such impressive acclaim had come from a now distant time. A long poem of 1923, Malady Sublime, revealed deep misgivings about the place of poetry, if one really existed, in the new order, and equally the place of the intelligentsia, who were fecklessly conniving at their own destruction.

He wrote two epic poems about the first Russian revolution, 1905 and Lieutenant Schmidt. They did not appeal to Mayakovsky. The hero of the second poem is caught in the revolutionary upsurge and accepts his doom with the resignation that Pasternak saw in another sacrificial figure, Hamlet. Marina Tsvetaeva wrote to Pasternak that Lieutenant Schmidt, “an inspired student from the end of the ‘90s,” was “a brake on the poem,” which swept past him. As she put it in a later essay, the “real protagonist” is not the lieutenant but “trees at the meeting.” Always with Pasternak, she noted, it was “the elements and not people” that stole the scene.

Tsvetaeva had suddenly found in 1922 that Pasternak’s poetry was close to her own ideal. Verse, she said, was “the formula of his being” for Pasternak, as it was for herself: inevitable, inimitable, and having the “specialism” that was hers too, something beyond literary questions—life. A poem of 1924 by Tsvetaeva tells him exultingly:

In a world where all
Is mold and ivy,
I know: only
You are equal in being

To me.

Pasternak read her volume of that year, Milestones, and he too was thrilled by their affinities. They met as it were under the aegis of Rilke, on whose death Tsvetaeva wrote in 1927 one of her most remarkable poems. Not in a political sense but in their immediate response to the heartbeats of the age, each poet was a genuine revolutionary. Their intimacy by post developed, at an alarming speed, with an incandescence that threatened to burn up Pasternak’s marriage. Tsvetaeva was very much alone as an émigré, Pasternak increasingly so in the Soviet Union. Her critical essay on My Sister Life, entitled “A Downpour of Light,” is itself luminous in uncovering the bedrock of his talent. She understood perfectly the confused style, baffling to the well-disposed Maxim Gorky (who did however appreciate the “more classical” 1905 and the prose novella, The Childhood of Luvers); she saw Pasternak’s greatness as something yet to be realized—he alone among contemporary writers belonged to the future. And this she connected with his primitivism: Pasternak had been made before Adam.

Meanwhile, he was living in a treacherous climate. Before the dispersal of much talent abroad after the civil war, there had still been, even while Petrograd and Moscow were starving, a tingle of creativity in the air. As the 1920s wore on, the casualties of the decade began to show. Gumilev was shot, Akhmatova excluded, Mandelstam banished to the margins of literature; Khlebnikov died of typhus, Esenin committed suicide; Mayakovsky abandoned Lef to found Ref, his Revolutionary Front of Art, which placed itself abjectly at the service of the Party.

Pasternak ruefully acknowledged that “seven years of moral slumber” were ended for him only by the shock of Rilke’s death in late December 1926. The lyrical impulse in Pasternak had been frustrated since the great period of 1917–1918; for him, to be moral in the fullest sense was to be wholly alive, as in his most authentic poetry. He and Tsvetaeva had communicated with Rilke shortly before the latter’s death; and Rilke, found to be aware of Pasternak’s own verse, recalled Pasternak to his true poetic self. Tsvetaeva wrote subsequently of Rilke that he had been born as “the antidote to our time.” “Like a priest in the field of battle,” he was needed “to pray for the enlightenment of the living and the forgiveness to the fallen.” That was to become Pasternak’s own role when he conceived Doctor Zhivago.

No writer could have seemed less fit to survive in a world where “comradely criticism” was freely offered by the hit men of mediocrity. Fleishman’s great service has been to demonstrate Pasternak’s sound instinct, which alerted him to the dangers lying beneath any softening in official attitudes. He had the reputation of being a naif, even provocative in his unworldliness. How many times would Pasternak’s detractors quote the notorious lines: “Tell me, my dears, which / Millennium is going on out there?” Yet against all appearances he could read the times only too well. He made some errors in judgment. Like many others he put too much trust in the specious Stalin Constitution of 1936, surely the grandest Potemkin village ever set up in Russia, with its “guaranteed” rights of the citizen, which were to prove quite meaningless. But this had been mainly drafted by Bukharin, who was always considerate to Pasternak, as he also was to the Mandelstams. Pasternak shared the belief of Bukharin and Gorky that a “loyal opposition” of the intelligentsia could be tolerated.

The storm signals went up in 1929 with the persecution of Zamiatin and Pilniak, the latter a close friend of Pasternak’s. The pressure from RAPP on Mayakovsky was growing unbearable, so that he joined in the witch hunt. Pasternak aligned himself with Gorky against this savage attack on two writers who had published their work abroad. The suicide of Mayakovsky in 1930, which shocked Pasternak profoundly, came at a time when he was already driven to think out his position anew. He wrote movingly about Mayakovsky in Safe Conduct, and in the third and final section the suicide takes the central place. He had been quick to perceive the inner uncertainty in Mayakovsky, even though there had fallen to him, as Pasternak thought, the lot of being premier poet in their generation. When Pasternak heard the “tragedy” Vladimir Mayakovsky recited by its principal character, he saw that the poet had become “not the author, but the subject of a lyric, addressed in the first person to the whole world.” Pasternak witnessed his subsequent tragic course, from one false position to another, until his suicide in 1930. This, Pasternak wanted to believe, set him utterly apart from his comrades, as the unique citizen of an age still to come.

Now Pasternak himself became more exposed than ever. He was being cast for the role of leading Soviet poet, and instinctively he recoiled.

T.S. Eliot observed that “a man who is capable of experience finds himself in a different world in every decade of his life.” Pasternak was certainly “capable of experience,” and the 1930s proved exceptionally testing for him. He needed to summon up unusual civic courage on a number of occasions, notably when in 1937 he refused to sign a letter demanding the death penalty for Marshal Tukhachevsky; and again in the same terrible year he wrote to Bukharin in the Kremlin, who was already marked out for destruction after the trial of his associate Radek. Pasternak told him “there are no forces that can compel me to believe in your treachery.”

The book of poems published in 1932, Second Birth, marked a new beginning, but it failed signally to satisfy him. A second marriage had indeed brought renewal, as had a visit to Georgia, “a land miraculously preserved from any break in her continuity, a land remaining close to the soil,…where reality prevails day in, day out, however great her present privations.” The renewal he desperately sought was to achieve a simplicity of utterance which had so far eluded him. He could write little of his own poetry during the decades, but at the end of 1932 work began on the prose novel that eventually emerged as Doctor Zhivago. In the prewar period this could only prove abortive, because, as his son remarks, he “lacked the feeling of a climate of freedom, of any universality of social life based on a unity of perceived values.” Only the German invasion and the comradeship of the Soviet people in resisting it could change that situation.

Meanwhile, the “organized mediocrity” of the Five Year Plans, and the no less organized (and aggressive) mediocrity of the Union of Soviet Writers, founded in 1934, merely emphasized his isolation. At various writers’ conferences Pasternak spoke out with a boldness that dismayed his colleagues. He called for the directness of Tolstoy in the place of official cant; he refused to dirty his hands by signing denunciations; he put up with a kind of polite ostracism, marveling that he had not been arrested when others fell on every side of him. But Peredelkino, the writers’ village outside Moscow where he was first granted a dacha in 1936, gave Pasternak “a source of health and peace.” “There is only one healthy element in me or around me—“ he wrote to his parents, “nature and work.”

The work that earned him a living was translation, at the beginning from his friends the Georgian poets, whom he greatly admired. In January 1939 Meyerhold commissioned him to translate Hamlet for a future production. Only five months after this came the arrest of Meyerhold, who died in prison, and the atrocious murder of his wife. Hamlet had always held great significance for Pasternak. He interpreted it as a drama of duty and self-denial. Hamlet is called upon to face a cruel world alone and to pass judgment on the time. Pasternak’s work on this play, as on Goethe’s Faust after the war, enthralled him as much as any writing of his own. Hamlet in particular, like Shakespeare’s Sonnet 66, “Tired with all these…,” spoke to his own condition. Translating the play meant for him not only “happiness” but “salvation.” The work was carried out when at any time the trapdoor might open beneath him.

Later, in the first months of the war, when evacuated to Chistopol, he experienced the same happiness as he translated Romeo and Juliet, in near privation, but with Shakespeare as his ally against barbarism. The war itself played some part in his exultation. Pasternak had thrown himself heart and soul into fire watching before he left Moscow. This was a return to the life of a genuine community. A visit to the Briansk front in 1943, when the tide of war had turned, was very important to him. The general in command took to Pasternak: “We liked him because of his open disposition, and his lively and sympathetic attitude toward people.” The soldiers wondered: “Is this really Pasternak?”

In 1940, on the eve of the war, he had at last achieved in his poetry the ambition to “attain Pushkin’s succinctness.” Poetry miraculously came back after “the interval of silence” since 1932. On a visit to Georgia in 1945 he resolved to write “a novel on the fate of his generation.”

The making of Doctor Zhivago was to absorb and delight him from the summer of 1946 to the end of 1955. But his situation had become once more far from tranquil. Akhmatova and Zoshchenko were expelled in 1946 from the Writers’ Union; the campaign against “cosmopolitanism” raged perilously close to him; and he complicated his own life by falling in love with Olga Ivinskaya. She gave him a new conception of his heroine Lara, and the relationship brought a renewal of lyric force to his writing. But the strains within Pasternak’s family increased. When Olga was arrested and sent to the gulag, Pasternak found himself in the position of Tolstoy, whom the authorities in his last years had similarly tormented, by arresting those near to him, while leaving him untouched. Pasternak was deeply troubled by Olga’s suffering, but on her return he wanted initially to end the relationship. It was resumed, with the accompanying burden of guilt. To support two households he took on a prodigious burden of translating.

The reception of Zhivago among the friends to whom he read it was mixed. Some were ecstatic in their praise, others puzzled by its apparent clumsiness—the implausible coincidences, the didactic passages, and the conception of Yury Zhivago himself, a doctor who abandoned medicine, a husband who gave up wife and children, and yet delivered judgments upon most of his contemporaries, without right of appeal. The book affronted Jewish readers by stating boldly, through two of its principal characters, Gordon and Lara, that assimilation to Christianity was necessary and right. “You,” Gordon tells the Jews, “are the first and best Christians in the world.” Pasternak’s aversion toward Zionism arises largely from a belief similar to Berdyaev’s that nationalism in any form constituted “a betrayal of Russian universalism.”

Discussing “socialist freedom” in 1936, Pasternak declared in Izvestia: “There is no force on earth which could grant me freedom if I do not already have the potential for it and if I myself do not take it.” Yury Zhivago had both the potential and the conviction to take freedom, however disastrous the consequences for family and social life. This is the explosive charge at the heart of Pasternak’s novel, and it accounts for the book’s extraordinary success when it was published in the West thirty years ago. Zhivago is perhaps the one artist in a fictional work who—with the splendid poems in the seventeenth chapter—really can prove his artistic power. These poems affect our view of what has happened before; and a new dimension, already indicated in the novel, comes into being. What society considers to be Zhivago’s failure is shown to be its opposite:

With me are people without names,
Trees, children, homekeepers.
I am overcome by them all,
And that is my sole victory.

In the first poem Zhivago sees himself as a Hamlet, who must also face his Gethsemane. The artist is not identified with Christ, but his activity must be an imitation of Christ in its readiness for sacrifice. The sequence of poems is complex and full of connections—even with Pasternak’s own experience in his separation from Ivinskaya:

From the threshold the man looks
Not recognizing the house.
Her going was like a flight,
Everywhere signs of havoc.

In “August,” foreseeing his death, the poet bids farewell to creativeness and miracle working, just as in the last poem of all Christ yields up His onmipotence and His miracle-working. The final image of this poem affirms the purpose of the entire book:

And as they float rafts down a river,
For me to judge like barges in a convoy
The centuries will drift out of dark- ness.

Witness to the time is inevitably a judgment, sub specie aeternitatis.

Peter Levi quotes Pasternak’s old friend, the philosopher Valentin Asmus, as saying over the poet’s grave: “His quarrel with our times was not with one regime or one state: he desired a society of a higher order.” Such a possibility Pasternak had caught sight of in the spring of 1917. That was the transcendent hour of My Sister Life. Its afterglow floods Doctor Zhivago.

After Stalin’s death, Pasternak confided to his cousin Olga Freidenberg: “My future was shaped in precisely the way I myself shaped it.” That is true also of Akhmatova, Mandelstam, and Tsvetaeva. Pasternak stands equal to them, by reason of exceptional talent, like theirs at the service of an indomitable spirit.

  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).