Lady Byron
Lady Byron; drawing by David Levine


For who are we, and where from,
If after all these years
Gossip alone still lives on
While we no longer live?
—Pasternak, Zhivago Poems

The famous carry about with them a great weight of patriarchal baggage—the footnotes of their lives. Footnotes worry a lot. They, loved or unloved, seem to feel the winds of the future always at their back. The graves of the greatly known ones are a challenge to private history; the silence is filled with riddles and arcane messages.

These “attendants” are real people: mistresses and wives, sometimes but not often husbands; friends and enemies, partners in sudden assignations. Some have been the inspiration for poems or have seen themselves expropriated for the transformations of fiction. They have written and received letters, been lied to, embezzled, abandoned, honored, or slandered. But there they are, entering history with them, with the celebrated artists, generals, prime ministers, presidents, tycoons.

The future may be an enemy. Time can turn happy days and nights into nothing. It can uncover secrets that impugn experience. Children in old age struggle to remember games on the lawn, agreeable picnics once shared with the infamous old tyrant whose photograph keeps appearing in the newspapers as yet another drudge of information and interpretation offers the assertive intimacy of long study in a tone that would surpass all life acquaintance.

The maligned see their quarrels with the famed one as a battle which can have no ending, see themselves squirming in an eternity of calumny which they would contest with document, affidavit, witness—right up to their own death. The determination of footnotes cries to Heaven. Lady Byron vindicated!

“On his marriage-night, Byron suddenly started out of his sleep; a paper, which burned in the room, was casting a ruddy glare through the crimson curtains of the bed; and he could not help exclaiming, in a voice so loud it wakened Lady B., ‘Good God, I am surely in hell!”‘

Where are all my years, my thirteen confinements, my seven copyings of War and Peace, Sonya Behrs Tolstoy asked again and again. His denouement was most unkind. Forty-eight years and, of course, one quarrel will be the last and all is too late. She is kept away from the bedside in the stationmaster’s house. Distraught, accused, excluded beyond endurance, the Countess wanders about begging for reassurance, repeating, explaining her devotion, her understanding, her care. The young Pasternak, rushing with his father to the amazing, outstanding death scene, wrote in I Remember: “Good Lord, I thought, to what state can a human being be reduced, and a wife of Tolstoy at that!”

The Tolstoys knew all there was to be known about marriage and therefore all to be known about each other. More indeed than one is put on earth to understand. More than could be endured but certainly not more than could be recorded by one or the other. “Immense happiness…. It is impossible that this should end except with life itself.”1 And soon, quarrels, and he will be found writing: “I arrive in the morning, full of joy and gladness, and I find the countess in a tantrum…. She will wake up absolutely convinced that I am wrong and she is the most unfortunate woman alive!” She writes: “How can one love a fly that will not stop tormenting one?”

How real the Countess and her inflamed nerves are. There is no question of authenticity and she cannot maneuver with any more design than a trapped bat. With her mangled intelligence, her operatic, intolerable frenzies of distress, she comes forth still with an almost menacing aliveness, saying it all like a bell always on the alert. Years and years, threats of suicide, collapse, hysterias, and the swiftest remorse as defeat hits her at the most passionate moment of declaration. Weeping reunions: “The bonds uniting me to him are so close!… He is a weak child, delicate, and so sweet-tempered.” Again jealousies and plots. He feels a horrible “disgust and outrage” as he finds her creeping into his room when she imagines him asleep. She is looking for the will, or for the diary; always looking for herself in history, the self the pious, pedantic Tolstoyans would disinherit and deny, looking, too, to find the way to remain the inspiration, the adviser, the considered one whom the hated disciple, Chertkov, would supplant.

Problems of life and often the distorting, defacing mirror of his work, which sent forth its scarred images of home into the public life. When The Kreutzer Sonata was published with its murderous rages against carnal passion and marriage—“two convicts serving a life sentence of hard labor welded to the same chain”—the Countess felt herself mocked all over Russia, pitied even by the emperor, gossiped about in the street.

She recorded her feelings: “I always felt the book was directed against me, mutilated and humiliated me in the eyes of the whole world, and was destroying everything we had preserved of love for one another. And yet never once in my marriage have I made a single gesture or given a single glance for which I need feel guilty toward my husband.”


Also after the publication of The Kreutzer Sonata there were comic consequences for him, who had after all “stigmatized all fornicators.” Suppose his wife were to become pregnant again? “How ashamed I would be…,” he wrote. “They will compare the date of conception with the date of publication.”

It was, of course, impossible for the Countess to bring her will, her great temperament, and her devotion to Tolstoy into a harmony that could survive more than a few sundowns. The overwhelming scene, the tremendous importance of the union and its dismaying, squalid complications of feeling, Yasnaya Polyana, the children, the novels, the opinions. The programs for transcendence and her thoughts: “This vegetarian diet means that two menus have to be prepared instead of one, which adds to the cost and makes twice as much work.”

It is not quite clear how they found the time for the record—the fascinating, violently expressive record, like some strange oral history which catches the rises and falls of the voice, the impatience, the motive, the love itself heard in a sigh as sleep comes down—when it mercifully sometimes does. Every quarrel, every remorse, moments of calm and hope and memory. Diaries, rightly called voluminous, letters, great in number, sent back and forth. Longing for peace and the provocation of discord. “Until five in the morning he sighed, wept, and inveighed against his wife, while she, exhausted, momentarily contemplated suicide.” Momentarily.

The cross the Countess hung upon was not inadequacy or even that crucifixion of mismating, common enough in all conditions of life. It may be said of her that one cannot imagine anyone else as the wife of Tolstoy. Their struggles always have about them the character of fate. He is as vehemently occupied with her as she is with him. The record alone, each in so great a hurry to say what the day had brought, indicates a peculiar obsession, one of those obsessions often punitive and yet inescapable. She had energy and mind of an extraordinary sort and so she moved back and forth one can only say naturally, calling upon the word so often used to describe the greatness of Tolstoy’s art. She lived out a penalizing contradiction, devoted one minute, embattled the next. An adjutant, wracked by drama, brilliant in her arias; and then awakening to uncertainty, shame.

The Countess Tolstoy herself is a character in a great Russian novel, perhaps one by Dostoevsky rather than Tolstoy. Tatyana Tolstoy in her recently translated memoir, Tolstoy Remembered, writes about the more or less “serene” survival of her mother for nine years after Tolstoy’s death. Serene, perhaps, “but she retained one weakness: she was still afraid of what people would say and write about her when she had gone, she feared for her reputation. As a result she never let slip the slightest opportunity for justifying her words and actions. There was no weapon she would not use in her campaign of self-defense….”

The Countess Tolstoy had no more need for self-defense than a barking dog. But the eminence of Tolstoy brought the very existence of her frazzled nerves into question. The dazzling scrutiny they directed upon their marriage, leaving behind a rich dustheap of experience, was not a court of judgment, as she imagined, but simply their life itself.

In his beautiful reminiscence of Tolstoy, Gorky tells of walking along the beach with the “old magician,” watching the tides roll over the stones. “He, too, seemed to me like an old stone come to life, who knows the beginnings and the ends of things…. I felt something fateful, magical, something that went down into the darkness beneath him…as though it were he, his concentrated will, which was drawing the waves and repelling them.” No doubt the Countess felt also that Tolstoy controlled the tides. What she often could not do was to flow and ebb in the certainty of nature, like a wave.

Lady Byron: from her short union with Byron she got her name and a life-time of poisonous preoccupation. In her bad faith, deceits, and, above all, in her veiled intentions, so veiled indeed that gazing about with her intrepid glance she could not find the purpose of her intense lookings, there is nothing of the tragic exhaustion of the Countess Tolstoy. Lady Byron is unaccountable. She is self-directed, dangerously serious, and became a sort of Tartuffe in petticoats. “Marry Tartuffe and mortify your flesh!”


Lady Byron’s industry produced only one genuine product: the hoard of dissension, the swollen archives, the blurred messages of the letters, the unbalancing record of meetings, the confidences, the statements drawn up, and always the hints with their cold and glassy fascination. The hinter, Lady Byron, was in a drama upon which the curtain never came down, and never will. An eternity of first acts. Her marriage lasted one year, ending in 1816; Byron, the perpetrator, as the police now refer to the accused, died in 1824, a century and a half ago. But the story of the marriage and the separation knows no diminishment. Instead it accelerates, develops, metamorphoses: all of it kept bright by its original opacity, all enduring forever out of the brevity.

No doubt, Byron, hard-up, capriciously married Annabella Milbanke for her money and for the weary interest aroused by her first rejection of him. (When she at last accepted his offer, he is supposed to have said: “It never rains but it pours.”) She married Byron for the fame of his notoriety and because of its engaging unsuitability to her own nature. But most of all they seemed to have married in order to create the Separation.

The story is well known, but the details, told and retold so many times, are unknowable. “So here we must beware of ignoring the sharp incompatibility of Lady Byron’s original attitude and that which so suddenly took its place.” Or “Compare that with Lady Byron’s statement in 1830: the discrepancy, already observed by Drinkwater (1,54) is highly significant.” (These tangles quoted in G. Wilson Knight’s Lord Byron’s Marriage are but a few among hundreds in his book, and cannot indicate the manifold puzzlements in the huge number of important Byron studies, each with its dazed laborings to cope with the hoard.)

As for Byron, “On the sixth Byron cheerfully assured Lady Melbourne that ‘Annabella and I go on extremely well.”‘ However, “His opinion changed completely during the following week as he wrote to Lady Melbourne on the thirteenth: Do you know I have grave doubts if this will be a marriage now; her disposition is the very reverse of our imaginings” (Lord Byron’s Wife by Malcolm Elwin). Marry they did, allowing Hobhouse to make his famous remark, “I felt as if I had buried a friend.”

The Separation—often called. The Campaign—followed the next year, after the birth of a daughter, Ada. The legal inferiority of women and wives gave a good start to the rise of Lady Byron’s litigious temperature and to the onset of symptoms of “proof.” She also wanted custody of the child, even though most scholars think she greatly “overused” this point since it was hard to imagine Byron assuming the care. (He had once written his half-sister Augusta Leigh that the sound of her squalling children gave him “a great respect for Herod.”)

Byron had been throwing bottles of soda water on the ceiling (stains never found), posing with his pistols and bottle of laudanum by the bedside, and speaking of “crimes unimaginable.” Murder, sodomy, incest? None of these? All of these?

So began the vivacity of the separation months, the deliriums of dissimulation, the doctors consulted, the families, the meetings and the refusal of meetings, the solicitors and their huge bills, the advice of friends, the decisions taken and rescinded, the demands countermanded. All of this gave witness to the resonant incompatibility of the two persons, even though each might sometimes pretend for the “case” to warmer emotions drifting in and out.

The incongruity of Lady Byron was to have devoted a long life to a short marriage that ended in her youth. She had, at the church, taken an injection of poison into her veins. To Byron’s fame and uncertain character, to the charm and scandal of it, she would oppose her rectitude, her virtue, her injuries. But she did this in the most complicated, insinuating way, finding as she did that the achievement of a virtuous appearance in the midst of accusation of horrors is to ground oneself on ice. She slipped and slid, tottered and regained her balance with an almost admirable audacity and endurance.

The incest of Byron and his half-sister, Augusta: Lady Byron brought to her suspicious concentration on this an imagination in flame, a motive of the left and right, like the blinders worn by a horse, and behavior so shadowed with contradiction that it is only her pursuit of the theme that can be counted on. She was determined to prove the incest and yet was not quite sure when she preferred it to have taken place—the problem being an uncertainty about the usefulness of its continuing during her marriage.

“Now, she had two objects in view: one, to establish the fact absolutely, preferably by getting Augusta to confess, and thus to know for certain whether Byron had ever persuaded her to repeat the crime after his marriage (that was important to her)…. The jealousy which her principles would not allow her to acknowledge found sublimation in a truly sadistic zeal to extract the sin from Augusta’s life and save her” (Byron: A Biography by Leslie A. Marchand). Lady Byron was also sliding about on the wish to discover a secret and to insist she would not divulge what she had discovered. An insane complexity of effort went into divulging while not divulging. Byron thought her purpose was to “sanction the most infamous calumnies by silence.”

Lady Byron maintained a careful “friendship” with Augusta, broken only for a period late in life and even then mended. She was driven by a curiosity deeper than she knew and also by fear of losing control over any of the large cast of actors. Augusta experienced for years the most painful dilemmas of confusion. “Lady Byron presumably wants a confession of incest; Augusta, still not seeing the point, assumes she is merely being accused of some kind of disloyalty” (G. Wilson Knight).

Lady Byron had so many confidantes, advisers, doctors, and lawyers that of course the accusation was known to everyone—and, in any case, it had been spread about by Lady Caroline Lamb. Still, Lady Byron, talking and insinuating with a violent energy that left no gap, took moral refuge in a sort of legalistic balm of never having publicly stated or “confirmed” what she had spent so much time proving.

Toward the end of her life, she had her histrionic encounter with Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe. One could play a scene and the other could write it. They sequestered themselves after a luncheon in 1856, now forty years after the Separation. The “silent widow” spoke:

The great fact upon which all turned was stated in words that were unmistakable:

“Mrs. Stowe, he was guilty of incest with his sister!”

Lady Byron was “deathly pale.” HBS nodded, saying, yes, she had heard as much. Lady Byron went through her drama once more, starting with her childhood to set the stage. At one point, she was asked by the American sympathizer whether Mrs. Leigh was beautiful. Lady Byron answered, “No, my dear, she was plain.”

All of this appeared in Mrs. Stowe’s Lady Byron Vindicated, published after the death of the subject. There had been a Lord Byron Vindicated published the year before.

Lady Byron suffered in her calculations from the promptings of an outlandish pride. Her dilemma was that she took pride in the marriage to Lord Byron and pride in the separation. In her various positions assumed, many deforming conditions were working against one another. No sooner was she secure in her virtuous behavior than she was thrown from the ladder by the shakings of fame, which can turn every scandal into an attraction. She had always to be wary and wariness wore down her command of strategy. “Public outcry against Byron” could be punishing to him but it could not be depended upon. She understood this from the surest knowledge: her own peculiar attraction and pursuit of him, a man she deeply disapproved of.

Lady Byron, an arrogant, intelligent heiress, appears to have needed a daily, yearly exercise of power and to need it in union with moral superiority. She feared no one, unless it may be said that she feared the shade of Byron. Byron’s Memoirs, his account of the marriage and separation, was destroyed by a murky alliance of his own friends and Lady Byron’s supporters. In life it cannot be said that she feared Byron. When asked if she were not afraid of the madman, she said, “My eyes can stare down his” (G. Wilson Knight).

It was her own life rather than history Lady Byron was most zealous to conceal and color—and a good thing too. She, voluble, alert, devious, has been looked at subsequently with a devastating alertness to motive, wish, contradiction that rather resembles her own deep archival diggings for “proof.” In Doris Langley Moore’s new biography of the daughter, Ada, Lady Byron is standing naked under an avalanche of falling rock. Her ill-health, her charities, her friendship with Augusta, her resistance to publicity, her jealousy of kind servants, her devotion to her daughter, her truthfulness: every noun except jealousy must from Mrs. Moore’s researches be put into impugning quotations.

Lady Byron brought up her daughter, in relation to Byron, with a dreary contrariness, always displaying the will to retain and the will to renounce at the same time. Thus, a portrait of Byron hung in the house “perpetually covered by a green cloth.” Ada was made to know she was the daughter of a renowned poet, “but all specimens of his handwriting were locked away from her.”

Ada, an interesting result of the cynical union, was a good deal like her mother. She inherited from her mother—“the princess of parallelograms” as Byron called her—a genuine gift for mathematics. She had ambitions, too, and studied with the distinguished Professor Babbage, who was working on ideas later developed into computer mathematics. Ada married an agreeable, suitable man, who fell under the insistent domination of her mother.

There was much that was promising in the girl’s beginnings, but she began somehow to sink into the mud of maneuver, manipulation, and her own marked self-satisfaction. Her mathematical skill turned toward the race track and she soon lost money, went into lying and debt, and squirmed around miserably in the pit of blackmail. For badly diagnosed illness, and the for-once inattention of her mother who was intent upon her own notorious hypochondria, Ada went to larger and larger doses of morphine, to glittering eyes and vague drug elations and depressions. She suffered an excruciating death from cancer, dying when she was thirty-six and leaving Lady Byron to carry on for eight more years. To persevere with new problems of denial and blame, new ruptures, as Ada’s gambling debts were revealed.

Both Ada and Lady Byron were afflicted with the wrinkles of class arrogance. Ada’s belief in her own “phenomenal brain” inhibited the progress of her learning. Mother and daughter loved themselves too ardently. Mrs. Moore writes that Ada had a strong “desire to collaborate with Babbage in developing the intricate machinery to bring the computer to a state of practical usefulness, which would have been an unprecedented triumph for a woman.” But Ada was often high-handed with the great Babbage and wrote him letters in “an air of conceit which is not to be found in any claim her father ever made, even in his artless boyhood.” Riches, flattery for every cleverness, the oppression of her mother’s rule, cut Ada off from serious work while leaving her the comfort of a boastful superiority.

What was Lady Byron’s wish? If she was a victim, she was a most active one, responding long to Byron’s fame and her short connection with it. Byron, of course, fared better in the time he had to live after the separation. He soon produced an illegitimate child elsewhere, he traveled, wrote poems, occupied himself with ideas and certainly with life. He had other affairs, also “historic,” and also remembered and “published.” The Countess Guiccioli, “the last alliance” as Iris Origo calls her, wrote her own recollections for the world. After she was widowed, she married the Marquis de Boissy who, the report went, used to introduce her as “Lady Marquise de Boissy ma femme, ancienne maîtresse de Byron.”

Katherine Mansfield wrote in a letter to Middleton Murry: “Did you read in The Times that Shelley left on his table a bit of paper with a blot on it and a flung down quill? Mary S. had a glass case put over same and carried it all the way to London on her knees. Did you ever hear such rubbish!”

Tolstoy, after a miserable time, said about his wife: “She offers a striking example of the grave danger of placing one’s life in any service but that of God.” True—not that he meant it.


The loved ones—what a sinking it is from the high-flying insistence of the miserable to the slow, steady hum of affirmation. Egotists of affirmation have problems of form spared the truculent and the misrepresented, who carry their injuries about on their persons like a glass eye. In the pastoral mode, the drama will often come from without, from the obstructions of others, from the recalcitrance bred into the very nature of things, from bad reviews, the envy of rivals, tyrannies of the social order.

My Years With———are likely to form a part of the title. Blank must be one whose years with are of interest to others besides oneself. For compositions in the pastoral mode, friends perform more felicitously than family members or lovers: the gloss need not be so radiant. In love memoirs, psychological inquiry is either missing or inadvertent; one does not usually loiter over the question of why he might be loved. It is the loss of love that arouses the speculative faculty and its rich inventions.

Anna Dostoevsky and Nadezdha Mandelstam are in no way similar, except that both by character and intelligence survived marriage and devotion to great writers without loss of common sense. The diary kept by Anna Dostoevsky is a plain reminiscence of a life of singular shape. The gambling in German towns, the epileptic attacks, the composition of the great novels, the bitter contest with debts, greedy relations, thieving publishers, the raising of children: all of this survives in her modest intelligence and truthfulness. One cannot leave a record of another without leaving a record of himself.

Nadezdha Mandelstam’s two large volumes, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned, are of such brilliance and passion they cannot rightfully be called “memoirs.” Her books are a battle against tyranny and death. The poet, Mandelstam, was extinguished in the flesh during the Stalin purges. It was his widow’s determination to keep his poetry from extinction, to discover the awful circumstances of his murder in a prison camp, to write the history of the tyranny as she lived it, and still lives it, to analyze the circle in which they lived and Russia itself. In doing this, she has produced her own monument, one of the outstanding literary and moral achievements of her time.

Olga Ivinskaya, the mistress of Boris Pasternak, has written her book. It is called A Captive of Time: My Years with Pasternak. A florid, obsequious composition, issuing from an uncertain and harsh life. Her love memoir of her fourteen years as the mistress of Pasternak brings to mind that “fat brute of a word”—poshlust—as Nabokov examines it in his book on Gogol. “What the Russians call poshlust is beautifully timeless and so cleverly painted over with protective tints that its presence (in a book, in a soul, in an institution, in a thousand other places) often escapes detection.” Gogol tells a story of a German gallant, trying to conquer the heart of his Gretchen. “Every evening he would take off his clothes, plunge into the lake and, as he swam there, right under the eyes of his beloved, he would keep embracing a couple of swans which had been specially prepared for him for that purpose.” Here, as Nabokov has it, “you have poshlust in its ideal form and it is clear that the terms trivial, trashy, smug and so on do not cover the aspect it takes in this epic of the blond swimmer and the two swans he fondled.”

Pasternak met Olga Ivinskaya in 1946. He was fifty-six and she was thirty-four. The writer who, as Tsvetaeva remarked, “looked like an Arab and his horse,” was a revered, romantic figure. His beautiful work attracted to him the positive radiance that shines around the poet in Russian society, an effulgence matched by the negative reverence of the state, which displays itself in constant surveillance and oppression such as other countries would think a waste of time.

All young girls may have been in love with Pasternak, and many not so young. In any case, when Olga first attended a Pasternak reading she went home with her book and greeted an interruption by her mother with, “Leave me alone, I’ve just been talking to God!” They met, they met once more, fell in love, and ushered in, like a reign in history, the fourteen years.

It settled into a triangle, in which all suffered—he the least. Pasternak had been married to his second wife, Zinaida, for ten years. This second marriage took place from materials near at hand, perhaps one could call them. Zinaida’s first husband was the pianist Neigaus, and the two families were friends. The first Pasternak wife was a painter and they had one son. So there it was, done, in the past.

Olga herself had a daughter by her first marriage. The husband committed suicide: her second husband died. When Olga and Pasternak met, the marriage with Zinaida was a “mess”—but it had that paradoxical quality of marriages in being a solid mess. Ivinskaya’s habit is to put memories of conversations uttered long ago into direct quotations and, thus, dialogue of a doleful reduction sounds throughout her account. She quotes Pasternak on the state of things: “It was just my fate…and I realized my mistake during my first year together with Zinaida Nikolayevna. The fact is that it was not her I really liked, but Garrik [Neigaus] because I was so captivated by the way he played the piano. At first he wanted to kill me, the strange fellow, after she left him. But later on he was very grateful to me!” He explains that “in this hell” he had been living for ten years—and so on and so on.

Pasternak did not leave Zinaida and in a deep hidden way that fact is the occasion for this book. Ivinskaya’s love-haunted spirit wanders in the shades without rest, needing always proof of love from him and proof offered to the world. This is a curiosity since she is a great deal better known to the world than the wife and even appears in the 1975 Columbia Encyclopedia as an “intimate friend and collaborator,” in the entry on Pasternak. She was an openly acknowledged, beloved mistress.

Still the memory of his hesitations troubled. From the beginning she reports her mother’s nagging: “They were always harping on the need for BL [Pasternak] to make a clean break and leave his family, if he really loved me.” Her mother rang up, made scenes, which Pasternak tried to “fend off,” assuring everyone that he loved Olga more than life, but that one couldn’t change things so quickly. Even when Olga is in the prison camp her mother renews the theme in a letter to her: “He lives in a fantastic world which he says consists entirely of you—yet he imagines this need not mean any upheaval in his family life, or in anything else. Then what does he think it means?” (There may be something Russian in all this. A marvelous scene in Mrs. Mandelstam’s book: Mandelstam for a time also had his Olga. At one point her mother came to the house and in the wife’s presence urged Mandelstam to take the daughter off to the Crimea. When Nadia objected, the mother told her to shut up, that “she was here to talk business with her old friend Mandelstam.”)

Of the fourteen years with Pasternak, Olga spent four in a prison camp, entering in 1949 and coming out in 1953. The caprice of Stalin’s imprisonments and murders leaves each one under a question mark of motivation. To look for provocation, however insignificant, is to imagine a lingering legality, or appearance of legality, even in the heart of the most anarchic criminal whim. The immediate prelude to her arrest had to do with dealings about her desperate need for an apartment where she could meet with Pasternak. The woman involved in this turned out to be engaged in dishonest bribes and was arrested. Ivinskaya’s arrest followed immediately. However, in so far as one can tell, the true reason for the arrest was her relation to Pasternak. In a letter written some years later he says: “She was put in jail on my account, as the person considered by the secret police closest to me, and they hoped that by means of grueling interrogation and threat they could extract enough evidence from her to put me on trial. I owe my life and the fact that they did not touch me in these years to her heroism and endurance.”

The strangeness of Olga’s arrest to inform on Pasternak is equaled by the caprice of Pasternak’s escape from arrest during the most brutal years of Stalinism. Everyone who writes about him ponders his lucky fate, just as the ill fate of so many was the subject of tragic speculation. “Do not touch this cloud dweller,” Stalin is rumored to have said when Pasternak’s name came up for arrest. But that is only a rumor, a suggestion of some benign fascination with Pasternak on the part of Stalin—a peculiar quirk that may have been true in fact.

Ilya Ehrenberg wrote, “I can see no logic in it,” and wondered why “Stalin did not touch Pasternak, who maintained his independence, while he destroyed Koltsov, who dutifully did everything he was asked to do.” In his introduction to Alexander Gladkov’s Meetings with Pasternak,2 Max Hayward recounts various complicated hypotheses for the relative immunity of the free-spirited Pasternak. Perhaps Stalin did not want the squalor of the Mandelstam case repeated; or it has been noted that Pasternak’s refusal to sign the abominable hyperbole of the letter sent to Stalin on the death of his wife, whom some think he murdered and others believe committed suicide, while sending instead a courteous, reserved note of his own, may have moved Stalin by its “sincerity.” The most appalling theory of all is Gladkov’s bitter view that they had decided to “make do with Meyerhold and Babel,” both of whom lost their lives.

Pasternak was indeed persecuted in the literary and spiritual sense, and in spending most of the 1930s doing translations experienced an “inner migration”—the refuge of gifted writers. He was expelled from the Writers Union, harassed and denounced over the Nobel Prize, and yet he kept his treasured house in Peredelkino and his work, with the exception of Doctor Zhivago and some of the religious poems, is not only published but “canonized.”

During Olga’s prison years Pasternak supported her family, who otherwise would have starved. In 1950, he had his first heart attack, soon after her arrest; in 1952, he had a second attack, a year before she was released in 1953. At this time he wrote to Olga’s mother, saying that his wife had saved him. “I owe my life to her. All this, and everything else as well—everything I have seen and gone through—is so good and simple. How great are life and death and how insignificant the man who does not know it.”

Just before Olga’s release he seemed to fall into a kind of panic, perhaps a dream of retreat. A message was sent to her daughter, saying that perhaps “a change might come about in our relationship,” meaning that it would not fall back into the previous fixed and settled intimacy. As always, Olga, writing in retrospect, skates around this rock as if it were a pebble. And indeed she must, having set for herself two mind-numbing conditions: first, an idealized human being, Pasternak, and secondly an idealized love, without pause, for herself. His hesitation on the doorstep of reunion is described as “candor, guileless charm and undeniable heartlessness.” Olga’s words, in moments of distress, always war with each other, although it is a rhetorical slaughter between dummies on horseback. And always the nouns and adjectives of a sunny armistice prevail. They reunite: “In short, our life, after being torn apart by sudden separation, all at once bestowed an unexpected gift on him—so once more nothing mattered except the “living sorcery of hot embraces,’ the triumph of two people alone in the bacchanalia of the world.” Bacchanalia?

There is nothing she will not write. “While I was with him it was not given to him to grow old.” She presses us to read between the lines to find any of the reality of this now ill man, with the desperate personal and financial conditions of his life, with his devotion above all to finding peace in which to work, with his past, his age, his love for her which like any love, especially an additional one, brings along the moonbeams of guilt and confusion with its happiness. Other tarred statements of his offered in direct quotations: “Let us not look ahead, or complicate matters, or hurt other people’s feelings…. Would you want to be in the place of that unfortunate woman?” Indeed, yes, she would.

He reassures: “For years now we have been deaf to each other…and of course she is only to be pitied—she has been deaf all her life—the dove tapped at her window in vain…. And now she is angry because something real has come to me—but so late in life!” Olga’s own thoughts sum up: “Happy as I felt at being his chosen one, I had to listen to narrow-minded reproaches and expressions of sympathy, and this upset me…. I suppose I longed for recognition and wanted people to envy me.”

Ivinskaya speaks of her book as one he wanted her to write. Pasternak, with the miraculous purity and lyricism of his own style in poems and in prose, with his brilliant portrait in Safe Conduct of Mayakovsky and the “black velvet” of his talent, and the magical sweep of Doctor Zhivago, her book, did not catch her ear. As a reminder of his own way with a sliver of imagined speech, his thoughts on the suicide of the gifted, corrupt Fadeyev, head of the Writers Union:

And it seems to me that Fadeyev, with that guilty smile which he managed to preserve through all the cunning intricacies of politics, could bid farewell to himself at the last moment before pulling the trigger with, I should imagine, words like these: “Well, it’s all over! Good-bye, Sasha!”

[from I Remember]

Olga’s jealousy of Mrs. Pasternak is not mitigated by her own reports of Pasternak’s discreditable animadversions on Zinaida, who died in 1966 and thus was not an impediment to discourteous description. A meeting between the two women is left for “history” by Olga and here she admits that she was ill and perhaps hasn’t got it quite straight. “I no longer remember exactly what passed between me and this heavily built, strong-minded woman, who kept repeating how she didn’t give a damn for our love and that, although she no longer loved BL [Pasternak] herself, she would not allow her family to be broken up.” There is no reason this scene should be credited literally, especially since the notion that a rival does not love, but is instead moved only by the slyest attention to self-interest, is a provincial vulgarity.

Zinaida Pasternak does not get a good “press” from any account readily at hand, unless it may be considered that Pasternak’s legal, “semi” fidelity is a sort of remote credit. In Hope Abandoned, Mrs. Mandelstam tells of a visit to Peredelkino: “He told us he thought his wife was baking a cake down in the kitchen. He went to tell of our arrival, but came back looking glum; she clearly wanted to have nothing to do with us.” A few years later, during a time of their great suffering, Zinaida said on the telephone to the Mandelstams: “Please don’t come out here to Peredelkino.” Worst of all, the scandal of the wife of Pasternak saying, “My children love Stalin most of all, and me only second.”

A scene for which research turned up two versions: Toward the end of his life, Pasternak went with his wife for a visit to the Caucasus: as Olga puts it, Zinaida “took him off to Tiblis with her.” Olga was wounded and angry and Pasternak begs her not to talk like a bad novel. She went off to Leningrad and refused to answer his sad, lonely letters—but of course soon she is remorseful. “To this very day the misery of this last quarrel in our life still gnaws at me.”

An account of the visit is given in the introduction Lydia Pasternak wrote for her translation of an English selection of her brother’s poems. “This short visit to the Caucasus had a wonderful effect on my brother. The wild majestic scenery, the universal love and admiration for him of the Georgians, the freedom and the recollections of the happy days they had both spent in the same surroundings in the Thirties, before their marriage—all of this gave Pasternak new strength and a feeling of peace and fulfillment. He returned to Peredelkino happy and rejuvenated….” Who can say? Sisters often incline toward the status quo.

Lara in Doctor Zhivago—when a friend from abroad meets Olga: “She said we were exactly as she had imagined us—BL and me,” “‘Lara,”‘ Pasternak wrote in a letter to a Swedish correspondent: “Lara, the heroine of the novel, is someone in real life. She is a woman very close to me.” Zinaida is also, he says, somewhere in the conception of Tonia, Zhivago’s wife. In this respect, Pasternak wrote, on this occasion in a quoted letter, “my wife’s passionate love of work, her eager skill in everything—in washing, cooking, cleaning, bringing up the children—has created domestic comfort, a garden, a way of life and daily routine, the calm and quiet needed for work.”

In A Captive of Time, the dilemmas of Pasternak’s career are examined with the fullest compassion: his survival, his leanings toward Christianity, the famous telephone conversation with Stalin when Mandelstam was arrested, his response to the desperation of Tsvetaeva just before her suicide, the cringing letter to Khrushchev renouncing the Nobel Prize, a letter Ivinskaya says she wrote herself and urged upon Pasternak. There is much of interest in all of this even if it comes, also, under the disaster of Ivinskaya’s style and the hallucinated folly of the transformation of life and history into questions of their love.

What is the intention of her book and to whom is it addressed? All we know is that it has been sent out to the West, to us, and in some odd fashion sent back to herself, her memories. “My love! I now come to the end of the book you wanted me to write…. The greater part of my conscious life has been devoted to you—and what is left of it will also be devoted to you.” What is the meaning of conscious?

After Pasternak’s death, Ivinskaya and her daughter were arrested on the claim, or pretext, of dealing with rubles smuggled into the country by way of the Feltrinelli firm, Italian publishers of Doctor Zhivago. She served another four years. The misery of this life seemed to have no ending. It must be said of Ivinskaya that she can take a cold, icy bullet into her flesh, pull it out with a wince, sugar it and offer it to the world, to herself mostly, as a marsh-mallow. Out of prison once more, she speaks of the “total lack of sympathy for me in influential Soviet circles.” Here she is not speaking only of party hacks, but of the hostility of such persons as the courageous novelist, Lidia Chukovskaya, who even at this moment is being persecuted in the Soviet Union as a defender of human rights. Another puzzle.

Ivinskaya is now old, poor, and bereft. Pasternak’s death certainly left her quite undefended, without, as she says somewhere, “the protection of his name.” She has occupied herself with this book, a success in the West. There is much awry in her character and understanding, and thus Pasternak, one of the great writers of the century and a man who seemed to have no enemies, is much reduced. But that is the turn of the wheel of history for him. Her own apotheosis, so beautifully accomplished in Pasternak’s poems to her and in the novel, in the many hundreds of letters in her keeping, might better have been left to stand alone.

At the end of Hope Abandoned, Mrs. Mandelstam prints a letter she wrote to Mandelstam just before she learned of his death. It was never sent, was put away, retrieved thirty years later. She speaks of her love in a way that her quirky, thorny nature might not have allowed years before. It is one of the most beautiful letters we have:

…You came to me every night in my sleep, and I kept asking what had happened, but you did not reply. In my last dream I was buying food for you in a filthy hotel restaurant…. When I had bought it, I realized I did not know where to take it, because I do not know where you are. When I woke up, I said to Shura, “Osia is dead.”

The letter ends: “It’s me, Nadia. Where are you? Farewell.”

Postscript: Husbands

From Close to Colette by Maurice Goudeket:

There is great temptation to consider that the intimate hours of a person or a couple, whatever their public position may be, belong to themselves alone. But when a wave of fervour such as has rarely been seen irradiated the last years of Colette…would it be fair not to offer in exchange the most precious thing one has kept?

Mmmmm. So, a modest memoir, not very interesting. Houses, gardens, animals, food, journeys in motor cars, holidays on handsome yachts, writing, the German occupation, death. “Suddenly there was silence and Colette’s head bent slowly to one side, with a movement of infinite grace.”

Katherine Mansfield, Letters and Journals, edited by C.K. Stead.

From the introduction by Stead:

Murry’s promotion of his wife’s literary remains brought him royalties and opprobrium and increased her fame. The good and the bad seem inextricably mixed in his work on her behalf. He transcribed, edited, and wrote commentaries tirelessly but in a way which encouraged a sentimental, and sometimes a falsely mystical interest in her talent. He could not keep himself out of the picture either, seeing the development of her art always in relation to the development of her feeling for him.

This Issue

May 18, 1978