Big Three

Letters: Summer 1926

by Boris Pasternak and Rainer Maria Rilke and Marina Tsvetayeva, edited by Yevgeny Pasternak and Yelena Pasternak and Konstantin M. Azadovsky, translated by Margaret Wettlin and Walter Arndt
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book, 251 pp., $24.95

Letters on Cézanne

by Rainer Maria Rilke, edited by Clara Rilke, translated by Joel Agee
Fromm International, 98 pp., $12.95

Nothing in literature is odder than the way in which the “atmosphere” of poets changes between one generation and the next. This extraordinary correspondence between Pasternak, Rilke, and Marina Tsvetayeva, sensitively fashioned by editorial commentary into a kind of seriocomic drama, seems already fixed in the distant past, light years away from any letters a poet might write today, if indeed he bothered to write letters at all.

Pasternak was a schoolboy of ten when he met Rilke, who in 1900 was paying his second and last visit to Russia, accompanied and looked after by his mothermistress, Lou Andreas-Salomé. Pasternak described the encounter, thirty years later, in his autobiographical work, Safe Conduct, which he dedicated to the memory of Rilke, who had then been dead four years:

On a hot summer day our express was about to leave Moscow’s Kursk Station. Just then someone in a dark Tyrolese cape approached our train window from the outside. A tall woman accompanied him. Father began talking to them about something that aroused the same warm interest in all three, but from time to time the woman exchanged brief remarks with Mother in Russian; the man spoke only German, and though I knew the language well, I had never heard it spoken as he spoke it.

Rilke in fact was so seduced by the Russian language that he had made strenuous and successful efforts to learn it, and had already translated poems and stories into German. He had even written poems of his own in Russian, of which Lou Andreas-Salomé, a native speaker, observed: “Though the grammar is pretty awful, they still somehow are mysteriously poetic.” Rilke’s reverence for all things Russian was so great that he even determined to go and live there with his young wife, Clara Westhoff, but since he could find no prospect of a job the idea was abandoned. He went instead to Paris, where he acted for a time as Rodin’s secretary, and developed the passion for Cézanne’s paintings which forms the subject of the letters written from Paris to his wife in 1907, letters that were probably intended to become a sort of extended critique and appreciation of the painter.

The artist Leonid Pasternak, the poet’s father, introduced Rilke to Tolstoy, whose books he had been illustrating; and Rilke and Leonid corresponded in Russian. The high-minded cosmopolitanism of those days, at least among artists and writers and the intelligentsia, might make us weep for what seems a vanished golden age of European culture. We are cut off from that Eden, out of which they were expelled by revolution and war. Not unnaturally their letters, after they had been blown apart by the explosion, seem full of nostalgia for bygone days; the emotions expressed between each other by these three poets, extravagant as they may now seem, represent a kind of clinging together after the catastrophe, an attempt to keep alive an old civilization of the feelings, in their art and in themselves.


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