Boris Pasternak


Background information, Questions for Reading, and further resources

Boris Leonidovich Pasternak was born in Moscow in February of 1890, one of four children. His father, Leonid, was a well-known artist and art professor, known for his pastels and for portraits of famous Russians. His mother, Rosa Kaufman, was a concert pianist who gave up her career after marriage and taught her children music. Pasternak's family had converted to Russian orthodoxy (the issue of residence and other restrictions on Jews in the Russian Empire made conversion to Christianity appealing for many, though the option of conversion to some Protestant denomination that were not associated with the tenets of the Russian state appealed more to others, such as the poet Osip Mandel'shtam, who became a Lutheran). Pasternak grew up in a very cultured fin-de- siècle Moscow intellgentsia home where famous and prominent people would visit the in-house concerts and other cultural events (he recalled coming downstairs as a small child to see the spookily familiar face of none other than Leo Tolstoy, and as an older child he met Rainer Maria Rilke while the latter was visiting Russia with Lou Andreas-Salomé). (See his later correspondence with Rilke and Marina Tsvetaeva, below.) His first vocation was music, composition for piano in particular, but he was troubled by not having perfect pitch, unlike his mother, a marvelous musician who effortlessly had it. He visited Scriabin, showed him some of his compositions, and expressed his concern about lacking perfect pitch, but the composer did not reveal whether he himself had the gift or not. This apparently influenced Pasternak's decision to abandon music and become a philosopher. He spent the summer of 1912 studying at the University of Marburg, and his studies there with Professor Hermann Cohen left a permanent mark on his writing style and interests.

After switching plans again and deciding to become a poet, Pasternak became an active member of "Centrifuge," a group associated with Futurism. He particularly admired the slightly younger Mayakovsky and considered the title of his first published collection, Twin in the Clouds (Bliznets v tuchakh, 1914), too derivative of Mayakovsky's long poem A Cloud in Trousers (Oblako v shtanakh, 1915). Pasternak gradually gained self- confidence, and after the Revolution, with the 1922 publication of his 1917 poems in My Sister Life, he became generally recognized as one of the most important poets of the new Soviet Union. In the 1920s he wrote experimental Modernist prose (such as Liuvers's Childhood), a great deal of lyric poetry largely inspired by romantic love, and several longer narrative poems on revolutionary themes, struggling to find new genres better suited to the era. His family emigrated, but in 1922 he married the artist Evgeniia Lurie and decided to remain in the Soviet Union. (He married twice and had one son in each marriage.)

Doctor Zhivago contains many of the themes and situations included in Pasternak's earlier prose experiments but was written a lifetime later, after the years of Stalinist repression (Pasternak had the bad luck to be fingered officially as an outstanding poet after Mayakovsky's 1930 suicide), divorce and remarriage, and the loss of many friends and loved ones. At one point his mistress was arrested and incarcerated, which happened to many people in the Soviet Union but in this case may have been intended to keep Pasternak in line: any risks he took in his speaking, writing or behavior could have caused her more suffering or even death. After the Second World War Pasternak was forced to turn to literary translation in order to make a living without the risks and compromises of producing politically acceptable original work, and his translations of Shakespeare's plays as well as of poetry from many languages are a significant part of the Russian literary heritage. At the same time he began to write "a novel about us," which became Doctor Zhivago.

The novel's eventual publication history is complex: first accepted and then rejected, it appeared in an Italian translation in 1957 and was largely responsible for Pasternak's receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he had to refuse (if he had left to collect, he was given to understand, he would not have been allowed to reenter the Soviet Union). (The prize was eventually awarded posthumously to his son.) All these events provoked a storm of criticism of Pasternak, who was expelled from the Writers' Union (he had been a member since 1932; no one who did not belong to the Union could make money as a writer or trasnslator, or publish any literary work), harrassed by former friends and colleagues, attacked in published letters and articles, and even disturbed by anti-Semitic mobs of strangers outside his dacha near Moscow. The stress he and his family experienced must have contributed to his death in 1960. He is buried in the cemetery near his dacha, in Peredelkino.

Doctor Zhivago was not published in the Soviet Union until 1988, in Novyi mir, the journal that had rejected it in 1956. Readers in the United States probably know it best through the Hollywood movie starring Omar Sharif (one foreign accent is as good as another?) -- Pasternak's family had the chance to view it in the 1960's and were evidently charmed by its fairytale (= completely unrealistic!) recreation of pre- Revolutionary and Revolutionary Russia.

Questions for Reading:

1. Lyric poetry is a significantly different genre from novelistic prose -- literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin proposes that lyrics are a monologic genre, offering a single voice and worldview, whereas the novel has at least the potential of introducing multiple perspectives, voices and possibilities for interpretation. Moreover, Doctor Zhivago is quite unlike Pasternak's early prose experiments. In what ways does this work resemble great nineteenth-century prose novels (either Russian or Western European)? Where do you see adaptations that may pay tribute to the cultural transformations of the modernist period? Does the novel feel old-fashioned to you?

2. In particular, how do you react to the "boring" historical and philosophical passages -- if you've read Tolstoy's long novels, or Stendahl's, how do these compare? Where are you tempted to skip ahead, or else do you find yourself engaged in a different way? How realistic do the long intense conversations not only among intelligentsia characters such as Yuri's uncle Nikolai, but even among the young people in Moscow, feel to readers today?

3. Perhaps again because it was written by a poet, the novel has a strikingly high specific prose density -- how long does it take you to read, compared to other works of similar length or page dimensions?

4. How do the poems impact you, after you have read the whole novel? Do they work to crystallize the main events and concerns of the book, to bring out and clarify its essence -- or do they achieve something different? How does Zhivago's identity as poet, author of the final works we encounter if we read the novel from start to finish, slant or compromise our opinion of him as the novel's main character and (most often) center of perceiving consciousness?

5. Gender is a significant component of the novel: Anna Akhmatova, the famous poet and one of the few remaning poetic peers towards the end of Pasternak's life (Akhmatova outlived P., dying only in 1966, which gave her time to mentor the group of young Leningrad poets that included Joseph Brodsky), claimed that she detested this novel, largely because of its gendered assignment of creativity. (Then again, she made catty comments when Pasternak had to get dentures.) What is your reaction when Lara tells Yuri that he is given wings to soar, while she has wings to hover close over her "young"? Does Pasternak's own romantic history (not so much the two marriages as the extramarital adventures, some superficial but poetically productive, others deep and lasting -- see Ivinskaia below) compromise his motives in depicting a man who is better at getting the women he loves pregnant than he is at staying around and making life work? Following this thought a bit further away from the issue of gender -- at what point is an artist no longer justified in making art his or her top priority, and letting other people take care of the urgent everyday needs all around? Does the sad end (with a whimper rather than a bang) of Zhivago suggest that he spent his intentions in the wrong way?

6. Zhivago is clearly in the line of Superfluous Men, characters such as Karamzin's Erast (in "Poor Liza"), Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, Lermontov's Pechorin (in A Hero of Our Time), Turgenev's Rudin, and so on. As some scholars have suggested, the Soviet critics loved Superfluous Men, because their pathos ("I want to be good but they won't let me!" -- Dostoevsky's Underground Man) moves blame for their failures and inadequacies to the Russian imperial society, now fixed by Bolshevik fiat. What might Zhivago's Superfluity say about the new Soviet system without Pasternak having to say it in so many (risky) words?

7. What is the significance of the fact that he Zhivago a doctor, as the book's title reminds us?

8. What is the role of serendipity and coincidence in this work, and how do you react to it as a reader? For example, is it realistic? -- Are we inclined to demand verisimilitude of a book that really isn't part of the school of Realism (leaving aside the question of how realistically Realism depicts reality!) If you have read Hero of Our Time, how do the coincidences in the work of Pasternak, a big fan of Lermontov, compare?

9. If you were Iosif Stalin, what might you have objected to in this book? (Even though Pasternak was not crazy enough to try to publish it or even finish writing it until after Stalin's death.)

If you enjoyed this book, you might enjoy Pasternak's earlier prose, especially his autobiographical writing (I Remember: Sketch for an Autobiography, translated by David Magarshack, or Safe Passage), his correspondence with his brilliant cousin, scholar and theorist Olga Freidenburg, translated by Elliott Mossman. There are several translations of his poetry; they've been coming out since shortly after WWII. Pasternak's poetry is heavily metaphoric and similic, especially in the first decade of his writing. The often percussive sound orchestration can get lost in translation, but otherwise it tends to translate well: the startling ideas (a lightning storm imagined as taking flash photographs of a train station; a tree full of rain just waiting for a breath of wind to break into heavy tears; okay, I tend to prefer the lyrical stuff myself, but you get the idea!) are just as striking in English, and our ears do not expect the phonetic richness that Pasternak practiced (as a former pianist and composer) as much as a Russian reader would anyway, so we don't miss it. You might be especially interested in Fifty Poems, reprinted later as The Poems of Boris Pasternak, translated by Lydia Pasternak Slater (the rest of the family never returned from emigration!). Selections of P's poetry, often including some of the Zhivago poems, also show up in the big anthologies of Russian poetry in translation:

  • Vladimir Markov and Merrill Sparks, eds. and trans., Modern Russian Poetry
  • Dimitri Obolensky, The Heritage of Russian Verse, with Plain Prose Translations of Each Poem
  • Albert C. Todd and Max Hayward, eds., An Anthology: 20th Century Russian Poetry: Silver and Steel, selected and intro. by Yevgeny Yevtushenko

    The other Big Poets in Pasternak's age cohort were Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966), Osip Mandel'shtam (1891-1938), Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) and Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), all of whom are much translated both in anthologies and in free-standing editions (if you want recommendations for any of them, let me know -- it's too much to include here on a page about their friend Boris).

    A select bibliography on Pasternak in English:

    There are a LOT of books about Pasternak, and they're not hard to locate. I've included just a few favorites.

  • Karen Evans-Romaine, Boris Pasternak and the Tradition of German Romanticism
  • Olga Ivinskaya, A Captive of Time: My Years with Pasternak, trans. Max Hayward
  • Angela Livingstone, Boris Pasternak: Doctor Zhivago
  • Katherine Tiernan O'Connor, Boris Pasternak's "My Sister Life": The Illusion of Narrative" (O'Connor's the very same scholar and Bryn Mawr alum who co-translated Bulgakov's Master and Margarita)
  • Evgenii Pasternak (BP's son), Boris Pasternak: The Tragic Years, 1930-1960, trans. Michael Duncan

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