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Boris Leonidovich Pasternak
1890 - 1960
 


The Russian poet, novelist, and translator Boris Leonidovich Pasternak was the foremost writer of the Soviet period. He constantly endeavoured to shape the means of artistic expression to the ends of his integrity and concern for mankind.
 

 

Boris Pasternak was born on Feb. 10, 1890, in Moscow. His parents and their friends provided an artistic, musical, and literary environment that nurtured Pasternak's creative aspirations. His father, Leonid O. Pasternak, was a prominent painter of the naturalist school, and his mother, Rosa F. Kaufman, was an accomplished concert pianist. Music was Pasternak's first inclination. Under the tutelage of Aleksandr Scriabin, he began to study musical composition at the age of 13. Pasternak soon abandoned music for philosophy. In 1909 he enrolled as a student at the philosophy faculty of Moscow University. Inspired by the thinking of the German philosopher Hermann Cohen of Marburg University, Pasternak traveled to Marburg in 1912 for the summer semester. He extended his travels to Italy before returning to Moscow, where he completed his studies in 1913.


Early Works

Pasternak's experience at Marburg turned him toward poetry, but it would always be a poetry endowed with the inquisitive spirit of philosophy. His first two books of poetry, A Twin in the Clouds (1914) and Over the Barriers (1917), partake of the mixed atmosphere of romanticism and experiment then current in the futurist movement. Pasternak's acquaintance with the leading futurist poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky, proved formative. In his next book of lyrics, My Sister, My Life (1922), Pasternak attained complete independence and originality.

Pasternak's early stories explore prose as an alternative form for essentially poetic themes. "The History of a Contraoctave" (1913) deals with the conflicting duties an artist owes to his art and to his family. "Apelles' Figure" (1918) shows Pasternak's versatility at its best.

The events of the 1917 Russian Revolution and the subsequent civil war (1917-1921) caused Pasternak to re-examine the substance of his art. This re-examination culminated in the novel Doctor Zhivago (1957). The Revolution unleashed forces of chaos long dormant in Russian civilization. Primarily in his prose, Pasternak struggled to reassert the humanism that he had known in the person of Leo Tolstoy ("The Letters from Tula," 1922) and to make a place for the individual in the mass society ("Aerial Ways," 1924).

The most significant characteristic of Pasternak's life in the 1920s is his striving to address his art to social problems. To this end, he wrote epic poems on contemporary themes. "A Lofty Malady" (1923) portrays episodes from Lenin's life; "The Year 1905" (1926) is based on the 1905 revolt; and "Lieutenant Schmidt" (1927) is based on the life of a real revolutionary. In his novel in verse, Spektorsky (1929), and its prose segment, The Tale (1929), Pasternak used events from his own life as the foundation for a narrative encompassing the years 1914 to 1924.


Role of Autobiography

Pasternak showed an unmistakable reticence about the events of his personal life. Little is known of his life in the 1920s. He married in the early 1920s and a son, Evgeny, was born. In the late 1920s his failing marriage combined with a sense of failure in his prose endeavors lead to a deep creative and psychological crisis in his life. The resolution of this crisis initiated Pasternak's later period, which saw the full development of his talent.

The crisis in Pasternak's life involved his love for Zinaida N. Neuhaus, whom he later married; his concern for his fellow poet Mayakovsky; and his growing pessimism about the future of Russian letters. Pasternak's divorce and remarriage severely strained his mental balance. At the same time, the poet Mayakovsky was undergoing a strain of another sort: he was feeling the full humiliation of the artist who has bartered his art for a political cause.

Pasternak's impressionistic, semiphilosophical autobiography Safe Conduct (1931) presents the problems of his crisis and proposes a solution. He resolves to put his individual creative talent in the service not of the state but of history. His book of poems A Second Birth (1931) concentrates on themes relating the past to the present.

Pasternak lived quietly through the 1930s in Moscow and Peredelkino, the writers' village in the suburbs of Moscow. He reassessed and redirected his artistic talent. His lifelong indifference to immediate political events probably spared him the tragic fate of many writers during Stalin's purges. During the 1930s Pasternak's resolution led him to experiments in prose (the first drafts of Doctor Zhivago), further poetic inspiration (On Early Trains, 1941), and translations.

Pasternak's translations span his career. They are expert and professional, full of the spirit and inspiration of their originals. In the 1920s Pasternak translated such diverse writers as Heinrich von Kleist and Ben Jonson. In the 1930s Pasternak translated the Georgian poets of the southern former U.S.S.R. In their mastery of German, French, and English, Pasternak's translations of the 1940s and 1950s illustrate the startling breadth of his undertaking. He translated F. von Schiller, J. W. von Goethe's Faust, R. M. Rilke, P. Verlaine, J. Keats, P. B. Shelley, eight of Shakespeare's plays, and several of Shakespeare's sonnets.

Pasternak's participation in World War II was minimal. He served for a time as an aerial spotter in Moscow, made one trip to the front, and was evacuated from Moscow in the face of the German invasion. He continued his translations during the war and, immediately thereafter, renewed his work on Doctor Zhivago.


Doctor Zhivago

The culmination of his artistic career, Doctor Zhivago is Pasternak's attempt to bring both prose and poetry to bear on the problems of the individual artist and his life in history. It combines an epic novel in prose of the scope of Tolstoy's War and Peace with a selection of poetry attributed to the hero of the novel, Yury Zhivago. The subject of the novel is an individual poet's life in conflict with his times. The novel spans the years 1902 to 1953.

In 1956 Soviet authorities refused to publish Doctor Zhivago. Publication of the novel in the West in 1957 led to a series of consequences unforeseen by Pasternak. He was awarded the 1958 Nobel Prize for his achievement, but critical reaction within the Soviet Union forced him to decline the award. Having suffered a heart attack in 1953, Pasternak was in poor health. He lived in isolation with his family at Peredelkino. He was the focus of worldwide acclaim, yet an object of official scorn in his own country. His book of poems When the Storm Breaks (1959) shows not a trace of dismay in its lively pursuit of the poet's lifelong twin interests - man's life in nature and his life in history. Pasternak died on May 30, 1960.
 


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Boris Leonidovich Pasternak was the most prominent figure of his literary generation, a great poet deeply connected with his age. His work unfolded during a period of fundamental changes in Russian cultural, social, and political history. It is therefore no wonder that many of his works, and most notably his novel, Doctor Zhivago, are imbued with the spirit of history and relate its effect on the lives, thoughts, and preoccupations of his contemporaries. In 1958 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his achievements in lyrical poetry and the great Russian epic tradition.

Pasternak was born in Moscow into a highly cultured Jewish family. His father, Leonid Pasternak, was a well-known impressionist painter and professor at the Moscow School of Painting; his mother was an accomplished pianist. During his formative years, Pasternak studied music and philosophy but abandoned them for literature. At the beginning of his literary career, he was associated with the artistic avant-garde, and his modern sensibility was strongly expressed in his first two volumes of poetry, Twin in the Clouds (1914) and Above the Barriers (1916), and in his early experiments in fiction (1911 - 1913). Most of Pasternak's works written between 1911 and 1931 explore possibilities far beyond realism and are characterized by dazzling metaphorical imagery and complex syntax reminiscent of Cubo-Futurist poetry, associated especially with Vladimir Mayakovsky. Pasternak's cycle, My Sister-Life, published in 1922, is recognized as his most outstanding poetic achievement.

Pasternak's initial support of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 vanished when the new regime revealed its authoritarian and ruthless features. Like many other Soviet writers during the 1920s, Pasternak felt pressured by the authorities, who were in the process of establishing control over literature, to portray the revolutionary age in epic form. Despite his contempt for the party's promotion of the epic, and his disappointment over the decline of lyrical poetry, Pasternak realized that, in order to survive as a poet, he had to adjust to the new cultural-political climate and try the epic genre. During the course of the 1920s, therefore, Pasternak wrote four epics: Sublime Malady (1924), The Year Nineteen Five (1927), Lieutenant Schmidt (1926), and Spektorsky (published in installments between 1924 and 1930). There is a perceptible stylistic and thematic difference between Pasternak's previous works and his epic poems.

During the early 1930s, Pasternak was lifted into the first rank of Soviet writers. He was the only poet of his generation who was allowed to publish. Osip Mandelstam was out of favour with the government, Anna Akhmatova was not publishing, Mayakovsky and Sergei Yesenin committed suicide, and Marina Tsvetaeva was living abroad. Pasternak was the sole poet whom the government was initially willing to tolerate. During this period, he completed only one cycle of poetry, Second Birth (1932), a book whose optimistic title and tone Pasternak himself soon came to dislike as a collection for which he had compromised his poetic standards, and in which he had simplified the language for the sake of a mass readership.

Starting in 1932, the Central Committee of the Communist Party abolished all literary schools and associations and moved decisively toward consolidating its control over all writers' activities and their artistic production. In 1934 the Party established the Union of Soviet Writers and implemented the official new artistic method of "socialist realism" that demanded from the artist "truthfulness" and "an historically concrete portrayal of reality in its revolutionary development." Writers were now treated as builders of a new life and "engineers of human souls." Pasternak's modernist autobiography Safe Conduct was banned in 1933 and not published again until the 1980s.

The most oppressive period in Soviet history began in 1936, and a reign of terror marked the next few years. Many of Pasternak's friends became victims of the Great Terror. The poet himself fell from grace and survived by mere chance. He nearly abandoned creative writing, devoting himself almost exclusively to translations. While this relieved him from the pressure of having to write pro-Stalinist poetry during the worst years of the Great Terror, it also pushed him into an increasingly peripheral position. Translating became a means of material survival for him during the darkest years of Soviet history, and his translations from this period alone would assure Pasternak a notable place in the history of Russian literature.

During World War II Pasternak published only two collections of poetry, On Early Trains (1943), and Earth's Vastness (1945). Both collections were written in the vein of socialist realism, with all traces of Pasternak's early avant-garde poetics obliterated. The official critical reception of On Early Trains was warm, but Pasternak himself found it embarrassing and repeatedly apologized for the small number and eclectic selection of poems.

After the war, Stalin launched a campaign against antipatriotic and cosmopolitan elements in Soviet society. This campaign came to be known as zhdanovshchina, after Andrei Zhdanov, the secretary of the Central Committee, who obligingly unleashed a slanderous campaign against some major cultural figures. Zhdanov's scapegoats in literature became the satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko and the poet Akhmatova. Pasternak's work came under attack too, and he ended up writing almost nothing during zhdanovshchina. Translations provided his major creative outlet.

After Stalin's death in 1953, Soviet culture experienced a period of liberalization known as the Thaw. It was precipitated by the so-called Secret Speech delivered by the new first secretary of the Communist Party, Nikita Khrushchev, at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956. In this speech, Khrushchev exposed Stalin's crimes and denounced his personality cult. It was at that time that Pasternak attempted to publish his novel Doctor Zhivago (written between 1945 and 1955). No Soviet publisher, however, was willing to publish this work, because of its controversial portrayal of the Revolution. Pasternak sent the manuscript to an Italian publisher, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who offered to publish it. Doctor Zhivago thus first appeared in Italian, without official Soviet approval, in November 1957 and became an overwhelming success. Over the next two years the novel was translated into twenty-four languages.

In 1958 Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. This honour played a double role in Pasternak's literary career: on the one hand, it established his international literary stature, while on the other it made him the target of a vicious ideological campaign unleashed against him by the Soviet authorities. The fact that the poet had been nominated previously for the Nobel Prize for his poetry - specifically in 1947 and again in 1953 - did not seem to bear any significance for the cultural bureaucrats. Pasternak was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers and accused of betraying his country and negatively portraying the Socialist revolution and Soviet society - by people who, for the most part, never even read Doctor Zhivago. Under enormous psychological pressure and the threat of deportation to the West, Pasternak was forced to decline the Nobel Prize. But the attacks against him never stopped. Doctor Zhivago was published in the Soviet Union only posthumously, in 1988. During the last decade of his life, Pasternak's most distinct poetic achievement was When the Weather Clears, a collection of poetry from 1959. It shows him moving toward an increasingly contemplative mood and linguistic simplicity. Pasternak died in his dacha in Peredelkino in 1960.

Pasternak was the only great literary figure of his generation whose works continued to be published throughout his career. Although he had to pay a price, both artistic and personal, for his poetic freedom, he generally managed to preserve his moral and artistic integrity. Pasternak's work continues the best traditions of Russian literature and is permeated with devotion to individual freedom, moral and spiritual values, intolerance of oppressive governments, and a concern with the present and future of Russia. What distinguishes Pasternak's contribution to Russian literature is the life-affirming and resilient nature of his work and its remarkable power to present everyday reality in a unique and vibrant vision.


 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 23 December, 2008