Boris Leonidovich Pasternak

The Russian poet, novelist, and translator Boris Leonidovich Pasternak (1890-1960) was the foremost writer of the Soviet period. He constantly endeavored 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 reexamine the substance of his art. This reexamination 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.


Further Reading on Boris Leonidovich Pasternak

The reader interested in Pasternak's life should turn to his autobiographies: "Safe Conduct" in his Selected Writings (trans. 1949; new ed. 1958) and I Remember: Sketch for an Autobiography (trans. 1959). A pictorial biography is Gerd Ruge, Pasternak (trans. 1959). The best comprehensive surveys of Pasternak's writings are Cecil Maurice Bowra, The Creative Experiment (1949), and Helen Muchnic, From Gorky to Pasternak: Six Writers in Soviet Russia (1961). A good treatment of the complexity of Pasternak's poetry is to be found in Dale Plank, Pasternak's Lyric: A Study of Sound and Imagery (1966). See also Robert Payne, The Three Worlds of Boris Pasternak (1961); Robert Conquest, The Pasternak Affair: Courage of a Genius—A Documentary Report (1962); and Donald Davie and Angela Livingstone, eds., Pasternak (1969).


Additional Biography Sources

Barnes, Christopher J., Boris Pasternak: a literary biography, Cambridge England; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Meetings with Pasternak: a memoir, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.

Hingley, Ronald, Pasternak: a biography, New York: Knopf: Distributed by Random House, 1983.

Levi, Peter, Boris Pasternak, London: Hutchinson, 1990.

Mallac, Guy de, Boris Pasternak, his life and art, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981.

Pasternak, E. B., Boris Pasternak: the tragic years, 1930-60, London: Collins Harvill, 1990.