All Boris Pasternak’s fiction illustrates the tragic involvement of a poet with his age. Just prior to World War I, Russian literature was dominated by the figure of Vladimir Mayakovsky, who embodied a strange combination of symbolist mythmaking with the fierce futurist rejection of traditional forms. Bordering on the theatrical, Mayakovsky’s self-dramatization pitted the gifted literary artist’s elevated emotions and extreme sensitivity against his supposedly dull and unappreciative or even hostile audience, an artistic tendency which Pasternak recognized and from which he tried to liberate himself in his early stories.
“The Story of a Contraoctave”
“The Story of a Contraoctave,” written in 1913, stems from Pasternak’s Marburg years and his exposure there to German Romanticism. Centered upon a German organist who, caught up in a flight of extemporaneous performance, unknowingly crushes his son to death in the instrument’s works, this story exhibits the Romantic artist’s “inspiration,” his lack of concern for ordinary life, and the guilt that society forces upon him. Pasternak’s first published story, “Apellesova Cherta” (“The Mark of Apelles”), written in 1915 at the height of his admiration for Vladimir Mayakovsky, explores the problem of Pasternak’s simultaneous attraction to, and dismay with, the neo-Romantic posture. In this story, two writers agree to a literary competition which quickly spills over into real life when one, clearly named for Heinrich Heine, the German nineteenth century poet whose irony punctured the naïve bubble of Romantic idealism, outdoes the heavy-handed idealistic fantasy of his opponent Relinquimini by arousing and responding to genuine love in Relinquimini’s mistress. A similar pair of antagonists forms the conflict in “Bezlyube” (“Without Love”), written and published in 1918 and originally intended as part of an unfinished longer work, although it actually furnished material for Doctor Zhivago. “Without Love” paradoxically shows an activist living in a peculiar never-never land, while a lyric dreamer’s adherence to the truth of remembered experience illustrates Pasternak’s inability to adapt his artistic inspiration to political service.
“Letters from Tula”
“Letters from Tula,” written in 1918, again juxtaposes reality and art, but here the Russia of Pasternak’s own time provides his setting. A powerful contrast develops between the reactions of a young poet and an old retired actor to a film crew working near the town of Tula. The poet, passing through on the train, is in the grasp of a violent passion for his distant lover. The mediocrity of the vulgar filmmakers appalls him, but as he tries to write to his beloved, he becomes even more disgusted with his own self-consciously arty efforts at conveying his emotion. On the other hand, the aged actor, who wholeheartedly detests the philistine cinema and the loss of tradition it caused, uses his own successful artistic representation. Made grindingly aware by them of his age and his loneliness and most of all of his need for “the human speech of tragedy,” the old man returns to his silent apartment and re-creates a part of one of his performances, which in turn calls up a valid response of healing memory.
In A Safe-Conduct, his first autobiography, Pasternak wrote, “In art the man is silent, and the image speaks.” The young poet’s silence in “Letters from Tula” would eventually foster his creativity, but it had to be purchased at the sacrifice of his youthful arrogance and the painful achievement of humility. The old actor attains his creative silence because he is the only one in the story who could make another speak through his own lips. Thus the humble willingness to serve as the vehicle of art, allowing experience to speak through him, becomes an important stage in Pasternak’s artistic development, enabling him to move beyond romantic self-absorption toward an art that needs no audience.
“The Childhood of Luvers”
Pasternak wrote one of his masterpieces, “The Childhood of Luvers,” from 1917 to 1919, intending it originally as the opening of a novel but finally publishing it by itself in 1923. This long short story shares the childlike innocence of My Sister, Life, the height of Pasternak’s lyric expression, also appearing that year. In the first section of the story, the world of childhood impressions becomes a part of Zhenya Luvers’s experience. Little by little, the shapes, colors, smells—all the sensory images to which the young child responds so eagerly—impinge upon her consciousness, are assimilated, and finally arrange into an order which becomes more coherent as she grows older. Zhenya’s impressions of her surroundings also gradually give place to her emotional impressions of people and situations, as the child’s apprehension of “things” progressively is able to grasp more complex relations between them. Zhenya’s world is at first markedly silent,...
(The entire section is 2071 words.)