Study Guide

Boris Pasternak

Boris Pasternak Essay - Pasternak, Boris

Pasternak, Boris

Introduction

Boris Pasternak 1890-1960

(Full name Boris Leonidovich Pasternak) Russian poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, memoirist, playwright, and nonfiction writer.

Awarded the 1958 Nobel Prize in literature, which he declined under pressure from the Soviet government, Pasternak is best known as the author of Il dottor Zivago (1957; Doctor Zhivago). An epic portrait of the Russian Revolution and its consequences, Doctor Zhivago ignited a political and artistic controversy that continues to overshadow Pasternak's achievements in other genres. Nevertheless, among scholars, he is critically regarded as one of the foremost poets of the twentieth century. His short fiction, though even less known than his other works, is considered stylistically and thematically unified, as well as closely linked to his work as a poet and novelist.

Biographical Information

Pasternak was raised in a home where the arts were of prime concern. He was the son of a concert pianist and an acclaimed artist, and friends of his parents included Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, Russian composer Aleksandr Scriabin, and German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Influenced by Scriabin, Pasternak first studied music while in his early teens, but later studied philosophy at Marburg University in Germany. Abandoning his studies there in 1912, when childhood friend Ida Vysotskaia rejected his marriage proposal, Pasternak chose to study poetry exclusively. He joined Centrifuge, a group of innovative writers associated with the Futurist school who rejected the literary conventions of the nineteenth century and stressed the importance of poetic freedom and the realities of modern life. It was during this time that Pasternak published his first works of verse. Partially lamed by a childhood riding accident, Pasternak was declared unfit for military service, and spent the first years of World War I in the Ural Mountains as a clerical worker. He traveled to Moscow when he gained word of the Bolshevik Revolution, but soon retired to his family homestead in the surrounding countryside. There he wrote his celebrated poetry collection Sestra moia zhizn (1923; My Sister, Life). In 1923 Pasternak joined the Left Front of Art, an alliance between Futurist writers and the Communist party that used literary innovations to glorify the new social order. With time, however, Pasternak grew disillusioned with the government's increasing social and artistic restrictions, and broke away from the group in 1930. He divorced his first wife, Evgeniya Lurie, the next year, partly due to his affair with Zinaida Neigauz, whom he eventually married. Because of his literary achievements, Pasternak was invited to play a large role in the newly formed Soviet Writer's Union, a government institution that abolished independent literary groups and promoted conformity to the precepts of social realism in the 1930s. Disturbed by Russian leader Josef Stalin's repressive policies, however, Pasternak withdrew from public life and began focusing his creative energies on his work as a translator, subsequently rendering Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust and Shakespeare's major tragedies into Russian. During World War II, he took advantage of the government's relaxed attitude toward literature by publishing several volumes of verse, and despite his criticisms of the government, Pasternak was left untouched in the period following the war, a time during which the arts were subject to numerous restrictions and many artists were imprisoned. In 1958, following the publication of Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. He declined the award because of pressure from the Soviet government. Noting that the book was published in the West, one Communist party member characterized Pasternak as a "literary whore" in the employ of Western authorities, Pasternak was subsequently expelled from the Soviet Writer's Union. When he died, though the Soviet government continued to deny Pasternak the benefits accorded a literary figure of his stature, thousands of mourners accompanied his family to the grave site, which remains a place of pilgrimage today.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Pasternak is primarily known for five pieces of short short fiction: "The Mark of Apelles," "Letters from Tula," Povest (1934; A Tale), "Detstvo Luvers" (1919) and "Aerial Ways." The first three stories all focus on artists. For example, "The Mark of Apelles," which is often considered Pasternak's earliest work in the short story genre, focuses on a rivalry that exists between two poets. Set in Italy, the tale, which is often transliterated as "The Sign of Apelles" and "The Line of Apelles," is partly an updated retelling of an ancient Greek myth about a rivalry between Greek artists Zeuxis and Apelles. In Pasternak's version about artistic identity and the relationship between art, artifice, and reality, the rivalry between his protagonists—poets—extends into their daily lives and climaxes with one poet seducing the other's mistress. The seducing poet's artifice, however, is confounded when he is engulfed with true passion for his rival's paramour. "Letters from Tula" is an epistolary tale largely concerned with a poet visiting the Urals and the group of Russian actors he watches preparing to make a historical film about Russia. They are also observed by an older actor, who upon returning to his home, re-enacts—in private—events from his past. According to some critics, the poet and the older actor are the same person. This story is considered a commentary on the nature of the true artist: one who needs only inspiration, and not an audience, to create. A Tale, which is also known as The Narrative, The Story and The Last Summer, similarly focuses on writers. In this piece, in which time is severely convoluted, a writer and tutor is visiting with his sister and is found, at times, reminiscing about his past. Eventually, he begins to compose a tale about a well-intentioned poet who attempts to auction off his artistic services to the highest bidder, a decision that ultimately brings only ruin and misery. Another lesser known tale, "The History of a Contraoctave," also focuses on an artist—an organist—who is responsible for his child's death. "Detstvo Luvers" is often considered Pasternak's best short story, and although its young Russian protagonist, Zhenya Luvers, is neither poet nor artist, she is often said to possess an artistic sensibility and outlook. Also known as "The Adolescence of Zhenya Luvers," "The Childhood of Luvers," and "Zhenia's Childhood," this unconventional Bildungsroman portrays Zhenya's growing awareness of the world around her and her changing body. For her, education is not solely gained through the active perusal of books, but often passively through sights, experiences, epiphanies, and the maturation process. The story is also said to focus on the protagonist's growing understanding of Christian morality. "Aerial Ways" is, for the most part, the only one of Pasternak's major short stories to deal with Russian politics. At the beginning of this story, a woman seeks out the help of a former lover when her child becomes lost. The story resumes, years later, when the lover has become a government official. At this time, he is petitioned by his former paramour to save the child, now a young man, who has since been charged with political crimes and is awaiting execution. Another piece of short fiction is "Without Love," which is largely a character sketch comparing an idealist and a revolutionary.

Critical Reception

Although Pasternak remains relatively unknown to the general public for his short fiction, critics often note that there is a distinct link between Pasternak's short prose and his better known works, namely his poetry and Doctor Zhivago. For example, many of Pasternak's short fragments were originally intended to be parts of novels. Additionally, the character of Zhenya Luvers is often considered a forerunner of Lara, the female protagonist of Doctor Zhivago, and other characters, including the government official in "Aerial Ways," are also often viewed as early incarnations of characters found in Pasternak's epic masterpiece. Furthermore, commentators note that throughout all of Pasternak's short fiction there is a focus on artists, poets, the artistic sensibility, the role of the artist in contemporary society, and the relationship between suffering and art, elements that are key to all of his writing. In a highly favorable passage summarizing Pasternak's abilities as a writer of short fiction, J. W. Dyck stated: "Vague associations, visions, metamorphic powers that animate objects and nature, unexpected paradoxes and ambiguities, mixture of facts and poetry, interaction of past and future, and dangerous elements in his characters—all are characteristics of a prose which attempts to say what could not be said in poetry. It is a prose which tries to express the unspeakable: torment, joy, wildest desires of the flesh and deepest meditations of the eternal soul, most private and sacred contemplations about man's relationship to the divine and, on the other hand, efforts towards generalizations and the formulation of philosophical theories. Pasternak's prose, written out of 'almost intolerable necessity,' in a well-marked poetic epoch, unlocks new approaches and new vistas for poets and writers of generations to come." Scholar and translator Robert Payne has likewise asserted: "Writing at a time of war and revolution, during a period when the full flood of his poetry was at its height, [Pasternak] was attempting to set down his most secret thoughts, his wildest desires, his deepest philosophical theories. These stories are weighted with significance. Pasternak makes no attempt to come to terms with the accepted method of telling stories: he tells them in his own way, in a startling mixture of fact and poetry. At any moment his stories will involve unexpected paradoxes and ambiguities, sleights of hand, sudden descents into the inferno and equally sudden ascents in the upper air. We never know, when the anchor is dropped, whether the ship will sink to the bottom of the sea or take flight with its sails outspread."

Principal Works

Short Fiction

*"Detstvo Luvers" ["Childhood"; also published as "The Adolescence of Zenya Luvers"] 1919

Rasskazy 1925

Povest [A Tale; also known as The Story and The Last Summer] (novella) 1934

Other Major Works

Blitzhets tuchakh (poetry) 1914

Poverkh bareov (poetry) 1917

Sestra moia zhizn: Leto 1917 goda [My Sister, Life: Summer 1917] (poetry) 1923

Temi i variatsi (poetry) 1923

Vysockaya bolezn (poetry) 1924

**Deviatsot piatyi god [The Year...

(The entire section is 176 words.)

Criticism

Roman Jakobson (essay date 1935)

SOURCE: "Marginal Notes on the Prose of the Poet Pasternak," in Language in Literature, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987, pp. 301-17.

[In the essay below, which was originally published in German in 1935, Jakobson delineates how Pasternak's poetic disposition affected his prose works, lending insight into Pasternak's short fiction. Jakobson concludes, "Pasternak's prose is the characteristic prose of a poet in a great age of poetry."]

Textbook categories are comfortingly simple: prose is one thing, poetry another. Nevertheless, the difference between a poet's prose and that of a prose writer, or between the poems of a prose writer and those of a...

(The entire section is 6827 words.)

Angela Livingstone (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: "The Childhood of Luvers: An Early Story of Pasternak's," in Southern Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1963, pp. 74-84.

[In the essay below, Livingstone analyzes "The Childhood of Luvers "from a stylistic and thematic perspective, claiming that this tale is "the most mature and perfect of [Pasternak's] early stories." Livingstone's views on Pasternak have developed considerably since the first publication of this essay; however, the position presented below is important to Pasternak scholarship.]

'The Childhood of Luvers' was written in 1917 but, like nearly all of Pasternak's early work, it shows no sign of the political and social upheavals of that...

(The entire section is 5184 words.)

Michel Aucouturier (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "The Legend of the Poet and the Image of the Actor in the Short Stories of Pasternak," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 3, No. 2, Winter, 1966, pp. 225-35.

[In the essay below, Aucouturier analyzes Pasternak's focus on actors, the "legend of the poet, " and ideas associated with these professions in "The Mark of Apelles," A Tale, and "Letters from Tula."]

"You played that role so well!

I forgot that I was the prompter. . . . "

My Sister, Life (1917)

"Oh, had I known that's how it happens

when I made...

(The entire section is 4661 words.)

Elliott Mossman (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "Pasternak's Short Fiction," in Russian Literature Triquarterly, Vol. 3, May, 1972, pp. 279-302.

[In the following excerpt, Mossman outlines Pasternak's "prose vision, " discussing thematic and stylistic aspects of Pasternak's short fiction. Mossman notes in particular Pasternak's focus on history, the individual, causality, estrangement, and the relationship between art and reality.]

The period in Soviet literature stretching from the Revolution through the 1920s represents a prolonged coming of age, both for the literature itself and for many of the writers taken in the context of their literary biographies. Following the culminai poetic tradition of...

(The entire section is 8691 words.)

Henry Gifford (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Pasternak and the New Russian Prose," in Pasternak: A Critical Study, Cambridge University Press, 1977, pp. 84-97.

[In the excerpt below, in which he discusses stylistic and thematic aspects of Pasternak's short fiction, Gifford claims there is a strong thematic relationship between Pasternak's verse and fiction, and that this fiction is often characterized by a focus on artistic and childlike sensibilities.]

I

When in 1923 [Evgeny] Zamyatin surveyed the 'new Russian prose' [in his Litsa] he reserved consideration of Pasternak to the end, after making shrewd and often merciless comment on the Proletkult writers, on the Serapion...

(The entire section is 5890 words.)