Safe Conduct is an intellectual autobiography, tracing in memory Pasternak’s choice of poetry as the dominant preoccupation of his life. The turning points arise from subconscious motives, but the work is the effort to bring these choices into the light of the mind, showing the poet’s emerging understanding of art and of his poetic aims. Safe Conduct is rich in the theoretical formulations that, carried out in his works, constitute the real life, the biography, of this artist. Just as he sees the value of Rilke’s poetry in its influence on his own work, so Pasternak’s unique legacy is his ideas about art, embodied in his works. His autobiography shows the coming into being of these governing preoccupations.
Safe conduct is a document allowing a person to proceed without interference. What Pasternak seems to have meant by this title is some benevolent protection, perhaps within himself, allowing him to find his way to his vocation. The purpose of the account is to achieve a new artistic orientation. The method is reflection on past events involving five significant human figures in his life: Rilke, Scriabin, Cohen, a beloved girl, and Mayakovsky.
In Safe Conduct, the importance of Rilke is in Pasternak’s definition of what the biography of a poet must contain. It cannot follow the “vertical” line of chronological narrative. The subconscious of the poet operates in the lives of his readers, as Rilke does in his, and it is in these multiple responses that the “life” of the poet is written.
Pasternak’s ten-year absorption in music and Scriabin throughout his adolescence he sees as a means to self-definition: “We have all become people in the measure in which we have loved people and had the opportunity to love.” Failure to love unreservedly is to be afraid of the “sacrifices tradition demands of childhood,” to choose to remain common, uncreative. Scriabin, responding favorably to the young Pasternak’s musical compositions, emphasized simplicity as necessary in great art; works rich in content, he said, are simple. According to critic Henry Gifford, Pasternak’s intense experience in music and his insights from Scriabin’s music and personality inform his later poetic techniques. He learned intricate organization of sound effects, the power to communicate meaning through sound devices, and musical structure in verse and prose.
While still ostensibly committed to music, Pasternak began to explore more general questions about the nature of art. He describes his student existence with random details: reading in philosophy, becoming acquainted with poets such as Andrey Bely and Aleksandr Blok, the way the sun moved over the house where he lived. This randomness becomes part of his theory of poetry: What causes poetry to be born of this reality? He answers that experience comes in irregular ranks. Love and the sun (or weather) are the most important elements, but the slower ranks of...
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Safe Conduct gained resonance from Pasternak’s second look at the same years. Toward the end of his life, he published an additional autobiographical essay: Avtobiograficheskiy ocherk (1958; I Remember: Sketch for an Autobiography, 1959). This work reevaluates the people so crucial to the author’s development, this time in the light of their meaning for his central work, the novel Doktor Zhivago (1957; Doctor Zhivago, 1958). Leo Tolstoy therefore figures as the underlying inspiration as Rilke does in the earlier work, which focused on poetry. In the later work, Pasternak shows that Scriabin’s emphasis on tradition nevertheless allowed the renewal of an art “from its very foundation.” He deemphasizes his relation to Mayakovsky and clearly condemns suicide; his own survival when others gave up he attributes to strength drawn from memory. The importance of autobiography to Pasternak is emphatic, both in assessing the values of the poets close to him and in understanding the shape of his own artistic development.
The reputation of Safe Conduct is very different in the Soviet Union from its reputation in the West. Immediately attacked as subversive when it was published as a book in Pasternak’s homeland, it was banned and withdrawn from libraries as not appropriate to the Soviet literary policy of Socialist Realism just emerging into official definition in 1931. Nevertheless, Pasternak’s continuing commitment to the Revolution and some curious respect on Stalin’s part for the poet kept him alive and free when many artists of the 1930’s were arrested and imprisoned or exiled. The rejection of his work by the Soviet literary establishment grew; Pasternak was required to refuse the Nobel Prize in 1958, and he was officially isolated for the rest of his life.
Safe Conduct became known in English translation in the West, where the political context did not impinge, only after 1945. It has been considered all during the growth of Pasternak’s international reputation as a major source of the poet’s literary biography, valued for its slender biographical data and its insight into his aesthetic.