Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The death by suicide of Vladimir Mayakovsky in 1930, partly a result of that poet’s deep disillusionment with the changes in Soviet society and literature at the rise of Joseph Stalin, precipitated a “second birth” in the artistic activity of Boris Pasternak. Begun before Maykovsky’s death, Safe Conduct is the poet’s first autobiography, written when he was under forty. This prose work is an assessment of formative influences on his work as he attempts a new approach to his poetry.

Pasternak said he conceived of the work as “something midway between an article and artistic prose, dealing with the way in which life was transformed into art, and why.” The work appeared first serially, in two parts in different journals, before it appeared as a separate volume in 1931.

Safe Conduct is by no means a detailed chronology of the poet’s first forty years, but accounts of a series of encounters with key people, together with meditations on these episodes. The work begins with a childhood memory and ends with the death of Mayakovsky. It is in three parts, each made up of short sections. These accounts include straight narrative, sensitive representations of landscape, conversations with the key figures in the poet’s coming to define and accept his role, other random details of his life at each period, and his thoughts about the experiences represented.

Safe Conduct is dedicated to the contemporary German lyric poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who is shown to be essential to Pasternak’s views. The extent to which Rilke influenced Pasternak is clear in Pasternak’s words, “I am not presenting my reminiscences to Rilke. On the contrary, I myself received them from him as a gift.” The poet first met Rilke on a train when he was ten; in a later discussion, he describes finding Rilke’s poems among his father’s books and drawing sustenance from them throughout his life.

The next section skips three years to a time when the Pasternak family became acquainted with the Scriabin family. The boy’s first idol was Aleksandr Scriabin, the composer. With his mother being a pianist and his father a painter, Pasternak at first saw himself as a musician and composer: “More than anything in the world I loved music, and, in music, more than anyone else, Scriabin.” Pasternak was, however, aware that he did not have perfect pitch, and when as a teenager he played his compositions with great success for Scriabin, the older man’s failure to acknowledge the same defect in himself showed...

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A Safe-Conduct Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Davie, Donald, and Angela Livingstone, eds. Pasternak, 1969.

Erlich, Victor, ed. Pasternak: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1978.

Gifford, Henry. Pasternak: A Critical Study, 1977.

Hughes, Olga Raevsky. The Poetic World of Boris Pasternak, 1974.

Mallac, Guy de. Boris Pasternak: His Life and Art, 1981.