Boris Pasternak: A Literary Biography, I: 1890-1928 Summary

Christopher Barnes


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Many books were published to coincide with the centenary of Boris Pasternak’s birth, including new translations and reissues of several of his works as well as critical studies. Particularly noteworthy is Donald Davie’s Slavic Excursions: Essays in Russian and Polish Literature (1990). This collection reprints in its entirety Davie’s 1965 study The Poems of Doctor Zhivago, which includes Davie’s translation of the poems followed by a poem-by-poem commentary. Slavic Excursions also includes two other essays that discuss Pasternak.

Several of the new studies are primarily biographical: Peter Levi’s Boris Pasternak (1990), a slapdash work by a writer who, like Davie, is himself a poet; Evgeny Pasternak’s Boris Pasternak: The Thagic Years 1930- 1960 (1990), a memoir by Pasternak’s son; and Lazar Fleishman’s Boris Pasternak: The Poet and His Politics (1990), which emphasizes the historical context of Pasternak’s life and work.

For the fullest available chronicle of Pasternak’s life, however, readers will be turning to Christopher Barnes’s Boris Pasternak: A Literary Biography. While not strictly speaking an authorized biography, Barnes’s work reflects the close cooperation of members of Pasternak’s family; Barnes also was able to draw on a variety of archival materials. As a result, his account is far more detailed than that of previous biographers Guy de Mallac (Boris Pasternak: His Life and Art, 1981) and Ronald Hingley (Pasternak, 1983). Barnes’s text is supplemented by a generous selection of illustrations, notes, a bibliography, an index of works by Pasternak, and a very full general index; the book is beautifully produced.

In his preface, Barnes notes an irony attendant on his project: Pasternak himself sought to forestall would-be biographers. “A systematic destroyer of his own archive,” as Barnes describes him, Pasternak regularly discarded drafts and manuscripts and “kept no diaries or notebooks,” his “natural reticence” strengthened by the oppressive atmosphere of Stalinism.

Also posing a challenge to the biographer, Barnes observes, are Pasternak’s two exercises in autobiography: Okhrannaya gramota (1931; Safe Conduct, 1949) and Avtobiografichesy ocherk (1958; I Remember: Sketch for an Autobiography, 1959). Safe Conduct is an especially daunting example: In this elliptical, imagistic work spanning his first forty years, Pasternak explicitly rejects the mundane detail and predictable narrative that are the stock in trade of most biographers. In partial justification of his own very conventional approach, Barnes notes that Pasternak’s imperiously selective recollections simply omit much that he preferred not to confront.

This first installment in Barnes’s projected two-volume biography covers the period from Pasternak’s birth in 1890 to 1928. Because he believes that Pasternak’s childhood and the influence of his family were particularly significant in the formation of his character and his art, Barnes gives special attention to Pasternak’s...

(The entire section is 1288 words.)