Boris Pasternak Short Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2071

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.

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“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, as is the world of the angry young lover and the old actor in “Letters from Tula”; Pasternak’s impressionistic technique allows few “realistic” details, preferring to let lovely and strange combinations of images flood the child’s developing awareness of her life.

In the second part of this story, Pasternak shifts his attention from Zhenya’s instinctive grasp of emotions through images given to her by the bewildering world of adulthood. As Zhenya matures, she begins to respond to the essential sadness of things by assuming, as children do, that she herself has committed some sin to cause her misery. When Zhenya’s household is turned upside down by her mother’s miscarriage and she is sent to the home of friends, she learns how to deal with adult condescension and cruelty. At the moment that Zhenya realizes her own participation in the body of humankind, her simultaneously Christian and singularly Russian consciousness of shared suffering, her childhood abruptly ceases.

One of the pervasive themes of Pasternak’s work, the suffering of women, is thus treated in “The Childhood of Luvers,” reflecting Pasternak’s anguish at being “wounded by the lot of women” that underlay his fascination with the tragic Mary, Queen of Scots. Zhenya Luvers, however, evokes the growth into recognition of adult responsibility that is basic to the human condition, extending from fragments of sense impressions into the ability to make the only sense of her world a Christian knows: the participation in its suffering. For Pasternak, Zhenya Luvers also marks the childhood of the girl whom his great love Olga Ivinskaya called “the Lara of the future,” the woman at the heart of Doctor Zhivago. The capacity to grow and mature through the experience of suffering makes Zhenya the personification of Pasternak’s betrayed Russia, trusting and defenseless in the grip of the godless aggression that followed the 1917 Communist Revolution.

“The Story”

All Pasternak’s works of the 1920’s reveal his growing awareness of the poet’s responsibility to humankind, continuing to lead him from his earlier lyric expression of romantic self-absorption toward the epic presentation of his moral impulse. “Three Chapters from a Story” and “Vozdushnye puti” (“Aerial Ways”), as well as his long narrative poetry of the decade, also illustrate Pasternak’s attempt to come to grips with the cannibalistic tendency of revolutions to devour the very forces that unleashed them. By 1929, in another long short story titled simply “Povest” (“The Story”), Pasternak reached a new manifestation of his creative position. His young hero Seryosha comes to visit his sister, exhausted and dismayed by the chaos around him in the turmoil of 1916, when Russia’s contribution to the struggle against Germany was faltering because of governmental ineptitude and social tensions. Pasternak’s impressionistic glimpses of the disorder swirl around Seryosha like nightmarish, demonic scenes, until he lies down on a shabby cot to rest, losing himself in memories of the bittersweet prewar years when his artistic vocation had come to him.

Seryosha had been a tutor to a well-to-do family, but he saw his real mission as saving the world through art. Pasternak’s “suffering women,” here a sympathetic prostitute and later a widowed Danish governess trapped in poverty, awaken Seryosha’s compassion and lead him to begin a story within “The Story,” the tale of “Y3,” a poet and musician who intends to alleviate the suffering of some of his fellow men by selling himself at auction. As Seryosha’s retrospective experiences flash through his tired mind, he suddenly becomes distressingly aware of his own failure in those earlier years. At the very time when he was self-consciously creating his gloriously idealistic artistic work, he was overlooking the genuine self-sacrifice of a young acquaintance being called into the army, ignoring the man so completely that he could not even remember his name, and now, miserable himself, guilt overcomes Seryosha.

“The Story” employs Pasternak’s early impressionistic technique of unprepared-for, disruptive shifts in plot, setting, and time, but at the same time, its portraiture and characterization are both more intimate and more realistic than those he had previously created. The element Pasternak had added to Zhenya Luvers’s recognition of the necessity of shared suffering was now Seryosha’s guilty realization of the need for self-sacrifice, a distinct shift from a passive to an active participation in the fate of Russia. By setting “The Story” in the context of the gathering revolution, whose true meaning the oblivious “artist” cannot grasp until it has swept him up, Pasternak establishes the grounds for his subsequent opposition of creative moral man to deathly political machine. “The Story” unmistakably illustrates Pasternak’s growing preference for longer and more realistic prose forms, and thematically it demonstrates his tendency, increasing steadily during the period just before the Stalinist purges of the 1930’s, to integrate his own experience with that of his suffering fellows, a distinct foreshadowing of the life and poems of Yuri Zhivago that Pasternak was later to create.

Second Birth

For many of Russia’s artists, Mayakovsky’s suicide in 1930 marked the end of faith in the ideals of the 1917 revolution. The title of Pasternak’s collection of verse Vtoroye rozhdeniye (1932; Second Birth, 1964) reflects his new orientation, for in one of the poems an actor speaks: “Oh, had I known when I made my debut that lines with blood in them can flood the throat and kill!” During the decade of terror, Pasternak inclined still further toward a realistic novel of the revolution, although only six fragments of it remain, the last short pieces of fiction he wrote. “A District in the Rear” and “Before Parting,” both written in the late 1930’s, treat autobiographical motifs from 1916, the strange prelude to the revolution, with none of Pasternak’s earlier swift flashes of impression nor any penetration of the creating artist’s consciousness. “A District in the Rear,” however, links family love with the stirrings of the artistic impulse, since the hero senses the feelings of his wife and children as “something remote, like loneliness and the pacing of the horse, something like a book,” as he approaches the decision to leave them and sacrifice his life “most worthily and to best advantage” at the front.

The four remaining story fragments, “A Beggar Who Is Proud,” “Aunt Olya,” “Winter Night,” and “The House with Galleries,” do not involve the events of 1917 but rather Pasternak’s childhood reminiscences of the 1905 revolution, possibly because in the late 1930’s he was as yet unable to deal fully with the poet’s relation to the Communist movement and its aftermath. Only after he had lived through World War II and met Olga Ivinskaya could Pasternak express his experiences through the fictional perspective of Doctor Zhivago, binding the moral and the creative, the personal and the objective, the loving and the sacrificial elements of human life into an organic whole. While all Pasternak’s short fiction are steps toward that goal, each piece also independently reflects successively maturing phases of his recognition, as he wrote toward the end of his life, that to be a great poet, writing poetry was not enough; that it was essential to contribute in a vital way to his times by willingly sacrificing himself to a lofty and lovely destiny. Accordingly, the personae of Pasternak’s short fiction—the romantic poet, the lyric dreamer, the aging actor, the maturing girl, the suffering woman, the self-sacrificing husband and father—all finally coalesced into the figure of his Christian “Hamlet”:

The noise is stilled. I come out on the stage The darkness of the night is aimed at meAlong the sights of a thousand opera glasses.Abba, Father, if it be possible,Let this cup pass from me.

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