Boris Pasternak World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2557

Pasternak’s creative work is traditionally divided into two periods, with the break coming around 1932-1934. In the earlier period, he was a full-fledged member of a school of writing that demanded innovation in poetic form above all. Innovation could come at the price of obscure or difficult work. In the later period, Pasternak openly repudiated much of his earlier work, claiming that it had been unnecessarily obscure, and that simplicity and clarity were indispensable characteristics of all meaningful writing.

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In the years before World War I, Pasternak took part in the heated arguments among Russia’s poets about the future of art. Like mathematicians of the late nineteenth century, who had started to examine shapes that exist not in three but in four or more dimensions, or atomic physicists who claimed that matter is made up of many essentially empty submicroscopic particles, poets and other artists no longer felt that merely reproducing the outward appearances of things, the goal of realism, was an ambitious enough task. Pasternak for a time was drawn to the Futurists, a group of poets who believed that the so-called great writers of the past should be discarded along with their way of writing poetry. In Russia, this would mean the end of well-wrought lyrical sentiments or philosophical statements expressed in elegantly rhymed and measured verses. Pasternak was especially drawn to one of the leaders of the Futurists, Vladimir Mayakovsky, who by 1913 was already known in Russia for his flamboyant personal behavior and extravagantly egocentric poetry filled with stunning metaphors and exaggerated emotion. Pasternak soon decided to follow his own path, yet with the Futurists he learned to regard poetry as the free manipulation of the material of language, undertaken to explore truths beyond the logical definitions of words.

There were personal as well as historical reasons for the daunting complexity of Pasternak’s early writing. His early interest in philosophy had led him to some unconventional ideas about what are normally accepted as givens, such as the relationship between cause and effect. This extended to artistic creation as well. Very early in his career, Pasternak became convinced that poems found their author and not the other way around. For him and his contemporaries as for the Romantic writers in the nineteenth century, the world was teeming with symbols, not merely lofty, conventionally poetic ones, but emphatically mundane ones that pressed themselves on the receptive mind of the poet and served to uncover the secret connection of all things in the world. When he wrote in one poem that poetry is “a night that covers leaves in hoarfrost,” he meant that such nights are true poetry in themselves as well as signs showing the inner workings of poetry. Both were things of fragile beauty wrought in the cold and dark where they must remain or else melt away and disappear.

At the same time he believed that the poetic mind itself reverses the usual causal order and brings about changes in reality by mere perception. He wrote in his first autobiography, Safe Conduct, that in art there is “a record of a shift in reality brought on by emotion.” Emotions cause the connections between a word and its logical meanings to weaken. Suddenly the similarities in the sound of two words shows them closer together than previously realized. In his rhymes and other sound repetitions (assonances and alliterations), Pasternak is a master at revealing these striking, multilayered similarities. In one poem he explores in a single line the suggestive sound patterning and logical connections in the Russian words for “tear,” “blind,” “dry,” and “salt”: slyezy, slyepa, vysyxli, and sol, though the line itself seems a puzzle, the solution of which is just out of reach: “Salt went blind. And tears dried.”

Many passages of Pasternak’s earlier writing will show the reader this kind of splintered world, the parts of which seem to have nothing in common. Often the reader must put the poet-perceiver back into the middle of this maelstrom of perceptions to glean sense. In Pasternak’s prose, for example, the word “however” is used to join two notions that have no other discernable connection than that they have occurred to the same person. For this reason the great Russian language theorist Roman Jakobson said that Pasternak’s work depends more than most writing on metonymy, that is, the relationship of things by their physical contiguity. A character in a story may, for example, think of two disparate events or objects otherwise unrelated to one another. There is great humanizing power to this approach in that, in this way, Pasternak continually underscores the uniqueness of the experience of every sentient being. This uniqueness of perception (and therefore experience) is crucial for people caught up in the mass destruction of war, civil strife, and Soviet collectivization of everything from farms to poetry cafés.

It was the abject ugliness of Soviet life that set Pasternak, in the second half of his life, to consider the link between a sense of beauty and moral behavior. He evolved the notion, set forth in living detail in Doctor Zhivago, that poetry, in seeking to show the contiguities that link objects and ideas, is a moral act. It is an expression of faith in the worthiness of this world and a belief that unifying love is stronger than forces that demand murder of one’s enemies or, failing that, suicide.

“Definition of Poetry”

First published: “Opredelenie poezii,” 1922 (collected in My Sister, Life, 1964)

Type of work: Poem

In a list of oblique but revealing intuitions, a word painting of poetry’s nature takes shape.

This poem appears in Pasternak’s My Sister, Life, a collection of poems that is among his most popular with Russian readers. It is placed at the beginning of a section of the book called “An Exercise in Philosophy,” but it has little in common with abstract thinking about art.

The outer form of “Definition of Poetry” is conventional: four four-line stanzas. Each line is made up of three anapestic feet, that is, two weakly accented syllables followed by a strongly accented one, as in the word “Montreal.” In the first eight lines of the poem, seven finely chiseled images are arranged in neat verses. At the middle of them, Pasternak sharpens a gentle, timeworn poetic image with the claim that poetry is “two nightingales dueling.” He seems to say that to write poetry is not just to record moments of one’s intuition. Instead, it is the struggle of two equals, a vision that sees new connections.

Pasternak’s methods are not always readily apparent in translation. The rhythm is symbolic in itself, but almost impossible to reflect accurately. To the Russian listener, this particular meter creates an impression of solemn pronouncements, of a finger regularly stabbing the paper while pointing out inescapable truths. It tends, after a time, toward monotony, as does all sententiousness. Pasternak plays a game with the high seriousness of his topic, at times enhancing the solemnity, such as in the repetitions of “it is,” at other times allowing the images to clash with the staid meter. Ambivalent feelings about his theme are hinged neatly at the very middle of the poem, where he concludes that poetry is “Figaro crashing like a hailstorm down from music stands and flutes into a flowerbed below.”

Translation creates another problem for Pasternak’s reader in that the presence of certain words in his poetry is not motivated by logical dictionary definitions. Instead, words appear because they share similar sounds with other words. This similarity suggested to Pasternak and many of his contemporaries that the things such similar words refer to must also be somehow related. The word for “peas” is connected in this way in the poem with the word for “being overgrown” and in turn to “deepness” and then “deafness.” Then the pea pods are opened, where poetry, now tears of the universe, is found. The Russian for “tears” and “universe” are related by sound. Pasternak claimed that nature very often affirmed his intuitions about these secret connections. Indeed, if one breaks open a pea pod freshly picked in the garden, inside one finds a crystalline drop of sap, silently reflecting all that surrounds it.

Safe Conduct

First published: Okhrannaya gramota, 1931 (English translation, 1945)

Type of work: Autobiography

The poet examines the people and experiences that confirmed the choice of a life in poetry.

Safe Conduct is the earlier of Pasternak’s two autobiographies. The quirky method of its composition demonstrates, no less than Pasternak’s prose fiction, the persistence of his search for poetry in life as he lived it. As a story about a person’s life it is a puzzling work. There is little discussion of his family life; there is only a weak story line with few dates to help situate the seemingly disjointed events. The writing at times is like Pasternak’s early poetry. Cause and effect are often turned around so that, for example, the spring months strive to invent the earth so that they would have somewhere to return each year, and steam whistles carry trains through mountain tunnels.

In the first of the book’s three parts, Pasternak describes his boyhood through the impressions made on him by a family friend, the Russian composer Aleksandr Scriabin. The point of view is not that of a middle-aged writer reflecting on his past, but rather of the precocious teenager Pasternak was at the time. As one would expect from a dreaming adolescent, the importance of events is exaggerated. He allows his future in music (for which from the age of two he had studied for fifteen years) to be decided by an offhand answer to a question put to his idol, Scriabin. He also makes the penetrating observation that his poetry was unique, perhaps, because for the first decade and a half of his life he abstained from words for the sake of sound (that is, for music).

In the second part, Pasternak tells of his days as a philosophy student at the university in Marburg, Germany, and then as a tourist in Italy. This serves as a point of departure for musings on the nature of art, to which he would eventually dedicate his life. Pasternak sees poetry, his name for any perceived beauty, as nothing less than transcendence. To tell truths, he writes, is to be captured in time. Life moves on and truths change, but to capture the image of an instant is to preserve truth for eternity. Emphasizing the passivity of the artist, he often said this poetry was not created but came freely to the poet, an idea borrowed from German Romantic thinkers of the nineteenth century.

This leads logically to the topic of the third part, which is a kaleidoscopic portrait of the Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who had killed himself the year before Safe Conduct was published. True to Pasternak’s tendency to capture the essence of an object by examining what is connected to it, he communicates the uniqueness of Mayakovsky’s poetic gift by observing the awe it engendered in those around him.

Safe Conduct stands at approximately the middle of Pasternak’s life as a poet. He was then just a year over forty and at the end of his first marriage. He was nearing the end of his illusions about the direction that the Russian revolution had taken. More important for his poetry, he was beginning to realize he would have to write in a new way. The task would be the same: finding a name for the moment at which the poet suddenly sees the world as it has never before been seen. The name, Pasternak was coming to realize, must be as transparent to the understanding of all as a biblical parable.

Doctor Zhivago

First published: Doktor Zhivago, 1957 (English translation, 1958)

Type of work: Novel

A Russian physician, in the midst of storms of war and revolution, struggles to return harmony to his world through poetry.

Doctor Zhivago is Pasternak’s last major work of prose fiction and represents a kind of summing up of all the beliefs that had survived with him through the fires of two revolutions, two world wars, a vicious civil war, the Sovietization of Russia, and Joseph Stalin’s oppression. He wrote the novel in part because he had survived when most of his fellow writers had not. In death they joined the perhaps forty million Soviet citizens killed in wars, famine, or concentration camps.

Pasternak’s main intent is to show the mass of interconnections tying the hero, Urij Zhivago, to the whole of Russia. The great number of characters brought on stage are all shown to be connected, however tangentially, to him. Family members, friends, and officials who decide his fate or that of his friends and family are all linked to Zhivago. Improbable coincidences bring characters together across vast spaces. This continues Pasternak’s lifelong tendency to examine in his writing the sometimes invisible links that make the world an organic whole. The novel is not explicitly political; it was seen as an affront to Soviet authoritarian ideology, with its cult of the Communist Party and its contempt for all other groups.

The names Pasternak gives his characters reflect their relationship to life itself: Zhivago (the living) recalls the gospel story of the resurrection: “Why seek thee the living among the dead?” His lover, Lara (from “laurel”), is life’s reward for the true poet, the perfect example of Russian womanhood. Her family, Russified Belgians, represents the debt owed to the rest of Europe for some of the best things in Russia. Komarovsky, a Bolshevik functionary and formerly a rapacious businessman who seduced Lara in her youth, has a name derived from the Russian for “mosquito.” Pasha Antipov, a young intellectual and Lara’s husband, has a good Russian surname, but upon becoming a revolutionary he takes an underground code name, Strelnikov (the gunman). These are only the novel’s most obvious symbols. As in a good poem, every detail of the novel can be shown to have symbolic importance. Zhivago’s escape with his family from turmoil in Moscow eastward to the Urals is covered by a concealing blanket of snow. So too are his brief moments of bliss with Lara insulated from the menacing surroundings by heavy snow. Candles burn throughout the novel as a symbol of the passion for life. Lara and Pasha, linked by the traditional folk image of the blood-red rowanberry, eventually perish, victims of Stalin’s blood lust. The railroad is perhaps symbolic of Pasternak’s method. It runs through the entire novel, linking one set of characters or episodes with the others.

Zhivago is like many Russian literary heroes, a weak man endowed with a poetic soul. What makes this novel a unique and important event in Russian literature is that this hero does not just talk about, recite, or feel poetry; he has the power to re-create through his writing what he has seen and felt. The last chapter in the book includes twenty-five poems of searing beauty ostensibly composed by Zhivago at various stages in the novel’s progress. They prove by their existence poetry’s unique ability to preserve, and in the end to resurrect, what has been: love, courage, longing, beauty, and faith.

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