Boris Pasternak Pasternak, Boris (Vol. 10) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Pasternak, Boris 1890–1960

Pasternak was a Russian poet, novelist, dramatist, essayist, translator, and autobiographer. Although Pasternak is best known in America as the author of the novel Dr. Zhivago, he is primarily recognized in Europe as a poet. There is a trace of mystical Christianity akin to that of Dostoevsky running through his work. His poetry has been praised for its dense imagery, highly personal nature, and its complex, yet close-knit, structure. Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 which he declined under political pressure. (See also CLC, Vol. 7.)

Elliott Mossman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Pasternak in The Blind Beauty has sought to adjust the native laws of Shakespearean drama to the Russian historical stage. The adaptation is evident in the central importance accorded theatricality in The Blind Beauty, in the weight given to political and historical parallelism, in the range of characters from noble to peasant, in the themes of genealogical taint, institutional corruption, unchecked violence and predetermined restraints on freedom of action.

It is all the more evident the closer one looks at Pasternak's writing, most persuasively so in Pasternak's use of language in the play. If "language is half a cemetery," as Pasternak noted in connection with his studies of Symbolism in 1912, then each word has its history, each has its own tale to tell. In his notebooks for 1941–1942, when he was first translating Shakespeare, we find Pasternak recording: "The ingenuity of language lies not in its soaring poetic quality; it is much more: each element is a fable. The tale is put together from separate words, of which each one is a small fable. The charm of the common folk vocabulary lies in adages and riddles." This principle of artistic language, even if honored only seldom, is a central Shakespearean element in the drama of Pasternak. In The Blind Beauty it is the words which excite the historical as well as the histrionic imagination. Pasternak has consistently shunned the nineteenth century Russian literary language in favor of an unbookish spoken language. His Russian words are ones to delight and frustrate perusers of dictionaries, words retrieved from disuse and largely unheard on the Russian stage. (p. 239)

Elliott Mossman, "Pasternak's 'Blind Beauty'," in Russian Literature Triquarterly (copyright © 1973 by Ardis), Fall, 1973, pp. 227-42.

Jane Gary Harris

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Although] Pasternak's earliest images of life are feminine images, they are not associated with human incarnations of life, but rather with the personification of abstract forces: Nature …, the Life Force or Life …, both feminine nouns. Indeed, in [My Sister, Life], personification is a favorite device used to emphasize the poet's sense of personal involvement with Nature and Life. It comes as no surprise to find love poems and nature poems addressed to Life, for Pasternak's earliest love poetry is more often dedicated to the Life Force than to a human being. The few exceptions in My Sister, Life which are addressed to a woman portray her more as an object, as another natural phenomenon, than as a female person, as a woman with whom the poet can share his emotional life. And she is always associated with Nature: she is either imagined as (and transformed into) one or more natural phenomena, or she awakens to find herself in a natural environment which she does not fully appreciate. Her human qualities are ignored or even repudiated. Furthermore, Nature rather than a human female protagonist seems to serve as Pasternak's prerequisite for love. And, at least in this collection, love can be consummated only in nature, real or imagined, for there alone the poet can be at one with life. Life, moreover, is almost always presented through nature imagery, in particular water imagery—a raindrop, spring showers, flooding, pouring, splashing, rushing, etc. (pp. 390-91)

Human love relationships, on the other hand, are portrayed primarily as means to the poet's communion with the Life Force. In the poem, "Out of Superstition,"… the poet views his beloved through the prism of nature, that is, in kissing her lips he finds "violets," in admiring her dress he hears it "chirp, like a snowdrop/To April: 'Hello!'" And, upon entering his tiny room, he finds it appears to him like "a box with a wild orange tree," its walls look brown as an "oak tree." In the final lines of this poem, the poet also comes to associate his beloved with the Life Force, for she reveals to him the essence of his own life…. Hence, in My Sister, Life, Pasternak's images of nature, life and love are intimately related. Love is presented as a means to achieving communion with Life; while nature or a natural environment is a prerequisite to love, and in turn, to communion with Life. (pp. 391-92)

[In] the poems of My Sister, Life, and in most of Pasternak's verse before Second Birth (1932), the poet's love is valued as a means of communion with the Life Force, but it is far from being considered Life's highest gift to man and woman, as that which unites two kindred souls in their mutual communion with each other and with Life. Love does not yet empower the poet's beloved to share his personal experience. He is alone. She remains but an object, on a par with the natural phenomena.

On the other hand, true love, and in particular, "a poet's love," is … presented as something extraordinary, as a force capable of transforming the world. In his poem, "Darling—it's frightening! When a poet loves …" …, Pasternak expresses his idea of true love as an elemental force, and as creative power…. It is here that we first encounter Pasternak's idea that true love is synonymous with poetic inspiration, with Life's highest gift to man, creative power.

What is more, the title poem of this collection, "My sister, life," although not as explicit as "Darling—it's frightening!", develops the idea of the poet's love for Life as synonymous with poetic creativity…. [The poet] alone can interpret Life's gift. (pp. 393-94)

[While] Pasternak has not yet developed a feminine image in My Sister, Life whose kindred soul can share the poet's ecstatic love for Life or serve as his source of creative inspiration, certain basic elements of his future feminine image are already implicit in this first major cycle of poems. Life is personified as "my sister, life," implying an intimate relationship between the poet and a feminine incarnation of Life, while true love, emanating from Life's extraordinary powers, is already presented as a prime source of creative inspiration.

Nevertheless, Pasternak's image of Life remains very abstract. It is but a personified metaphor, unrelated to a human being who has suffered and thus experienced life, to one who has freely sacrificed herself to the commands of Life and thus come to understand both its sorrows and joys. Indeed, in this collection, Life remains primarily a source of esctasy, of joy and beauty; ugliness and evil go almost unrecognized as a part of Life. The theme of death is also barely touched upon. In the poem, "English Lessons,"… two feminine images of beauty and unrequited love, Desdemona and Ophelia, sacrificed their lives by merging with the "pool of the universe." The conception of death merging with Life is presented here in embryonic form based on the idea that the life cycle completes itself only to renew itself again. But this theme is not fully developed until Dr. Zhivago.

[When] Pasternak first tried his hand at creating an image of Life in prose, he not only introduced into his novella, Childhood of Luvers, the first traces of a humanized feminine image, but also began to include some of the less "poetic" themes until then barely touched upon in his poetry.

The two major protagonists in the novella are Pasternak's incipient feminine image, Zhenya Luvers, and his abstract metaphorical image of Life. In the character of Zhenya Luvers we literally follow the development of Pasternak's feminine image from childhood through adolescence to the threshold of womanhood. She is portrayed as an extremely sensitive child whose intuitive perception of the mysteries of Life and receptivity to the commands of Life are antithetical to the values ascribed to ordinary adults who

know how to shout and to punish, who smoke and bolt doors.

Many of the essential qualities of Pasternak's adult feminine ideal are inherent in her characterization. However, she still does not "represent Life," but in the course of the novella learns about her responses to Life, becomes aware of Life and her relationship to it.

Pasternak's metaphorical image of Life appears here not as his "sister," but rather as a purposeful, yet at times seemingly whimsical feminine spirit or Life Force with a definite, even eudemonic "plan" for the universe. "Life" uses all means to carry out her design, conjuring up various methods to "deflect" her subjects so that she may guide them properly and execute her ultimate purpose, Creation. Man, her most troublesome subject, is a major target, but all the phenomena in the universe are under her control since they are her creations. (pp. 395-96)

Sensitivity to Life's plan and receptivity to Life's commands are presented in Childhood of Luvers as synonymous with the highest form of human sensibility, with intuition, poetic consciousness or the poetic soul. Hence, Pasternak depicts the child Zhenya as at first bewildered by her experiences, ignorant of their cause, but aware of their mystery. Her intuition (or poetic soul) guides her in responding to her environment, to events which seem mysterious because they are not yet comprehensible to her as part of Life's design. (p. 397)

Pasternak's incipient feminine image is depicted as a developing human consciousness. By relating the child's first perceptions of change in herself and in her environment to later more "indelible" impressions, Pasternak indicates how experiences are acquired and how impressions are left on her soul which gradually make her more "aware" of Life's mysteries. Zhenya passes through several stages, each one perceived by her as wondrous, mysterious, and traumatic, each one leaving a strong imprint on her. The most significant impressions includes love for a friend, recognition of her mother as a woman and as the most precious being in her life, a growing awareness of her own approaching womanhood, and the realization of the idea of death as somewhat more than merely a "vaporized third being," as something which involves her total response to another human being.

According to Pasternak, such impressions "have no name" and are beyond the control of the person affected by them, for they are comprehensible only to those "aware of, or able to discern, what it is that creates, harmonizes and stitches them together." In a word, the highest possible stage of human sensibility, of human consciousness, is receptivity ot those seemingly mysterious occurrences which represent Life's commands and form an essential part of her plan.

Most significant, the indelible impressions left on Zhenya's consciousness pertain to relationships between people, to the moral concern of one individual for another, to the sense of communion between people, even though that other person may remain unknown in the usual meaning of the words "known-unknown." (pp. 397-98)

To Pasternak, the prerequisite for true love appears as pity or compassion, involving a deep sense of moral guilt and moral responsibility closely bound to the mystery or riddle of Life, or to the theme of Man's destiny…. Zhenya Luvers' free spirit or "free personality" is the result of her developing awareness and spontaneous receptivity to Life's commands, while her childhood suffering (bewilderment, fear, sorrow, guilt) and her intuitive acceptance of her role in life (joys as well as sorrows, in particular, "the idea of death" and its realization) may be interpreted as her growing awareness of the "idea of life as sacrifice."

But while the idea of compassion as a prerequisite to true love appears in Childhood of Luvers as feminine compassion for a man, from 1929 on, it is always associated with the sensitive man's or poet's vision of woman. It is hinted at in Pasternak's "novel in verse," Spektorsky, it appears as a significant element in his prose work, The Tale, as well as in the poetry of Second Birth, and it emerges as a fully developed theme in Dr. Zhizago. (pp. 398-99)

Although the relationship between love and compassion is tendered in Spektorsky, its most significant aspect is undoubtedly Pasternak's dual vision of woman, by which he opposes two feminine images based on their antithetical attitudes toward Life and love. While his active, passionate and practical woman attempts to dominate Life, to control the forces of history, of destiny, Pasternak's passive, sensitive, impractical and often confused woman expresses her receptivity to Life's commands and so experiences poetic freedom and genuine love. The hero's compassion for the latter leads to a genuine love idyll, while his equally strong feelings of fear, even repulsion, for the former makes true love impossible. (p. 399)

[Both Pushkin in his poem The Fountain of Bachchisarai] and Pasternak present a dual vision of woman by contrasting antithetical attitudes toward life and love; a passive hero exposed to both, expresses compassion for the more passive, acceptant, spiritually oriented persona. (p. 401)

[In Spektorsky] Marya Ilina becomes an image of the pure soul, the poetic spirit, of the poet destined to live in an alien social, political and cultural environment. Her love affair is a Pasternakian idyll, predestined in its inception as well as in its unexpected conclusion. Her love appears as a gift of Life, for in describing her romance with Spektorsky, Pasternak emphasizes their intimate union with nature and life…. [As] a poet, Marya Ilina is more closely associated with Life than the feminine images presented in Pasternak's early collections of verse, while as an adult representative of the human sensibility, she comes closer to Pasternak's ultimate conception of his feminine image than Zhenya Luvers.


(The entire section is 4938 words.)

Rimvydas šIlbajoris

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


According to Yevgeny Pasternak, the writer's son, the manuscript of "The Story of a Counter-Octave" came with a bundle of odd papers his father had asked him to burn for firewood in 1945. This unfinished story was written in 1913, at about the same time as "The Twin in Clouds," and it is a companion piece to the early prose works "The Sign of Apelles" (1915) and "Letters From Tula" (1918). It tells of a church organist, Amadeus Knaur, in a fictional Hessian town of the eighteenth century who became so engrossed in his improvisations on the organ after the Whitsunday service that he never noticed how his little son, who had somehow strayed among the mechanical workings of the instrument, was crushed to death by one of its levers. Years later Knaur came back to the town, possibly by an accident of Divine Providence, and asked to be reinstated in his old job, but was indignantly rejected. No one ever saw him again.

Once Pasternak wrote in a poem: "Our significance is in what we lose." Nevertheless, this early romantic and symbolic piece has some merit as a record of the writer's developing artistic devices in prose which constitute an unbroken line leading to his great novel Doctor Zhivago. One of these is an attempt to write of people and things, of the processes of nature, of changes in light with the passing of the day and of the movement of time itself as a single living entity, as continuum without qualitative dividing marks. The result is that people with their emotions do not come through as persons but rather as poetic images. Another device, following from this, is to establish a direct and meaningful correspondence between events in nature and crucial turning points in human lives in a manner which appears to move from strange coincidence to intimations of magic or, as the critics of Doctor Zhivago used to say, o pathetic fallacy. In Pasternak's work this is not a false but a poetic logic, and one cannot say enough to emphasize the difference between the two. (p. 119)

Rimvydas Šilbajoris in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 1, Winter, 1977.