Boris Pasternak Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Primarily a lyric poet, Boris Pasternak also wrote epic poems upon revolutionary themes and translated English and German classics into Russian. Besides several pieces of short fiction, he wrote two prose autobiographies and an unfinished play, Slepaya Krasavitsa (1969; The Blind Beauty, 1969), intended as a nineteenth century prologue to his single novel, Doktor Zhivago (1957; Doctor Zhivago, 1958), the first major Russian work to be published only outside the Soviet Union. Pasternak won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1958, but Soviet governmental pressure forced him to refuse it. His lyric “The Nobel Prize” describes him “caught like a beast at bay” in his homeland.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Boris Pasternak is best known in his native country for his poetry and abroad for his novel Doctor Zhivago. In both of these genres he ranks among the best in Russian literature. His short fiction, though not on the same level of excellence as his poetry and the novel, is still appreciated. Pasternak was also an accomplished translator into Russian, especially of William Shakespeare’s works and of Georgian poetry. An equally important achievement on his part was his ability to project himself as an ultimate artist in the Soviet environment notably hostile to free art. During the last four decades of his life, he was able to preserve the dignity of a free individualist and to write his works according to the dictates of his conscience. It was this courageous attitude, in addition to the artistic merits of his works, that won him the Nobel Prize in 1958.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Boris Pasternak (PAS-tur-nak) wrote only one novel, Doctor Zhivago; this work was the final product of a creative life devoted largely to poetry. Pasternak was initially recognized as a lyric poet who synthesized Symbolist musicality and Futurist colloquialism, but after the 1917 Revolution, as he indicated in his address to the First Congress of the Union of Soviet Writers in 1934, he came to believe that poetry was in fact “pure prose in its pristine intensity.” During the Stalinist purges of the 1930’s and through World War II, Pasternak took refuge in the long and distinguished Russian tradition of poetic translation, and he produced outstanding versions of many classic Western dramas. Pasternak also wrote epic poems on revolutionary themes; two prose autobiographies, Okhrannaya gramota (1931; Safe Conduct, 1945) and Avtobiograficheskiy ocherk (1958; I Remember: Sketch for an Autobiography, 1959); short fiction, of which several sketches are early studies for his novel; and an unfinished play, Slepaya krasavitsa (pb. 1969; The Blind Beauty, 1969), which he intended as a nineteenth century prologue to Doctor Zhivago. By incorporating “The Poems of Yuri Zhivago” into the fabric of the novel Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak returned to the lyricism of his youth.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Doctor Zhivago was the first major Russian work not to be first published in the former Soviet Union. By 1959, it had already appeared in twenty-three other languages, but even though Boris Pasternak had been chosen to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1958, Soviet governmental pressure forced him to refuse it. For the brief remainder of his life, as he observed in his pain-filled lyric “The Nobel Prize,” he was “caught like a beast at bay” in his homeland, one of the most tragic figures of modern literature.

Literature, particularly poetry, plays in Russian life a role almost inconceivable to Westerners. To Russians, art, politics, and morality have always been inseparable. From their ancient oral folk epics, the byliny, to twentieth century verse recitals and the explosion of samizdat (self-published) works, poetry has helped shape the Russians’ responses to social and political issues. In the vein of Russia’s greatest poets, Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov, Pasternak’s famous public reading in 1948 intensified both his listeners’ love of poetry and their desperate yearning to witness a Russian poet challenging unreasonable governmental oppression. Pasternak’s early poetry, somewhat resembling T. S. Eliot’s difficult allusive verse, did not achieve wide popularity, but after the government prevented his acceptance of the Nobel Prize, Pasternak’s Stikhotvoreniya i poemy (1965, 1976;...

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Other literary forms

(World Poets and Poetry)

Besides poetry, Boris Pasternak (PAS-tur-nak) composed several pieces of short fiction. They include “Pisma iz Tuly” (1922; “Letters from Tula,” 1945), “Detstvo Luvers” (1923; “The Childhood of Luvers,” 1945), and Rasskazy (1925; short stories). He wrote two autobiographical works: Okhrannaya gramota (1931; Safe Conduct, 1949) and Avtobiograficheskiy ocherk (1958; I Remember: Sketch for an Autobiography, 1959). His novel Doktor Zhivago (Doctor Zhivago, 1958) was first published in Italy in 1957. An unfinished dramatic trilogy, Slepaya krasavitsa (The Blind Beauty, 1969), was published after his death, in 1969.

Among Pasternak’s many translations into Russian are several of William Shakespeare’s plays, including Romeo and Juliet (pr. c. 1595-1596) in 1943 and Antony and Cleopatra (pr. 1606-1607) in 1944. Most of these translations were published between 1940 and 1948. He also translated into Russian the works of several Georgian lyric poets, especially those works of his friends Titian Tabidze and Paolo Iashvili. His translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust: Eine Tragödie (pb. 1808, 1833; The Tragedy of Faust, 1823, 1838) appeared in 1953, and Friedrich Schiller’s Maria Stuart (1800) in 1957. Other authors whose works he translated include Heinrich von Kleist, Lord Byron, and John Keats.

The best English editions of Pasternak’s prose works are found in Selected Writings—which includes the short prose works, Safe Conduct, and selected poems—translated by C. M. Bowra et al.; I Remember, translated with preface and notes by David Magarshack; and Doctor Zhivago, translated by Max Hayward and M. Harari, with the poems translated by Bernard G. Guerney.


(World Poets and Poetry)

Known in the West mainly as the author of Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak established his reputation as a poet in the Soviet Union in 1922 with the publication of My Sister, Life. He is regarded as a “poet’s poet,” and his contemporary Anna Akhmatova referred to him simply as “the poet,” as if there were no other in his time. Indeed, Pasternak ranks as one of the foremost Russian poets of the twentieth century, if not the greatest. At the turn of the century, Symbolism, as in the works of Andrey Bely and Aleksandr Blok, dominated Russian poetry, and in the years before the Revolution more daring innovation and verbal experimentation occurred in the Futurist movement, as in the poetry of Vladimir Mayakovsky and Sergei Esenin. Pasternak inherited from both movements and yet was a part of neither. Like the Symbolists, he is able to see life in images; like the Futurists, he uses daring verbal combinations, intricate sound patterns, and a relaxed conversational vocabulary. In his verses, there is a simplicity and clarity that goes back to Alexander Pushkin, together with a freshness and originality that are timeless.

Pasternak’s early poetry, especially My Sister, Life, is his most innovative and enigmatic. In these “rimes and riddles,” as Robert Payne observes, Pasternak seemed to send the reader “in search of the key, until he realized that no key was necessary.” Pasternak creates pure poetry, and the creation...

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Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

What philosophical influences on Boris Pasternak made his continued adherence to Bolshevik principles impossible?

What resemblances are there between the patterns of Pasternak’s poetic images and those of T. S. Eliot?

What might account for the fact that Pasternak’s poetry has had less impact than Doctor Zhivago on non-Russian readers?

What resemblances are there between Pasternak’s and Leo Tolstoy’s ways of conveying history through fiction?

Did Soviet censors in effect assure the worldwide popularity of Doctor Zhivago?


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Barnes, Christopher. Boris Pasternak: A Literary Biography. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989-1998. (See Magill’s Literary Annual review) A two volume comprehensive biography, scholarly but also accessible.

Bowra, C. M. The Creative Experiment. London: Macmillan, 1949. Contains one of the classic essays on Pasternak. While Bowra concentrates on Pasternak’s poetry, he provides considerable insight into the sensibility that informs Pasternak’s fiction as well.

Conquest, Robert. The Pasternak Affair: Courage of Genius. London: Collins and Harvill, 1961. A detailed account of Pasternak’s conflict with the state on his reception of the Nobel Prize. Conquest provides...

(The entire section is 665 words.)