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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.

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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

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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.

Achievements

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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; collected poems) sold 170,000 copies in the Soviet Union by 1972.

Pasternak’s moral dilemma as a Russian artist in Soviet society should not be underrated. As Doctor Zhivago unequivocally demonstrates, Pasternak was incapable of adapting his artistic message to political expediency. At the same time, however, his integrity made him vulnerable to indirect threats not against himself but against his family and, still more grievous, against Olga Ivinskaya, his beloved “Lara.”

Olga Ivinskaya recalled that in the late 1950’s, “The easiest way of dealing with intellectuals like us was simply to starve us into submission.” For Pasternak, starvation meant a deepening isolation from his fellow artists and the audience of his countrymen, the constant fear for his loved ones, and a continuing horror at the unwanted fame abroad that caused much of his torment, and he eventually bowed to pressure. He signed a letter drafted by Ivinskaya renouncing the Nobel Prize on October 31, 1958, asking only that she write “that I was born not in the Soviet Union, but in Russia.” As a child of Russia’s old intelligentsia, Pasternak lacked the furious stamina born of famine, war, and the camps, that stiffened the dissent of “men with their backs to the wall” like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or Vladimir Bukovsky. Pasternak’s literary posture, no less intensely moral, sprang from his commitment to “live life to the end,” as he wrote in Yuri Zhivago’s poem “Hamlet,” recited at Pasternak’s burial.

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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.

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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 itself is the message. His poetry is music, like that of Paul Verlaine, whom he greatly admired; it is a search and a discovery, like Paul Valéry’s; it is a perpetual celebration of the senses, as in Mikhail Lermontov; above all, it is a cosmic apotheosis of nature. It had a message of newness for the years of hope and optimism following the Revolution, and as Lydia Pasternak-Slater writes: “each reader discovered individually and for himself that these poems were the spontaneous outbursts of genius, of a ’poet’ by the grace of God.”

Pasternak was not a political poet. He seldom wrote of the Revolution or of reform. At first glance, he seems to be unaware of events, as he states in the poem “About These Verses”: “Dear friends . . . what millennium is it out there?” A. Lezhnev states that these lines might be considered the epigraph of Pasternak’s entire work. Yet the throbbing rhythm of My Sister, Life incarnates the Revolution, as The Year 1905 sounds an ominous yet hopeful note, and as the poems of the 1940’s speak of the desolation of the war years. Contemporary events are both present and absent in Pasternak’s verse. Their absence angered Soviet officials, yet Joseph Stalin himself spared Pasternak.

Pasternak’s greatest poetry, The Poems of Doctor Zhivago and the poems of his last years, sheds the excessive imagery and startling verbal play of his earlier works. These poems reach a sublime simplicity in perhaps a single transparent image, and the music and the message are one. Such is “Winter Night,” perhaps one of the greatest poems in all Russian literature. Into these later works, Pasternak has injected a profound Christian symbolism, very much evident in the The Poems of Doctor Zhivago, more subtle in When the Skies Clear. Many of these poems are probably among the best-known modern poems in the entire world for their simplicity, universality, and lyricism.

Discussion Topics

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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?

Bibliography

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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 much valuable information about Pasternak as a man and a writer.

De Mallac, Guy. Boris Pasternak: His Life and Art. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981. An extensive biography of Pasternak. The second part is devoted to De Mallac’s interpretation of the most important features of Pasternak’s works. A detailed chronology of his life and an exhaustive bibliography complete this beautifully illustrated book.

Erlich, Victor, ed. Pasternak: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1978. This skillfully arranged collection of essays covers all important facets of Pasternak’s work, including short fiction, although the emphasis is on his poetry and Doctor Zhivago.

Fleishman, Lazar. Boris Pasternak: The Poet and His Politics. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990. An extensive study of Pasternak’s life and works written under the oppressive political system. Chapters on the Doctor Zhivago affair are especially poignant. A must for those who are interested in nonliterary influences upon literary creations.

Gifford, Henry. Boris Pasternak: A Critical Study. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977. Gifford follows the stages in Pasternak’s life and discusses works written during those stages in order to establish his achievements as a poet, writer of prose fiction, and translator. This volume contains many sharp critical remarks, and chapter 6 deals with the short fiction. Supplemented by a chronological table and a select bibliography.

Gifford, Henry. “Indomitable Pasternak.” The New York Review of Books 37 (May 31, 1990): 26-31. Discusses Pasternak’s courage in his defense of artistic freedom under Soviet power, refusing to sign denunciations.

Ivinskaya, Olga. A Captive of Time. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978. Ivinskaya, Pasternak’s love in the last years of his life, the model for Lara in Doctor Zhivago, and a staff member at the influential Soviet literary magazine Novy mir, provides a wealth of information about Pasternak, his views and works, and Russia’s literary atmosphere in the 1940’s and 1950’s.

Mossman, Elliott. “Pasternak’s Short Fiction.” Russian Literature Triquarterly 3 (1972): 279-302. Mossman sees Pasternak’s preoccupation with short fiction in the 1920’s not as a diversion but as an alternative to poetry and a legitimate genre in his work. He discusses “Aerial Ways,” “The Story,” “The Childhood of Luvers,” and “The Story of a Contraoctave” within Pasternak’s development as a writer.

Pasternak, Boris, Ranier Maria Rilka, and Marina Tsvetayeva. Letters: Summer 1926. New York Review Books, 2001. The selected correspondence between the great Russian writers, scattered in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution. This poignant record of a dreadful year for all three reveals their views on art and love and sorrow.

Rowland, Mary F., and Paul Rowland. Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago.” Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967. This book-length interpretation of Doctor Zhivago offers many interesting attempts to clarify allegorical, symbolic, and religious meanings as, for example, the meaning of virtually every name in the novel. Although some interpretations are not proven, most of them are plausible, making for a fascinating reading.

Rudova, Larissa. Understanding Boris Pasternak. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997. A general introduction to Pasternak’s work, including both his early poetry and prose and his later work; provides analyses of individual novels and stories.

Sendich, Munir. Boris Pasternak: A Reference Guide. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1994. This indispensable reference contains a bibliography of Pasternak editions with more than five hundred entries, a bibliography of criticism with more than one thousand entries, and essays on topics including Pasternak’s poetics, relations with other artists, and influences.

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