The Memoirs of Leonid Pasternak

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Though Leonid Pasternak died May 31, 1945, in Oxford, England, where he spent his last four years, The Memoirs of Leonid Pasternak has only recently been published. Pasternak’s daughter Josephine Pasternak introduces the volume, which she organized into three parts from notes and manuscripts left by her father: Part 1, “My Life,” is Pasternak’s artistic autobiography; part 2, “My Meetings and Models,” gives brief accounts of Pasternak’s association with well-known contemporaries; part 3, “Meetings with L. N. Tolstoy,” concentrates on the artist’s close association with the writer, especially during their work, with Pasternak as illustrator of Tolstoy’s Voskreseniye (1899; Resurrection, 1900). In retrospect, Pasternak regretted that he waited so long to write the memoirs and that much detail of his collaboration with Tolstoy was inevitably lost. Even though the book is sketchy, it is valuable to those who share Pasternak’s delight in literature and art.

In the autobiographical section, Pasternak concentrates on his development as an artist and reminisces about his early life in Odessa as the youngest child of a large provincial family whose members discouraged and even ridiculed his drawings. In school, his French teacher, Claude Yakovlevich Liote, recognized and encouraged his talent; Pasternak likens this teacher’s interest to an oasis in a “cultural desert.” A sensitive man who abhorred violence, Pasternak enrolled in medical school at Moscow University solely to please his parents but changed to law because he could not overcome his “loathing for corpses, for dissecting and the whole business in the anatomy theatre.” Through it all, he yearned to be studying and creating art, an opportunity which he sought by applying to enroll in the School of Painting and Sculpture while pursuing his law studies. The one opening there, however, went to the Countess Tolstoy, whom Pasternak later met when he illustrated her father’s novel. The next year, Pasternak studied art at Munich’s Royal Academy and planned to continue art school in Paris, but he faced an obligatory year of military service in Russia. During this year of military service, he painted his first large canvas, Letter from Home, which is one of the sixty pages of illustrations in the volume. It was also during this year of service, 1885, that Pasternak met and fell in love with his future wife, Rosa Isidorovna Kaufman, a gifted pianist. At one time, Pasternak considered breaking off their relationship because of their careers, as much in consideration of Rosa’s as his own. Eventually, Rosa chose to give up her public career for family life.

Although Pasternak devotes relatively little of his memoirs to family life, he evidently enjoyed a happy marriage and produced with Rosa a remarkable family. Their firstborn son, Boris, became one of his country’s finest poets and was the focus of international controversy when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature following the publication of his novel Doktor Zhivago (1957; Doctor Zhivago, 1958). Their second son, Alexsandr, became an architect, and daughters Josephine and Lydia both earned doctorates. According to biographer Guy de Mallac, Boris Pasternak idolized his handsome father so much that he always addressed him with the formal, polite ty. The character Yuri Zhivago, a physician and poet, to a certain extent may be a tribute to Boris Pasternak’s father, who at the time of the composition of Doctor Zhivago lived in Oxford and had not seen his son for more than two decades. In his Avtobiograficheskiy ocherk (1958; I Remember: Sketch for an Autobiography, 1959; also as An Essay in Autobiography), Boris Pasternak wrote “I was filled . . . with . . . anguished pity for my parents who would die before me and whom it was my duty to deliver from the pains of hell by some shining deed, unheard-of and unique.” The poet’s “shining deed” may well have been the creation of the novel in which the main character was removed in spirit from the Russia of the 1950’s as the elder Pasternak was literally removed from his homeland.

Soon after his marriage, Leonid Pasternak settled in Moscow, where he rapidly achieved success as an artist. He opened his own art school and became noted as an innovator with light and color by using mediums other than oil and through painting from life. His acclaim led to a professorship at the School of Painting and Sculpture and a more comfortable life financially along with opportunity to travel. With an artist’s eye he described his first sight of Venice:The same hot, sunny mornings, the same stagnant summer heat, the same reddish clay tiles on the houses as in Odessa, scorching in the sun, the...

(The entire section is 1961 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Kirkus Reviews. LI, August 15, 1983, p. 947.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, October 30, 1983, p. 7.

Observer. January 2, 1983, p. 46.

Studio International. CXCVI, January, 1983, p. 64.

Times Literary Supplement. December 3, 1982, p. 1329.