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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Boris Pasternak did not leave a comprehensive autobiography, although he did write two relatively brief autobiographical works which cover approximately his first thirty years. The first, Okhrannaya gramota (1913; A Safe-Conduct, 1949), is patchy and impressionistic; in later years Pasternak judged it “affected.” In his Avtobiograficheskiy ocherk (1958; I Remember: Sketch for an Autobiography, 1959), a revision of A Safe-Conduct, Pasternak admittedly avoids discussion of his turbulent later years: “Keeping to the sequence of events,” he explains, “I would have to speak of years and circumstances, of people and of destinies contained within the framework of the revolution.” Furthermore, his papers have not been preserved, so it is no surprise that the details of his life have been relatively unavailable in the West until recently. Now, only two years after the publication of Guy de Mallac’s detailed Boris Pasternak: His Life and Art (1981), Ronald Hingley has published another biography of the Russian poet.

Hingley states in his introduction that even after de Mallac’s biography, Pasternak was “faceless” and goes on to suggest that Pasternak will answer “human interest” questions about the author of Doktor Zhivago (1957; Doctor Zhivago, 1958). Certain details—such as the fact that in Russian, the family name means parsnip and an account of the poet’s nanny taking him, a child of Jewish parents, to a nearby monastery to be baptized into the Orthodox Church—do contribute human interest. For the most part, however, Hingley writes with a detachment that does little to enhance the human interest of his subject; in fact, his occasionally sarcastic tone tends to detract from it. For example, Hingley chooses words such as “boasts” and “high-handedness” to describe Pasternak’s selection of detail in A Safe-Conduct. Perhaps an explanation for this sometimes gratuitous and irritating tone is that Hingley wanted to present a marked contrast to de Mallac’s idealization of Pasternak. When describing his visit to Pasternak during the height of the furor over the Nobel Prize, however, Hingley drops his sarcastic attitude, and the result is one of the most readable and most valuable portions of the book. The biographer gives Pasternak’s own account of how he burst into tears, when he first saw a copy of Doctor Zhivago in print. Hingley goes on to describe Pasternak’s wit, humor, candor, and bravery.

Despite complaints that a reader might make about Hingley’s style, one cannot deny the impressiveness of his position as lecturer in Russian at Oxford and his extensive list of publications on Russian literature. Reviewer John Bayley, himself a scholar of Russian literature, rates the biography highly in comparison with de Mallac’s: “Hingley’s book, tauter, more economical, more balanced, and containing some good translations and commentary on the poetry, must on balance be considered the better biography, and indeed the most useful book on Pasternak to date.”

Hingley organizes his study into three major sections: “Maze of Melodies” (1890-1923); “Flirting with History” (1923-1946); and “Enemy of the People” (1946-1960). The first part explores early influences on Pasternak in a home that brought contact with gifted people and early exposure to the arts. His father, Leonid Osipovich, was an Impressionist painter whose career provided opportunities for his family to meet artists and writers of international fame, among them Rainer Maria Rilke and Leo Tolstoy. The young Pasternak, in fact, accompanied his father to Astapovo, where the artist had been summoned to paint Tolstoy’s portrait after his death at the railway station. Pasternak’s mother, Rozaliya Isidorovna, was a concert pianist before marriage, and she inspired him with a passion for music. Indeed, he aspired to become a composer but abandoned that goal in his late teens, first for philosophy, then for poetry.

Pasternak had barely begun his...

(The entire section is 1,748 words.)