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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 567

Safe Conduct is the earlier of Pasternak’s two autobiographies. The quirky method of its composition demonstrates, no less than Pasternak’s prose fiction, the persistence of his search for poetry in life as he lived it. As a story about a person’s life it is a puzzling work. There is little discussion of his family life; there is only a weak story line with few dates to help situate the seemingly disjointed events. The writing at times is like Pasternak’s early poetry. Cause and effect are often turned around so that, for example, the spring months strive to invent the earth so that they would have somewhere to return each year, and steam whistles carry trains through mountain tunnels.

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In the first of the book’s three parts, Pasternak describes his boyhood through the impressions made on him by a family friend, the Russian composer Aleksandr Scriabin. The point of view is not that of a middle-aged writer reflecting on his past, but rather of the precocious teenager Pasternak was at the time. As one would expect from a dreaming adolescent, the importance of events is exaggerated. He allows his future in music (for which from the age of two he had studied for fifteen years) to be decided by an offhand answer to a question put to his idol, Scriabin. He also makes the penetrating observation that his poetry was unique, perhaps, because for the first decade and a half of his life he abstained from words for the sake of sound (that is, for music).

In the second part, Pasternak tells of his days as a philosophy student at the university in Marburg, Germany, and then as a tourist in Italy. This serves as a point of departure for musings on the nature of art, to which he would eventually dedicate his life. Pasternak sees poetry, his name for any perceived beauty, as nothing less than transcendence. To tell truths, he writes, is to be captured in time. Life moves on and truths change, but to capture the image of an instant is to preserve truth for eternity. Emphasizing the passivity of the artist, he often said this poetry was not created but came freely to the poet, an idea borrowed from German Romantic thinkers of the nineteenth century.

This leads logically to the topic of the third part, which is a kaleidoscopic portrait of the Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who had killed himself the year before Safe Conduct was published. True to Pasternak’s tendency to capture the essence of an object by examining what is connected to it, he communicates the uniqueness of Mayakovsky’s poetic gift by observing the awe it engendered in those around him.

Safe Conduct stands at approximately the middle of Pasternak’s life as a poet. He was then just a year over forty and at the end of his first marriage. He was nearing the end of his illusions about the direction that the Russian revolution had taken. More important for his poetry, he was beginning to realize he would have to write in a new way. The task would be the same: finding a name for the moment at which the poet suddenly sees the world as it has never before been seen. The name, Pasternak was coming to realize, must be as transparent to the understanding of all as a biblical parable.

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