Pasternak and the Russians

John Bayley

The flowering of European Jewry in the days before 1914 is a cultural phenomenon comparable to the ‘golden’ periods of national art in Spain, France and England, even to the great years of the Italian Renaissance. Like other such peaks of civilisation, it might have faded of its own accord had it not been brought to a tragic end by the xenophobia engendered by two world wars, by Nazism and Soviet Fascism. It was, above all, cosmopolitan. Not for nothing (a favourite phrase of Russian critics) did Mandelstam observe that Acmeism, the literary movement which he helped to found in 1910 in St Petersburg, took as the inspiration for its poetry the whole European cultural tradition.

The particular ideas and ideals to which Mandelstam was referring, though naturally associated with pan-European Jewish culture, are just as much a part of the best German and Russian art at this time. Rilke and Musil, Joyce and Jules Romains, were all in a sense honorary Jews, the natural fellows of Proust or Svevo. It was a family atmosphere, in which German and Russian, Italian and French, were for members the natural media of intelligence and imagination. Pushkin’s feeling for the family of art was as strong as Auden’s, and Pushkin was a forerunner of this latterday renaissance of cosmopolitanism, however inevitably he is also Russia’s great national poet. Even while the state xenophobia of Stalin was setting in, Pasternak made most of his living by translations of European poetry, from Shakespeare to Goethe and Petöfi.

And it is an insight into relations within such a family that comes to us from this correspondence of Pasternak with his cousin, Olga Freidenberg, almost like the understanding we get from the art of a very good novel. Both Pasternak and his cousin belonged to predominantly Jewish families and clans from Odessa, the most cosmopolitan of Russian towns. Both families were Russianised: the Pasternaks, who lived in Moscow where the poet’s father was an art curator and successful painter, especially so. Although this correspondence reveals how closely Pasternak was connected with family and cousinage, it does not indicate – or only by indirection – what decidedly equivocal feelings the poet had about his ancestry. As much as Blok had done, he identified in his life and work with Russianness and Russian history; and this Russianness, together with the tendency among admirers of his work – and even in the Party – to identify him with Ivan the Holy Fool of Russian folklore, was undoubtedly one of the factors that contributed to his remarkable immunity from the worst persecution. By background, temperament and culture he was as cosmopolitan a poet as Mandelstam, but Mandelstam was not only more obviously Jewish but belonged to those especially Europeanised circles of the Petersburg intelligentsia which came in for the most systematic persecution by Stalin and his henchmen. Pasternak, like his own Dr Zhivago, was emphatically a Moscow man, and in the course of the Twenties and Thirties the Party came to identify more and more with the old xenophobic Muscovite tradition.

Not that there was any rapport between them – just the opposite – but Pasternak, like Stalin himself, was in a sense claiming to represent the Great Russian people, their sufferings, their endurance, their loyalties, their ‘true way’. So today is Solzhenitsyn. Thus while Pasternak belonged essentially to cosmopolis – like Rilke, whom he so much admired and with whom he corresponded – he also had local ideals and instincts of an atavistic, almost mystical kind. Nor were these in any Western sense liberal, no more than are Solzhenitsyn’s ideals. In one of the excellent commentaries with which he has interspersed this very remarkable translation, Elliott Mossman points out how ‘élitist’, in the current cant, was Pasternak’s view of art and of the function and position of the artist. As it happens, the liberal and the Communist or Soviet view of art’s status more or less agree on the point that art is the possession of the people and the more of it the better – more and greater variety in the case of the West, more of the right sort in the case of Soviet Communism. That was not Pasternak’s view of the matter. Writing in 1958 to the young linguist V.V. Ivanov, he maintained that the ‘ “majority” should not cross the threshold of poetry’. He could never say, in Mayakovsky’s words, ‘the more poets – good ones and varied – the better.’ He strongly objected to ‘a multiplicity of people working in art’, because this inhibited ‘the emergence of someone ... who will redeem their plurality with his singularity’. Dr Zhivago is emphatically not Everyman, but a figure of mystic simplicity, or laborious and beautiful innocence, who will set up ‘Norms of a New Nobility of the Spirit’.

Such ideals, which he himself sometimes recognised as naive, had been with Pasternak from an early age, in fact from well before the First World War, when he had associated them with the coming revolution. It seems likely that their mystic Russian primitivism struck no chord at all in Olga Freidenberg, whose background and tastes were both more sophisticated and more conventional – she aspired to be among the first women in Russia who would scale the heights of European Classical scholarship. In Pasternak’s vision there was, by contrast, a kind of pastoral idyll, a redeemed Europe and Russia full of innocent and happy youths and maidens. ‘Boys and Girls’ was in fact one of the earliest manuscript titles for the first part of the work that afterwards became Dr Zhivago; and more significantly still, another early title was ‘The Story of a Russian Faust’. (Pushkin produced a Faust scene, an imaginary one to interpolate among the scenes of Goethe’s Faust, Part II, which is among the liveliest of his poems.)

No doubt Pasternak in his early twenties was very much in love with his cousin, and she in her own way returned the sentiment. But apart from her own scholastic ambitions she was far too sensible and canny to think of marrying him. She was fascinated by him and he regarded her – or so it seems – as a quasi-maternal figure; after the first anguish and elation of love she remained to soothe and calm his emotions, to regularise the passion which she had aroused into a permanent exchange of thoughts, feelings and experiences. Though throughout the Twenties and Thirties he constantly urged her to visit him in Moscow, she never came, and one suspects that he too preferred it that way. Olga also kept a diary – sections of it are printed between the letters – in which she records the experiences of a bourgeois intelligent in the Petrograd of the First War and during the siege of Leningrad in the Second. She was at her family’s favourite watering-place in Sweden when the First War broke out, and she served throughout the war in Russian military hospitals, falling in love with an officer much decorated for gallantry, who finally died of his wounds. Pasternak, exempted from military service by a childhood injury, spent much of the war working as a clerk in the Urals. After the Revolution, his family emigrated to Berlin, but he and his brother Alexander, who became an architect, remained in Moscow, sharing the once spacious family apartment with the horde of Soviet citizens for whom it had been requisitioned. He married his first wife Zhenya, and settled down with his usual industry to write poems, stories and translations. Olga became one of the first women, under the new Soviet emancipation, to join the Classics faculty at Petrograd University and in due course to defend her doctoral thesis. After the death of the officer she had loved in the war she seems to have had no further ideas of marriage, and looked after her mother – Pasternak’s Aunt Asya – until the latter’s death at the end of the Leningrad siege.

Pasternak seems to have depended for his art on a mode of life which was emotionally tumultuous – driven ‘at misery’s full tilt’, as he put it in a poem – in a manner which was at the same time warm-hearted and naive, chaotic and selfish. It appears that Olga acted as confidante and family regulator, a kind of conscience of the tribe, one to which Pasternak could find solace in appealing without the need to defer to or obey. He lets her know his matrimonial troubles – he parted from Zhenya and then from his second wife Zina – but does not go into any greater detail about his emotional life. More important, they could exchange views on art and their theories about it. Taking her material from the field of the Greek classics, Olga became one of the exponents of the Formalist theory in Russia, her work achieving the same importance as that of scholars like Viktor Shklovsky and Vladimir Propp. After successfully defending her thesis, she toiled with devotion for ten years on what she knew would be her masterwork, The Poetics of Plot and Genre, a study of form in relation to the themes and materials of ancient Greek literature. She worked in the few moments left free from having to help organise trade-union committees among the university staff, who would select ‘shock workers’ for various non-academic tasks, the nature of which is sufficiently indicated by the banner headline in the university newspaper for January 1935: ‘DISCOVER PEOPLE’S SECRET THOUGHTS.’

The book appeared, and sold well at all the bookstores, in accordance with that blessedly logical law in the Soviet Union that any reading matter unconnected with the regime and its ideals – no matter how esoteric it might seem for the common reader in normal times – was bought and devoured by the public. This in itself might have been enough reason for its withdrawal by the authorities after three weeks, but the immediate cause was an article in Izvestia entitled ‘Harmful Gibberish’, in which the writer denounced it as a typical piece of ‘scholarship’ from the Leningrad Institute of Philosophy, Literature, Linguistics and History. Granted that the Institute itself was under attack, it still seems extraordinary that a book on such an out-of-the-way and harmless topic as ancient Greek literary forms should arouse such suspicion and resentment. But Pasternak himself supplies the reason in a letter of passionate sympathy to his cousin. ‘Everyone knows Marx’s opinion of Homer.’ The regime, in fact, as in so much else, was trying to have things both ways. We must have scholarship on obscure topics, but it must be researched and produced so that everyone can understand it in relation to existing ideological and party guidelines. Scholarship must both maintain its traditional loftiness and rigour and be accessible to every good Soviet citizen. No wonder Pasternak himself professed a wholly ‘non-liberal’ view of art; and what is decidedly subtle – and significant from a Western point of view today – he saw, not only that more art means worse art, but that the irreproachably humanist ideal of art for all the people becomes, under a Soviet-style regime, a way of encouraging the kind of art that is good for all the people.

In fact, he takes too pessimistic a view: the perversity of human nature sees to that. What is forbidden is desired: hence cousin Olga’s Poetics of Plot and Genre continued to circulate clandestinely and to reach many more readers than it would have done in a ‘free’ society. This is the kind of paradox necessarily left out of account in such nightmarish visions of the modern state as those of Orwell and Zamyatin. And it works the other way too. Few among us would read the Russian dissidents if they were not so well touted by the Western propaganda machine. This delicate and intimate collection of letters, which reveals privacies and psychologies with the discreet indirection of a Henry James novel, has – like Dr Zhivago itself – been taken up by what the late Dr Leavis used to call the colour-supplement press, in the usual mechanical interests of anti-Soviet mythology.

And, of course, the martyrdom of Olga (‘People avoided me so as not to have to speak to me – my friends ceased calling me up on the phone’) does have all the usual gruesomeness associated with accounts of those years. Still conditioned by the high-minded revolutionary’s assumption that behind all the mistakes and abuses the All-Wise and All-Good was working out their destiny, she wrote to Stalin, who did not reply. In the launching of the Yezhovshchina, other matters preoccupied him. Pasternak did his best with the literary bureaucracy in Glavlit. ‘I was met first of all by sincere astonishment on the part of high-ups and officials,’ he reported to Olga. ‘They could not understand why I should come to the defence of colleagues when no one had harmed me or even thought of doing so.’ His own feelings about the regime were still equivocal, with a deep bias towards enthusiasm. With the big purge under way he was still writing to Olga: ‘The longer I live the more firmly I believe in what is being done, despite everything. Much of it strikes one as being savage, and then again one is astonished ... even in the worst of times everything seems very subtle and astute.’

Astute the great leader was certainly being, though hardly in the way Pasternak intended. Naivety alone would not have saved him, but along with it he – and Olga too – had the instincts of survivors. Pasternak was not isolated like Mandelstam: he had loyal friends in high places; he had written such ideologically orthodox works as Lieutenant Schmidt, and, in spite of its verbal fantasy, the mystic joy of his most popular collection, My Sister, Life, made it natural even for the party inquisitors to see him filling the role left vacant by Mayakovsky. The worst time for both Pasternak and his cousin came after the war, when hopes for some kind of liberalisation were buoyant, even for Olga, utterly worn out though she was by her experiences in the Leningrad siege. In fact, the latent anti-Jewishness of the Stalin regime now became virulent. ‘Jews no longer receive an education, are no longer accepted at universities or for graduate study.’ Jewish academics were thrown out of work or forced to retire. ‘Professors who survived last year’s pogroms are dying one after another from strokes and heart attacks.’ Olga’s distinguished colleagues Eikenbaum and Propp fainted at their lectures, were taken to hospital, and after they died were granted magnificent funerals. ‘The Soviet authorities know how to honour their scholars.’

For Pasternak, too, as his poem ‘Hamlet’ says, everything was ‘sinking into Pharisaism’. Yet he remained hopeful, still identifying deeply, as Dr Zhivago does, not with his cosmopolitan past and background, but with a simple and visionary Russian future. ‘Perhaps everything will smooth over. There really was much foolish confusion in my early work. But my new-found clarity will prove to be much less acceptable.’ He was frenziedly translating Goethe’s Faust in order to earn ‘the opportunity and the right’ to complete the novel he knew could not be published in Russia. ‘I am not even writing it as a work of art, though it is literature in a deeper sense than anything I have ever done before.’ He continues, at the worst of times, to delight in his family and his children, and is intensely proud of Zhenya, his son by his wife of the same name, who had a successful military career in the post-war period and became an instructor at a tank school. His handsome features, like those of a Decembrist aristocrat, and his smart uniform with broad shoulder boards, confront us in one of the many marvellous family photographs in the book. Pasternak’s own remarkable face shows its unchanging profile at all his ages; and there are many group portraits of parents, siblings and wives, Olga and her mother young and old, and together in the reproduction of a charming portrait painted by Leonid Pasternak. Everywhere in the text and pictures is the voice of ‘Eternal Memory’. There is something magical in such survivals, as there was, for Pasternak and his cousin, in the continuity of such a relation as theirs. As he wrote to her mother, in 1941, ‘had anyone told us 25 years ago what would happen to each of us, we would have thought it a fairy-tale.’