On the horse Parsnip

John Bayley

  • Boris Pasternak: The Tragic Years 1930-1960 by Evgeny Pasternak
    Collins Harvill, 278 pp, £15.00, January 1990, ISBN 0 00 272045 0
  • Boris Pasternak by Peter Levi
    Hutchinson, 310 pp, £17.95, January 1990, ISBN 0 09 173886 5
  • Boris Pasternak: A Literary Biography. Vol.I: 1890-1928 by Christopher Barnes
    Cambridge, 507 pp, £35.00, November 1989, ISBN 0 521 25957 6
  • Poems 1955-1959 and An Essay in Autobiography by Boris Pasternak, translated by Michael Harari and Manya Harari
    Collins Harvill, 212 pp, £6.95, January 1990, ISBN 0 00 271065 X
  • The Year 1905 by Boris Pasternak, translated by Richard Chappell
    Spenser, £4.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 9513843 0 9

A not unmalicious fellow poet once said of Pasternak that he resembled a horse: ‘the same big awkward profile and large eyes that seem to look intently without seeing anything’. The horse-faced parsnip – Pasternak means parsnip in Russian. This is very endearing. What other great poet has the bigness and animal closeness of the equine, and words that plod like hooves with such delicate precision through twigs and grasses? The girls chanting the ‘candle’ poem at his funeral must also have longed to have given him a lump of sugar? One of the best little scenes in Dr Zhivago is the doctor riding home through the Urals forest, with his slow beast undulating under him, and ‘dry volleys of sound bursting from the horse’s guts’. As some of the photos in Evgeny Pasternak’s splendid book reveal, his father looks most at home wearing massive braces over his collarless shirt, like girths and a crupper.

Probably the best introduction one can have to Pasternak is to look at the poems in the Penguin Book of Russian Verse, selected by Dimitri Obolensky and provided with a plain and literal prose translation. There a reader without Russian can spell out the candle poem, ‘Winter Night’, and suddenly see how and why it has such absolute authority and magic, like the prologue of Pushkin’s Ruslan and Ludmila near the beginning of the anthology. Svecha gorela na stole. Svecha gorela: ‘The candle burned on the table. The candle burned.’ Where does the magic come from? It is one of the Zhivago poems, and is about two lovers exchanging ‘hands legs and fates’ in the winter time in the Revolution. The candle burns when Zhivago writes his poems, the emblem and essence of what lives and matters. Lara is presumably in bed and asleep.

Put like that, it sounds a piece of bathos and this is the paradox of an art like Pasternak’s, which is at once totally popular and totally narcissistic. Pushkin or Mozart effortlessly embody the same thing, but his period, place and personality all made this effortlessness impossible for Pasternak. The paradox remains. His art is both brilliantly simple and personally portentous: the one cannot be separated from the other. He must have known it himself, but his vanity was as pure as his egotism, and he really did feel, in a sublime way, that he was the precious vessel of life which could burn up tyranny and ideology, save Russia and the world. Pushkin, too, was a kind of precedent, for though Pushkin would have laughed at the idea of his poetry saving Russia and the world, or anything else, Blok was not wrong in saying that Pushkin was the real inspiration of Russian life, that his ‘one bright name’ was set against the whole gloomy roll-call of tyrants and executioners.

Pasternak-Zhivago aspired to be the same, and of course there is something fishy about life worshipping life, extolling itself as itself against world and devil and Stalin’s cockroach moustache. Schiller would have been puzzled by the notion of the naive trying to appear reflective, the holy fool proclaiming life itself as a new ‘ism’ under the pressure of the 20th century’s inhuman political ideals. Viewed in this way, the concept of life as its own kind of heroism might become as dated, in terms of art, as the titanic activities of those two terrible heroes of the century, as Carlyle would have seen them and as Heidegger has seen them – Hitler and Stalin?

Like every other Russian intelligent of his time, the young Pasternak saw Soviet man as the logical product of the life force – ‘the concept of Sovietness being the most elementary and evident of truths, residing in innocent and guilty alike’. In a sense, he never changed his mind, although as a result of persecution he came to see himself as the only one in step, the only true heir of the revolution. At the end of his life, in ‘A New Year’s Message’ to his Western readers, he said that we must thank Russia and the Revolution for a new concept of life. ‘However great the difference between us, our revolution set the tone for you as well: it filled the present century with meaning and content ... It’s us you have to thank for this new man, who is present even in your ancient society, us you have to thank for the fact that he is more alive, more subtle and more gifted, than his pompous ancestors, for this child of the new age was delivered in the maternity hospital called Russia.’ There is a good deal of truth and justice in that, and Pasternak would certainly have recognised the truth in Thomas Mann’s dry comment that ‘in our time the destiny of man presents its meaning in political terms.’

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