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.’

Zhivay zhizn, Dostoevsky’s ‘living life’, duly becomes a political concept. But the ideology of life, as Pasternak necessarily and almost involuntarily developed it, is one fatally tainted with vulgarity. (He himself came to detest the title he had given his first collection of poems, A Twin in the Clouds, and the name of his third collection, My Sister, Life, a quotation from one of them, is if anything worse.) After this, it is a relief to learn from Peter Levi’s lively and delightful biography that Dr Zhivago (Dr Alive) was a name Pasternak had seen on the cover of a Moscow manhole, rather as Dickens claimed to have spotted a Copperfield and a Chuzzlewit on the signs of poor London shops. Quite apart from its status in the war of ideologies, when the Soviet authorities refused to allow Pasternak to accept the Nobel Prize, critical opinion has always varied sharply about the actual merits of the book. A judge as sensitive as Stuart Hampshire finds its genius in the love relation between Lara and Zhivago, while the poet Anna Akhmatova, although she admired Pasternak as a poet, could not take him seriously as a deep sage and public figure, or even as a lover, and professed maliciously to suppose that the Lara episodes had been written by Olga Ivinskaya, Pasternak’s mistress, who had officially inspired them. Lara says that they loved one another ‘because all things around had wished it so, the land beneath them, the sky over their heads, the clouds and the trees’ – which might have been written by Olga, by D.H. Lawrence on an off-day, or by Pasternak himself. He could be equally rapt and romantic in his egotism about a hero who is often uncomfortably like ‘the most unforgettable character I have met’, especially when his creator announces calmly that Zhivago’s friends and helpers were only important because they had had the privilege of meeting him and living in his era.

The Russian novelist Sinyavsky was probably closest to the mark when he called Zhivago ‘a weak novel of genius’. The contrast, in a sense, is between the poetry in it – what other novel has for hero a poet who could actually write the candle poem, ‘Winter Night’? – and the prose emotion, which is not up to a hierophantic and doctrinal task. But the horse plods on, and the vision of time and of failure is both compassionate and pitiless. Zhivago’s genius crumbles into the maelstrom of Soviet life; Lara goes out on some household task and never comes back, vanishing into one of the innumerable camps. Olga Ivinskaya bore Pasternak’s son stillborn in one of the camps, although she did come back. The book is so compromised with the horrors of a time and place of which, at least in the West, it has become a sort of symbol that it is impossible to distinguish the facts behind it from the imagination of life which it presents. Peter Levi is both just and generous in concluding that ‘in spite of its faults it seems to me better and more tragic every time I read it.’ Poetry must in its own way be perfect, but the novel, as Lawrence saw, is ‘incapable of the absolute’, and gains in its own ways from its lapses and imperfections.

Peter Levi has a poet’s eye for Pasternak’s poetry, which he translates felicitously and comments on with gaiety and shrewdness. He does not take the subject too seriously either, which is a relief after the hagiographical approach of Guy de Mallac and others, worthy as their pioneering studies have been. But Christopher Barnes’s ‘Literary Biography’, of which this solid work is the first of two volumes, will certainly become the standard and indispensable guide for students not only of the poet but of his age and literary milieu. The popular Western image of Pasternak the holy Russian poet ignores the sheer density of relationship, the exigent business of literary life which he led, chaffering with a hundred writers and officials for space in periodicals, for rations and favoured accommodation, intriguing against Grub Street intriguers, now armed and envenomed by the state and far more dangerous to life and reputation than anything Pope or Dryden had to contend with.

All this Barnes brings out with precision and omniscience. His approach is factual, his perception quite unsentimental: but his awareness of the youthful Pasternak’s problems and evolution as a writer of verse, a student musician, a highly emotional and volatile being, is extraordinarily delicate and comprehensive. The clan, with its ramifying Jewish and Russian connection was cosmopolitan: Pasternak’s father a prolific painter of great talent, while his mother had been an expert concert performer. The family were not orthodox, but the poet went further in a tacit repudiation of his part Jewishness and a strong identification with Russian customs and ritual. He isolated himself in some degree from his family – in a way in which he could not isolate himself from the swarming importunities of Muscovite literary life and gossip, though the figure of Dr Zhivago, who has no literary connections and whose training is technical and medical, shows that he might ideally have liked to do so.

All his life he had a passion for ‘ordinariness’, all the more ironic in view of his present status as a sort of poetic icon. It helps to explain his feeling for Shakespeare and the strikingly subjective strength of his Shakespeare renderings, inaccurate and incomplete as they often are. Barnes quotes a significant passage from an essay claiming that ‘people of genius’ are the most ordinary of all. ‘Only mediocrity is extraordinary, i.e. that category of people which from time immemorial has consisted of the so-called “interesting person”. From ancient times he has shunned ordinary deeds and has been a parasite on genius ... which he has always understood as some form of flattering exclusivity ... Mediocrity has been especially fortunate in our day, when it has seized on romanticism, anarchism and Nietzcheanism.’

These obsessions help to explain the oddity of Pasternak’s work and its popularity – everyone likes the idea of genius as ordinary man – together with the often rather ludicrous contradictions involved. It is impossible to think of Mandelstam being made a fuss of, or making a fuss of himself, in this way: and yet Mandelstam is not only as great a poet as Pasternak but suffered a fate more exemplary and more terrible. The relations between the two were never good, Mandelstam taking what seems to have been a somewhat dry, professional attitude towards Pasternak’s posturing, and the latter fulsomely praising his peer and colleague while – according to Akhmatova – never actually reading him. Waspish as poets are about other poets, and often unreliable, Akhmatova stressed that Pasternak, at least in his maturity, never did read verses other than his own, and that certainly goes with the Zhivago persona.

But it was Pasternak’s other persona, that of the political survivor and professional man of letters, who was most crucially involved with Mandelstam at the time of the latter’s arrest for writing a lampoon of Stalin. ‘You didn’t tell me that and I didn’t hear it,’ Pasternak is supposed to have said when Mandelstam met him in the street and told him the epigram: but when he heard what had happened he exerted himself in every possible way to save his colleague, getting in touch with powerful friends like Bukharin, who was himself shortly to go down in the purges. Probably as a result of this intercession, Stalin telephoned Pasternak, and there occurred the famous conversation the poet’s account of which has been reported in a number of ways, and which he agonised over to the end of his life. The dictator seems to have been amused by the epigram, which Mandelstam in his quixotic fashion had told to a number of unreliable acquaintances, and he also seems to have been genuinely curious about the status of its author: was he a big, an important poet? As Levi comments, he was investigating the world of poets by stirring it with his boot, as a schoolboy disturbs an ants’ nest. What appears to have happened is that Pasternak, naturally overwhelmed by the occasion, tried wildly to give his own opinions on poetry and Russian history until he was abruptly cut off. Stalin wanted a straight answer to a straight question, and Pasternak never forgave himself for failing to give it. A more adroit and in a sense a more unscrupulous man would have at once answered, ‘Yes, he is very important indeed,’ and left it at that: but in his Zhivago personality Pasternak was too separate – too ‘cloud-dwelling’, as Stalin is supposed to have tolerantly called him – to have reacted expeditiously. In any case, as Nadezhda Mandelstam makes clear in Hope against Hope, it would probably have made no difference, for Stalin’s other and much more sinister interest was in finding out how far the epigram had gone, and in sealing off its source.

If Pasternak was obsessed with a sense of himself as the great but ‘ordinary’ genius, Mandelstam, like Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva, had a much more confident sense of himself as unordinary poet. Like the two women, he saw the course the regime was taking as a crude threat to personality and to distinction, of which poetry was the natural expression. He knew it was a killer, whereas Pasternak, especially in his middle years, tried to identify himself with it as a great enhancement of life, and to make his works embody it as Shakespeare’s embodied the being of his own age. The novel in verse Spektorsky, and his quasiepical poems Lieutenant Schmidt and 1905 have much of the good qualities of his translations: that is, they achieve a wide but also meticulous impersonality of utterance, as if the poet, like his father the artist, were filling in canvases with professional skill and bravura, identifying himself with the big revolutionary themes and events, the urban perspective and the public emotion. These long poems are not well known in the West, and it is very useful to have Richard Chappell’s version of 1905 in a paperback edition, with a translation in similar rhythms opposite the Russian. Equally valuable are Michael Harari’s Russian plus English translation of the poems written between 1955 and 1959, published in the same paperback with Manya Harari’s translation of Pasternak’s Essay in Autobiography.

As Craig Raine points out in a witty and penetrating Foreword, this Essay underwent a considerable gestation and metamorphosis, and was intended originally as an introduction, in 1956 or thereabouts, to a complete edition of Pasternak’s poems. But in November 1957 Il Dottore Zivago was published by Feltrinelli in Italy, and from then on the essay acquired and became ‘a dangerous character’. It also has ‘a cloudy twin’, the memoir Safe Conduct, which the poet began late in the Twenties, and of which sections appeared in Soviet magazines. As Raine observes, there is a significant difference between the two, for in the Essay Pasternak not only displays lavishly his old youthful gift of acute poetic phrase (Scriabin’s repetitive goodbyes were ‘like a collar-stud that refused to slip into an exiguous stud-hole’) but has acquired an equally sharp sense of the author’s absurdity, actual or potential. As a boy, the poet writes, he had fantasies of regaining a more pleasing, girlish and fascinating earlier personality ‘by pulling in my belt so tight I almost fainted’. Raine comments shrewdly on the difference between Pasternak in the early memoir being ‘rather too keen on savouring the flavour of his own uniqueness, his sensitivity, his passion’, and the later version, which is much more aware of ‘human solidarity in silliness’, for we all recognise that belt-tightening fantasy element from our own childhood. Rousseau’s Confessions combine the same claim to uniqueness with an assertion of human solidarity in what Raine describes as the ‘endearingly discreditable’. The older Pasternak indeed refered to Safe Conduct as being ‘spoiled by an affected manner, the besetting sin of those days’, and a panic feeling of inferiority. The talent of Mayakovsky seems to have oppressed Pasternak even while he engaged in a love-hate relation with the young darling of the Soviet establishment, and he had to escape from him, as he may later have felt the need to cut himself off from Mandelstam.

But the poems are very much more remarkable than the prose. Apart from his magic Zhivago poems, which can sound like an improbable cross between an inspired Nineties Symbolist and an Old Testament prophet, Pasternak’s great strength is in his dynamically delicate fusion of words and objects, a feature noted years ago by the emigré scholar-conoisseur Prince Mirsky, who returned to Russia and ended as one of Stalin’s victims. Nabokov’s later prose tries for something similar, but neither prose nor English can do it naturally, although Craig Raine’s own poems – particularly his superlative libretto on a Russian theme – sometimes achieve the same effect. Full of ‘the dirty mauve’ of February birches, or of ‘a Christmas tree half naked, preparing like the lady of the manor to puff out its bell-shaped skirts’, Pasternak’s Russian never sounds affected, as English inevitably does when pushed into ingenious contingencies of meaning and onomatopoeia. This is because it retains in every complexity the musical memorableness common to all great Russian poetry: its zany felicities linger in the mind as surely as Pushkin’s incomparably simple ones.

His prophetic poems – Pushkin’s poem ‘Prophet’ reverberates through Pasternak as through Blok – are easier to translate. But, as Raine notes, a sign of the intractability of his style is that it can sound better in imperfect and slightly eccentric English, as in the English versions produced by Pasternak’s sister which Seamus Heaney feels to be more authentic than a professional job. Raine and his wife Ann Pasternak-Slater have themselves provided outstanding translations for Evgeny Pasternak’s study The Tragic Years. The book has the special advantage of coming from right inside the family, and Evgeny Pasternak’s portrait of his father is both affectionate and convincing. His grandfather, the painter Leonid Pasternak, would have been pleased too.

Michael Harari’s attempts at some of the most difficult poems achieve their own kind of breakthrough. If poetry is what is lost in translation, we lose still more, as D.J. Enright pointed out, if it is not translated. But Raine is right that Pasternak’s ‘brief lists’ in sound and association have no way of surviving in English. In the marvellous poem ‘In Hospital’, which describes one of his and Zhivago’s heart attacks, the patient in the ambulance sees a confused blur of militsia, ulitsa, litsa – policemen, streets, faces – and later in hosptial palatam, polam, khalatam – wards, floors, white overalls – all of which in English sound inert and rather obvious. Compare a real poem in English on the same theme, Larkin’s ‘Ambulances’, where the patient, ‘unreachable, inside a room /The traffic parts to let go by’, is borne past ‘smells of different dinners’, and where the quiet terror of the business is conveyed in the information that the vehicle has ‘arms on a plaque’ and that ‘all streets in time are visited.’

The poetic area of Pasternak is as distant as can be from what has to be called the Reader’s Digest side of his story, the side somewhat exploited in Guy de Mallac’s admittedly interesting investigation some years ago. Neither Peter Levi nor Christopher Barnes are guilty of such exploitation, and the memoir by the poet’s son has its own special and authoritative interest. Yet it must be admitted that Pasternak’s persona and career, compared, for example, with Mandelstam’s, do lend themselves too readily to the kind of hagiographical publicity which is all too suited to a Goethe, but not at all to a Shakespeare. Pasternak translated both, and Shakespeare was his ideal: but Goethe was, so to speak, what he ended up with. The paradox would have amused but probably also saddened him, for he did not wish Dr Zhivago to be at all like Wilhelm Meister. Marina Tsvetaeva, with whom he once engaged in an ardently intense correspondence based on mutual Rilke worship, was down-to-earth enough to be a trifle amused by such lofty spiritual aspiration, unsuited, as she may have felt, to a poet whose gait and genius were essentially equine. In making that comparison, she added that Pasternak resembled the Arab, and also the Arab’s steed. That is a real compliment, and one much more suited to him than are the all too spiritual portrait photos obligatory on the publishers’ dust-jackets. All steeds are horses, although not vice versa.