BORIS PASTERNAK is buried on the side of a small hill in a lovely writer's colony called Peredelkino about 40 minutes from Moscow. A stream of visitors from home and abroad makes the pilgrimage and leaves flowers to molder on the tombstone. Across a meadow is the dacha where Pasternak lived and occasionally you can still see his son walking on the dirt road outside. The effect is eerie because the family resemblance is so strong.
That house. That distinctive face. It is as if Pasternak still lived. Even the grave is curiously existent, a continuous memorial service for all Russian intellecutals who suffer.
The agony of Boris Pasternak -- persecuted for his authorship of Doctor Zhivago, forced to reject a Nobel prize -- took place more than 20 years ago now. Yet for many Soviets the episode remains as contemporary as it is historic. The details are almost as fresh as today's news -- and at the same time the stuff of legend.
In all, the Pasternak story is tragedy in the grand Russian style, a conflict between mind and fist in which power prevails. The characters are endowed with a symbolic significance that stretches beyond their individual roles. The circumstances convey a message broader than the events themselves. Yuri Krotkov's novel The Nobel Prize, based on the last year in the life of Pasternak, profits from the richness of this material. The reality is so compelling, moving and meaningful that a fictive account could hardly fail -- and it doesn't.
Krotkov was a Soviet playwright and filmmaker when he defected to the West while on a visit to London in 1963. The dusk jacket of his new novel says he was the son of a prominent Soviet painter and was raised therefore among the country's privledged, well-fixed in both the intellectual and political elite. He was also, according to one knowledgeable version, a KGB operative assignd to stay close to the literary community.
The point is that Krotkov is supposed to know a great deal about Pasternak and the Soviet literary establishment. His novel is, in fact, docu-drama, a reconstruction of what acutally took place with fictional embellishments.
As nearly as one can judge such things, Krotkov succeeds in creating the appropirate atmospheres. His portrayal of the Pasternak home rings particularly true. Exactly what was said around the kitchen table or in the writer's study, we'll never know. But his ambience, at least, strikes me as authentic. It doubtless helps to have a vivid picture in mind of the Peredelkino dacha, as I do. But Krotkov's writing is certainly evocative enough to present a credible backdrop for what unfolds.
Crucial to the story is Pasternak's relationship with Olga Ivinskaya, the model for Lara in Zhivago and the writer's longtime, beloved mitress. Her mrmoris appeared in the West two years ago (she still lives in the Soviet Union) and her account of their affair obviously takes precedence over anyone else's. Still I liked the way Krotkov blended Pasternak's life at home with his other life -- something Ivinskaya could not do -- in a way that makes it apparent the writer needed both.
Krotkov's depiction of Ivinskaya is surprisingly unflattering. She is seen as preening and venal, which coincides with the official Kremlin indictment rather than with the romacticized images I have seen elswhere. After Pasternak's death, she and her daughter were sentenced to a labor camp for currency violations which, according to Krotkov, actually took place.
In the climactic scene, after Pasternask has sent off the telegram declining the Novel instead of seeking permission to emigrate with Ivinskaya, as expected, she emerges as a vituperative shrew.
"Pasternak could not take his eyes off her. He was riveted, appalled by her. How he had loved such a woman, such a grasping petty bourgeois. For all the world she reminded him of the woman hucksters at the marketloud, impudent, brazen, calculating. Hoaded beyond bearing he lost his restraint.
"'Olga, is that what you were planning to wear in Paris?'
"What? What did you say? Yes this --'
"'It suits you. The President of France himself would not rebuff you. You're a perfect clich'e.'"
By contrast, the portrait of Zina, Pasternak's wife is more sympathetic than in other versions of his life. No longer his partner of the heart, she persists as a loyal adviser. Because they are more dry-eyed than most, it may well be that these resentations of Pasternak's women are close to the mark.
Another central figure of the novel is Nikita Khrushchev, whose personal decision in actual life to hound Pasternak blemished a career that was also notable for acts of courage -- the first publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, for instance. Khrushchev could not abide the fuss made over Pasternak abroad when his book was published. He found it an affront to his authority that after rejection at home the work should find such resonance elsewhere.
So Khrushchev punished Pasternak by humiliating him, crushing his spirit with invective and psychological pressure. All this is forcefully traced in the novel.
Most important of all, course, is Pasternak himself. What emerges from Krotkov's tale is Pasternak's sense of fortitude and vulnerability, a man both daring and cautious, or as he describes himself, "a heretic and a sheep." As distinct, say, from Solzhenitysn, Pasternak was primarily a poet. He was uncomfortable as martyrand actually resented the political purpose to which zhivago was put in the West -- or so Krotkov would have it.
In the end, the fictional Pasternak recovers his voice. There is a marvelous passage when he denounces his roommate at the exclusive Kremlin hospita, the cultural commissar, Dimitry Polikarpov:
"You, Dimitry Alexeyevich, have killed literature and art by killing what is miraculous, ingenuous and benevolent in them -- in short, everything that ennobles people. That is why rudeness, greed philistinism, careerism, and other disgusting vices are now rampant in Russia. And what equality, in fact, are you talking about? You the ants' boss, crowned with privileges; you with your dachas, special rations, service cars, special pensions, sanitoriums and a host of lackeys around you. Are you and your fellows the ones to judge what is good and what is bad? Are you the ones to denounce Rothschild? You are no less evil than he is."
The novel's Pasternak then asks to be returned to an ordinary neighborhood hospital despite his frailty.
But for all that conviction, the Boris Pasternak that comes through in The Nobel Prize is, as a human, more flawed than virtuous, more a thinker than combatant. The sadness of the eyes that is so memorable in the actual Pasternak's demeanor becomes understandable in this book. He despised the society that the Soviet Union had become. Yet he loved his country with a passion and was willing to subjugate himself to its whims no matter how terrible.