AS EVERYBODY who has anything to do with this animal knows, one of the peculiarities of the pig is that it never befouls the place where it eats or sleeps. Therefore if we compare Pasternak with a pig, then we must say that a pig will never do what he has done. . . . Pasternak, a man who considers himself among the best representatives of society, has befouled the spot where he eats and has cast filth on those by whose labor he lives and breathes."
The date is October 29, 1958, and the speaker is Vladimir Semichastny, first secretary of the Young Communist League, commenting on Boris Pasternak's expulsion the previous day from the Writers' Union -- an expulsion supported by other well-known Russian writers such as Valentin Kataev, Vera Panova, Boris Polevoi, Vladimir Soloukhin, and many others.
Pasternak had just been forced to renounce the Nobel Prize, his mail was not reaching him, and a sign on the door to his dacha in English, French, and German read: "Pasternak does not receive. He is forbidden to receive foreigners." The previous day he had suggested to his mistress Olga Ivinskaya that they commit suicide, using the phial of Nembutal he had been carrying in his pocket.
This is the culmination of the infamous Pasternak Affair, so widely discussed in the Western press. In Russia Pasternak had established himself as a poet decades before anyone ever heard of Doctor Zhivago. Guy de Mallac's biography together with the Freidenberg correspondence prepared by Elliott Mossman and Margaret Wettlin are two lovingly crafted books which provide both a broad overview of the man (and his age) and penetrating insights into his personality.
His father a famous painter and his mother a concert pianist, the young Pasternak grew up in a cultural environment which is hard not to envy. Partially under the influence of the composer Scriabin, who was a friend of the family, he originally had planned to become a composer. De Mallac provides the score of his interesting Prelude in G-sharp minor, composed at the age of 16. Soon, however, music gave way to philosophy, and in 1912 the 22-year-old set out for Marburg, Germany, to study philosophy under Hermann Cohen. At the same time another family friend, Rainer Maria Rilke, was proving to be the decisive influence in Pasternak's ultimate avocation -- poetry.
Olga Freidenberg, his talented first cousin, grew up in equally privileged circumstances, and later became a prominent classical scholar. The early correspondence, on Pasternak's part, is full of the barely suppressed sexual urge of a 20-year-old youth. Freidenberg, also 20 but untouched by passion's paw, plays the "sister." Pasternak's infatuated, ecstatic letters read like an apprenticeship for his poetry.
Both Pasternak and Freidenberg were Jews -- but Jews immersed in world culture rather than their own Judaic heritage. In private conversation Pasternak claimed that nothing was more alien to him than Jewish nationalism, asserting: "I am in favor of full assimilation of the Jews, and to me personally Russian culture is the only one that appears as the native one." A future Russia that will one day appreciate its own cultural heritage would be immeasurably impoverished without such "cosmopolites" as the Pasternaks and the Freidenbergs. Pasternak, regarded as the true successor to Alexander Blok, a father figure for all of modern Russian poetry, was at the same time a product of Western civilization. To Rilke he wrote: "I am indebted to you for the very basis of my character and the very mode of my spiritual being." Both Pasternak and Freidenberg were immersed in the history of culture, which he described as "a chain of equations in images."
As Pasternak's stature as a poet grew in the eyes of his fellow Russians, Stalin's power loomed like an ominous cloud on the horizon. In July 1934 Pasternak received a telephone call from the generalissimus, who wanted to know what he thought of Osip Mandelstam's poetry. Mandelstam, one of the world's truly great poets, was ultimately to die in a Soviet "corrective-labor camp," but the culmination of that drama was still four years distant. Pasternak allowed that Mandelstam was indeed a truly exceptional poet and then tried to prolong the conversation, saying that he would like to have a long talk with Stalin -- "about love, about life, about death." Stalin is reported to have hung up abruptly.
Pasternak's verse was published until 1936, the eve of the great purges. Andre Gide, the French "fellow traveler," had been feted in the Soviet Union during a visit in that year, but upon returning home had some second thoughts, which he expressed in his Return from the USSR in late 1937. Called upon to denounce the "foul slanderous book," Pasternak refused to do so on the ground that he had not read it. (Later his own critics would have no such compunctions in attacking him in the press.) This was the beginning of his path of sorrows. In June 1937 Stalin, still fearing his own military more than that of Hitler, arrested Marshal Tukhachevsky and executed him along with seven other prominent military figures as part of a general decapitation of the Red Army. Pasternak refused to sign a letter together with 42 other writers demanding that the eight "fascist spies" be shot. In all probability he would himself have suffered the same fate, but the letter appeared with his signature anyway, thanks to the intervention of another writer -- Alexander Fadeev. Writers, like all other educated classes in the Soviet Union, were disappearing right and left, but Fadeev was appointed secretary of the Writers' Union, a post which he occupied for nearly two decades, and he was one of the main reasons Pasternak survived.
Even more incredible, Pasternak refused to translate the youthful poetry of Joseph Jugashvili (Stalin's real name) from Georgian into Russian. When accused in the press of "slandering the Soviet people" at the height of the terror, he even defended himself in a letter published in the Literary Gazette! Still, such acts of bravery did not stop him from publishing some sycophantic poems to Lenin and Stalin as a safety precaution.
World War II, which destroyed 20 million people in the Soviet Union, saved Pasternak's life. Stalin had other fish to fry and could not allow himself the luxury of crushing all potential enemies. Having fallen into official disgrace, Pasternak had been supporting himself as a translator. There is a long and honored tradition of translation in Russia (unlike the United States), and many Soviet writers found a refuge in translation when the government not only refused to publish their own work but was constantly threatening to murder the writers themselves. Pasternak (who, incidentally, believed in very free translation) continued to publish his translations from English, German, and Georgian, along with some of his own verse, during the war.
Both Pasternak and Freidenberg were people possessed. Freidenberg was totally immersed in her classical studies and the university department which she had founded and chaired for 16 years. During the war Pasternak obliviously polished his translation of Romeo and Juliet, while Freidenberg in Leningrad worked on Homeric similes "amid falling bombs, constant artillery bombardment, the shriek and explosion of shells." In November 1943 she invited Pasternak to visit her in the besieged Leningrad "for a quiet rest and creative work"!
Both incessantly complained in their letters that they had no time. Pasternak traveled to Paris in 1935 but did not go to Berlin to see his parents, whom he had not seen for 14 years and was never to see again. Freidenberg evidently did not get around to becoming romantically involved until she was 48 years old. Both were moved and inspired by the example of Beethoven, who -- in spite of his deafness -- had "fulfilled his destiny," and both were dedicated to their own work to the point of obsession. When Freidenberg was dying in 1954 Pasternak, who had been so involved with her personally and intellectually all his life, did not bother to make the short trip from Moscow to Leningrad to visit her, nor did he take any real steps after her death to guard the manuscript which she regarded as her life's work. It was typical -- even earlier, when she sent him her books, he could not find time to read them, all the while demanding that she immediately give him her appraisal of his own work.
Even Pasternak's other-worldly mind, however, could not ignore the realities of Soviet life. He himself was not touched directly, but Ivinskaya, pregnant with his child, was arrested on October 6, 1949, and sentenced to five years imprisonment for "close contact with persons suspected of espionage" (that is, Pasternak). Her interrogator at one point sent her to a dark room in another building, where Pasternak was supposed to meet her. There she found herself in a morgue. She miscarried.
Outside the prison, Pasternak was under constant attack, while his fellow poet Anna Akhmatova watched the KGB goons pass the time opposite her windows by doing handstands. Akhmatova's first husband, the poet Nikolai Gumilev, had been shot, and her son was in prison. Frightened for himself, for Ivinskaya, for humanity, Pasternak suffered a heart attack in 1950.
Later, after Pasternak's death in 1960, Ivinskaya was rearrested and sentenced to eight years imprisonment and her daughter to three years. They were quietly released before the end of their terms, and Ivinskaya lived to write two volumes of memoirs -- published in the West.
De Mallac's biography contains a thorough "Chronology of Pasternak's Life" (expanded from a slender volume he published in French a number of years ago). A reading of the Freidenberg correspondence together with the "Chronology" reveals an absence of events important to the letters' principals. There is, for example, virtually no correspondence from 1937-1940--just Freidenberg's diary. This interruption in the thread of thought between Moscow and Leningrad may be partly explained by a fear of the postal censor.
The Mossman-Wettlin edition consists of three parts: Mossman's explanatory introductions, Freidenberg's diary (the most interesting part of all), and the letters, the bulk of which are by Pasternak, since Freidenberg saved everything, while Pasternak usually threw her letters in the wastebasket. (Freidenberg evidently repaid him with constant reproaches.) The translation is very well done and reads no less smoothly than if it were the original. The only flaw in the volume may be the brief nature of the notes, but perhaps Mossman preferred to intrude to a minimal degree into the text itself, and that approach is, after all, a matter of taste.
As for the de Mallac biography, it is the labor of many years, done with a great deal of love, and becomes more and more interesting as one gets into the book. It is unfortunate, in my opinion, that the critical discussion of the works (for example, Pasternak's rejection of all his pre-1940 verse as lacking simplicity) is separated into a sort of appendix and not integrated into the text of the biography. Still this too is a matter of taste, and ultimately what is important is that the two volumes are an inspiration to read.