With ''Doctor Zhivago,'' the novel that won Boris Pasternak a Nobel Prize in 1958, now finally published in his own country, it seems a good time to recall my own brief encounter with him. The Kremlin, raging at the honor accorded a writer alienated from much that the revolution had wrought, had just forced Pasternak to reject the prize, and I was on my way to the Soviet Union with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic as a Russian-speaking administrative aide.
Lenny was an official guest of the Soviet government but, ever drawn to the flame, he had to see Pasternak. The authorities blocked the efforts he made in formal channels and so, with the tour ticking away, Felicia Bernstein, Lenny's wife, and I hopped into a cab, figuring the hotel cabs were KGB but not wanting to sneak around. To Peredelkino, we ordered -- the writers' colony outside Moscow where the writer had his home.
We jolted along for several hours with a driver of impenetrable mien, hopelessly lost. Nobody we asked could help. The cab came out of a pine forest into a village of carved wooden huts, a mud road, chickens, and Felicia screamed. Through the rear window, out of the corner of her eye, she had seen Pasternak crossing the road. The slab cheeks and the shock of white hair were unmistakable. A package wrapped in newspaper was under one arm.
I am Felicia Bernstein, she began. Of course, Pasternak interrupted, bowing and speaking his formal English: I have been expecting you; you are dining with us this evening. We practically swooned: as if finding the needle in the haystack were not enough, it was our one free night in Moscow. The elegant Felicia dropped a glove, and a peasant woman wearing a babushka picked it up and said, your glove, dama (lady), as though the czar still ruled.
He tore a page from a little notebook and wrote down directions, leaving me the possessor of an original Pasternak manuscript.
That evening our car drew up to the light at a big sprawling dacha. It was raining. Pasternak and his wife appeared at the top of the stairs, and just stood there. Lenny, primed for a meeting of two giants of the culture, tugged at his coat. The Pasternaks were muttering to each other; the tone rose. Lenny and Felicia shifted. The world's most celebrated writer was saying, let them come in out of the rain! And his wife was saying, not through my kitchen, take them to the front door! I eased them up the stairs.
The greater Pasternak family was introduced, and out came a Russian meal of cabbage, tomatoes, peppers, pickled mushrooms, roast meat, Georgian wine. Pasternak asked Lenny to play something he had composed. Uncharacteristically, Lenny balked, chilling the whole room and relenting only under Felicia's embarrassed urging. He played a song from "West Side Story," as I recall. Later he explained he was out of practice and could not bear playing second-rate piano before a great writer.
It was easy to draw out Pasternak. He confirmed, by faint denial, that at his readings listeners would fill in from memory the lines of his poetry that he sometimes forgot. Some of his friends, he said, had been enlisted to talk him out of the Nobel award. He was now working on his first play, about an artist-serf freed in the Emancipation of 1861. At one point Mrs. Pasternak broke through his literary ornateness with a touchingly simple toast to her guests.
Lenny had the night off because the orchestra had no concert, but Soviet musicians had arranged a big party and Lenny had to make an appearance. We got back late, and there was no way to keep the word from spreading that he had been with the banned Pasternak. Pasternak! The party surged.
Glass at hand, Lenny took to the piano and started playing jazz, as he did, with some Philharmonic men. He slid back his chair, still playing. He kicked over the chair and eased himself to the floor, still playing. He tucked himself under the piano with hands reaching behind and over him, really playing: all you could see was hands and they were making this fantastic music. The American musicians were roaring. The Russian musicians caught up. Lenny, who had just played for Pasternak as though he had lead fingers, took off for the moon. This is how it was the night Lenny and Felicia and I had dinner with Boris Pasternak.