Boris Leonidovich Pasternak

Борис Леонидович Пастернак





b. Feb. 10 [Jan. 29, Old Style], 1890, Moscow, Russia
d. May 30, 1960, Peredelkino, near Moscow

Russian poet whose novel Doctor Zhivago helped win him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 but aroused so much opposition in the Soviet Union that he declined the honour. An epic of wandering, spiritual isolation, and love amid the harshness of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, the novel became an international best-seller but circulated only in secrecy and translation in his own land.

Pasternak grew up in a cultured Jewish household. His father, Leonid, was an art professor and a portraitist of novelist Leo Tolstoy, poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and composer Sergey Rachmaninoff, all frequent guests at his home, and of Lenin. His mother was the pianist Rosa Kaufman.

Young Pasternak himself planned a musical career, though he was a precocious poet. He studied musical theory and composition for six years, then abruptly switched to philosophy courses at Moscow University and the University of Marburg (Germany). Physically disqualified for military service, he worked in a chemical factory in the Urals during World War I. After the Revolution he worked in the library of the Soviet commissariat of education.

His first volume of poetry was published in 1913. In 1917 he brought out a striking second volume, Poverkh baryerov ("Over the Barriers"), and with the publication of Sestra moya zhizn (1922; "My Sister Life") he was recognized as a major new lyrical voice. His poems of that period reflected Symbolist influences. Though avant-garde and esoteric by Russian standards, they were successful. From 1933 to 1943, however, the gap between his work and the official modes (such as Socialist Realism) was too wide to permit him to publish, and he feared for his safety during the purges of the late 1930s. One theory is that Stalin spared him because Pasternak had translated poets of Stalin's native Georgia. His translations, which were his main livelihood, included renderings of William Shakespeare, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, English Romantic poets, Paul Verlaine, and Rainer Maria Rilke.

Although Pasternak hoped for the best when he submitted Doctor Zhivago to a leading Moscow monthly in 1956, it was rejected with the accusation that "it represented in a libelous manner the October Revolution, the people who made it, and social construction in the Soviet Union." The book reached the West in 1957 through an Italian publishing house that had bought rights to it from Pasternak and refused to return it "for revisions." By 1958, the year of its English edition, the book had been translated into 18 languages.

In the Soviet Union, the Nobel Prize brought a campaign of abuse. Pasternak was ejected from the Union of Soviet Writers and thus deprived of his livelihood. Public meetings called for his deportation; he wrote Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev, "Leaving the motherland will equal death for me." Suffering from cancer and heart trouble, he spent his last years in his home at Peredelkino.

Pasternak's works in English translation include short stories, the autobiographical Okhrannaya gramota (1931; Safe Conduct), and the full range of his poetic output, which ended on a note of gravity and quiet inwardness.

In 1987 the Union of Soviet Writers posthumously reinstated Pasternak, a move that gave his works a legitimacy they had lacked in the Soviet Union since his expulsion from the writers' union in 1958 and that finally made possible the publication of Doctor Zhivago in the Soviet Union. In addition to effecting Pasternak's rehabilitation, the review commission, headed by poet Andrey Voznesensky, recommended that Pasternak's home in Peredelkino be made a museum.


Works of mainly biographical interest include Olga Ivinskaya, A Captive of Time (1978; originally published in Russian, 1978); Guy de Mallac, Boris Pasternak: His Life and Work (1981); Ronald Hingley, Pasternak (1983); Christopher Barnes, Boris Pasternak: A Literary Biography (1989- ); and Lazar Fleishman, Boris Pasternak: The Poet and His Politics (1990). Criticism is represented by Olga R. Hughes, The Poetic World of Boris Pasternak (1974); Henry Gifford, Pasternak: A Critical Study (1977); and Victor Erlich (ed.), Pasternak: A Collection of Critical Essays (1978). Munir Sendich, Boris Pasternak: A Reference Guide (1994), an annotated bibliography of works by and about Pasternak, 1913-90, includes an essay on the critical reception Pasternak's writings received.


        Зимняя ночь

Мело, мело по всей земле
Во все пределы.
Свеча горела на столе,
Свеча горела.

Как летом роем мошкора
Летит на пламя,
Слетались хлопья со двора
К оконной раме.

Метель лепила на столе
Кружки и стрелы.
Свеча горела на столе,
Свеча горела.

На озаренный потолок
Ложились тени,
Скрещенья рук, скркщенья ног,
Судьбы скрещенья.

И падали два башмачка
Со стуком на пол,
И воск слезами с ночника
На платье капал.

И все терялось в снежной мгле
Седой и белой.
Свеча горела на столе,
Свеча горела.

На свечку дуло из угла,
И жар соблазна
Вздымал, как ангел, два крыла

Мело весь месяц в феврале,
И то и дело
Свеча горела на столе,
Свеча горела.



Winter's night

Blizzards were blowing everywhere
Throughout the land.
A candle burned upon the table,
A candle burned.

As midgets in the summer fly
Towards a flame,
The snowflakes from the yard swarmed to
The window pane.

And, on the glass, bright snowy rings
And arrows formed.
A candle burned upon the table,
A candle burned.

And on the white illumined ceiling
Shadow were cast,
As arms and legs and destinies
Fatefully crossed.

Two slippers fell on to the floor
With a light sound,
And waxen tears dripped from the candle 
On to a gown.

No object in the misty whiteness
Could be discerned.
A candle burned upon the table,
A candle burned.

A mild draught coming from the corner
Blew on the candle,
Seduction's heat raised two wings crosswise
As might an angel.

It snowed and snowed that February
All through the land.
A candle burned upon the table,
A candle burned.



Никого не будет в доме,
Кроме сумерек. Один
Зимний день в сквозном проеме
Незадернутых гардин.

Только белых мокрых комьев
Быстрый промельк моховой.
Только крыши, снег и, кроме
Крыш и снега, -- никого.

И опять зачертит иней,
И опять завертит мной
Прошлогоднее унынье
И дела зимы иной,

И опять кольнут доныне
Неотпущенной виной,
И окно по крестовине
Сдавит голод дровяной.

Но нежданно по портьере
Пробежит вторженья дрожь.
Тишину шагами меря,
Ты, как будущность, войдешь.

Ты появишься у двери
В чем-то белом, без причуд,
В чем-то впрямь из тех материй,
Из которых хлопья шьют.


There'll be noone in the house
Save for twilight. All alone,
Winter's day seen in the space that's
Made by curtains left undrawn.

Only flash-past of the wet white
Snowflake clusters, glimpsed and gone.
Only roofs and snows, and save for
Roofs and snow -- no one at home.

Once more, frost will trace its patterns,
I'll be haunted once again
By my last-year's melancholy,
By that other wintertime.

Once more I'll be troubled by an
Old, unexpiated shame,
And the icy firewood femine
Will press on the window-pane.

But the quiver of intrusion
Through those curtain folds will run
Measuring silence with your footsteps,
Like the future, in you'll come.

You'll appear there in the doorway
Wearing something white and plain,
Something in the very stuff from
Which the snowflakes too are sewn.




Февраль. Достать чернил и плакать!
Писать о феврале навзрыд,
Пока грохочащая слякоть
Весною черною горит.

Достать пролетку. За шесть гривен
Чрез благовест, чрез клик колес
Перенестись туда, где ливень
Еще шумней чернил и слез.

Где, как обугленные груши,
С деревьев тысячи грачей
Сорвутся в лужи и обрушат
Сухую грусть на дно очей.

Под ней проталины чернеют,
И ветер криками изрыт,
И чем случайней, тем вернее
Слагаются стихи навзрыд.


February. Get ink, shed tears.
Write of it, sob your heart out, sing,
While torrential slush that roars
Burns in the blackness of the spring.

Go hire a buggy. For six grivnas,
Race through the noice of bells and wheels
To where the ink and all you grieving
Are muffled when the rainshower falls.

To where, like pears burnt black as charcoal,
A myriad rooks, plucked from the trees,
Fall down into the puddles, hurl
Dry sadness deep into the eyes.

Below, the wet black earth shows through,
With sudden cries the wind is pitted,
The more haphazard, the more true
The poetry that sobs its heart out.





Гул затих. Я вышел на подмостки.
Прислонясь к дверному косяку,
Я ловлю в далеком отголоске,
Что случится на моем веку.

На меня наставлен сумрак ночи
Тысячью биноклей на оси.
Если только можно, авва отче,
Чашу эту мимо пронеси.

Я люблю твой замысел упрямый
И играть согласен эту роль.
Но сейчас идет другая драма,
И на этот раз меня уволь.

Но продуман распорядок действий,
И неотвратим конец пути.
Я один, все тонет в фарисействе.
Жизнь прожить - не поле перейти.


(Русская советская поэзия.

Москва, Художественная литература, 1990.)



  The clamor ceased. I walked onto the stage.
  While leaning on a jamb, through cheers,
  I'm grasping in the echo's distant range
  What will occur during my years.
  The twilight of the night has gathered
  Like thousands of binoculars on me.
  If so you're willing, Father,
  I beg you, take this cup from me.
  I love your plan, so firm and stubborn
  And I agree to play this role.
  But as of now, there's another drama.
  This time, expel me, I implore.
  But, the predestined plot proceeds.
  I cannot alter the direction of my path.
  I am alone, all sinks in phariseeism.
  To live a life--is not an easy task.





February 7, 2017


‘First Frost’



“You are invited to my execution”, Boris Pasternak (1890–1960) said when he handed over the manuscript of his novel Doctor Zhivago to the Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli in May 1956. Feltrinelli’s decision to allow a book banned in the USSR to be published in the West prompted the “Zhivago Affair”, which was one of the fiercest and most famous propaganda battles of the Cold War: Pasternak was nominated for – and won – the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 only to be forced by the KGB and the Union of Soviet Writers to decline the award. Despite a half-hearted attempt in mid-career to accommodate himself to a political system he had come to despise – Vladimir Nabokov said of Pasternak’s collection, The Second Birth (1932), that it was written by “a weeping Bolshevik” – Pasternak had always been held in deep suspicion by the authorities. Osip Mandelstam’s widow, Nadhezda, put his survival down to his “incredible charm”; Marina Tsvetaeva said he looked “like an Arab and his horse”. But also important was the way he appeared to distance himself, in his poetry, from the idiom and events of his era. During the Great Purges of the 1930s, Stalin apparently crossed Pasternak’s name off an execution list with the words “Do not touch this cloud-dweller”.


From the beginning, Pasternak knew how to make the natural world speak for him. The way his poetry merges the poet as subject and the scenery as object allowed him both to disappear into, and speak directly out of, everything he saw. As Anna Akhmatova says in the last two lines of her poem “Boris Pasternak” (translated by Stanley Kunitz and Anna Andreevna, and published in the TLS in 1968), “The whole of the earth was his to inherit / And his to share with every human spirit”. “First Frost”, from Pasternak’s last collection When the Weather Clears (1959), presents a speaker anticipating not only his own death but also his disappearance from the country he still loves. He is already a ghost, “a dirty snapshot”, erased from history. But he is also “a passer-by, recognised / late” by those who will one day see his back disappearing into the “smoky fire”.





Холодным утром солнце в дымке 
Стоит столбом огня в дыму. 
Я тоже, как на скверном снимке, 
Совсем неотличим ему.



Пока оно из мглы не выйдет, 
Блеснув за прудом на лугу, 
Меня деревья плохо видят 
На отдаленном берегу.



Прохожий узнается позже, 
Чем он пройдет, нырнув в туман. 
Мороз покрыт гусиной кожей, 
И воздух лжив, как слой румян.



Идешь по инею дорожки, 
Как по настилу из рогож. 
Земле дышать ботвой картошки 
И стынуть больше невтерпеж.






First Frost



Cold morning: the sun blurs,
Pillar of smoky fire.
And I’m indistinct too
Like a dirty snapshot.



Till it gets through the murk,
Shines on the grassy pond
The trees see me poorly
Across from the far bank;



A passer-by, recognised
Late, as he’s plunged in haze.
Frost wraps gooseflesh, the air
Is false as thickest rouge.



You go by paths with rime
Like matting. The earth breathes
Potato-stalks, and grows
Cold, unbelievably cold.



Translated by Robert Conquest (1961)