Friday, February 10, 2017

Birthday: "How wonderful to be alive, he thought. But why does it always hurt?"

Pasternak stamp.jpg

Boris Leonidovich Pasternak (1890-1960)
Poet, novelist

Things change so quickly, and memories fade so fast, it is hard to imagine the malign, disruptive effects of the Cold War on virtually every aspect of life sixty years ago. Boris Pasternak’s life is a case in point.

He was well-born. His father, Leonid Pasternak, was a celebrated post-impressionist painter renowned for his illustrations of the later works of Tolstoy. His mother was a concert pianist.  Theirs was a cultured, tsarist-era salon, frequented by the likes of Rilke, Scriabin and Rachmaninoff.

Portrait by Papa Pasternak. Boris leads the parade.

Boris, the eldest of the four Pasternak children, thought of a musical career first, entering the conservatory at Moscow in 1913. He changed his mind and opted to read philosophy at Marburg in Germany, where he fell in love with Ida Vissatshaya, heiress to the world’s largest tea company. Next to that, Pasternak looked like small beer. Her family vetoed the wedding.

He worked in a chemical plant for part of World War II, and thought the Russian Revolution promised to be a good thing for the country. The Pasternaks managed pretty well through the disruptions, though by 1921, things were tight enough that when the parents and their daughters, Lydia and Josephine, went to Germany for Leonid’s eye surgery, they never returned.

Boris and his brother, Alexander, an architect, stayed behind.

Pasternak worked on a collection of poetry through the war years. Published as My Sister, Life in 1921, it became the best-selling collection by a twentieth-century Russian poet and made him a celebrity.

He married in 1922, and through the 1920s and ‘30s tried to reframe his poetry in a more popular vein, fearful of running afoul of accusations of elitism. He left his wife for another woman, marrying her in 1934.

That year the poet Osip Mandelstam was arrested by Stalin’s security services, having run afoul of the government’s increasing, if utterly unpredictable, efforts to mold a national communist culture. Pasternak was terrified he would be implicated as a friend of Mandelstam’s, and ran all over Moscow telling anyone who’d listen he knew nothing and had nothing to do with it.

His flailing about was so conspicuous Stalin called him personally. Pasternack blubbed and pleaded. Stalin chided Pasternak for not being willing to stand up for a friend, and hung up. Panicked even further, Pasternak spent days trying to call Stalin back, then wrote a long-exculpatory letter to Nikolai Bukharin, a high-ranking Soviet official.

He survived the affair better than Mandelstam, who, released after interrogation, was spared the expected execution and sentenced to internal exile by Bukharin. By 1937-38, however, Bukharin himself was in the dock, part of a massive run of Stalin-ordered show trials. Bukharin was executed, and Mandelstam died, in 1938.

The Soviet Writers’ Union demanded its members sign a declaration of support for the trials; Pasternak refused, citing his Tolstoyan pacifism, and somehow avoided penalty. Some sources indicate Pasternak was, in fact, on a death list, but was spared only when Stalin- who considered him “a holy fool”- struck him from the list.

Pasternak worked in the civil guard during World War II and entertained troops at the front lines; in 1943, he fell in love with a woman, Olga Ivinskaya, who remained his muse and partner for seventeen years, at considerable personal cost. Pasternak never divorced his second wife.

After the war, Pasternak, who had turned his interest to the translation of western classics, ran afoul of the authorities over his edition of Faust. Olga was arrested in 1949 and interrogated to get the goods on Boris, who came under attack in the state literary magazines. The Soviets held Olga until Stalin died in 1953.

She rejoined Pasternak in time to aid him in completing a sweeping novel of the Revolution, Doctor Zhivago. He’d been working on it, off and on, for almost forty years. Soviet publishers rejected it in 1956 for its perceived deviations from socialist realist thought and style.

Improbably, the Italian Communist Party sent a journalist to Russia to, in major part, meet Pasternak and see if he’d give up the manuscript rights for Europe.

Ever the naif, Pasternak agreed, believing that if the book was published in the west, by a Communist publisher, and did well, the Soviet government would rethink it and allow its internal publication.

Back in Italy with the novel, the journalist dropped the bomb that it was to be published there. The Soviets popped their corks, pulling every string they had to delay, if not cancel, publication.

Writers and critics in the government’s favor denounced it, even though it was not available in the USSR and none had read it.

The book was a sensation in Europe, then in America, where the 1958 English translation spent six months on The New York Times’ bestseller list.

Back in Russia, Pasternak was frantic, caught up in events he could not control. The Writer’s Union held a secret trial, convicting him of fascist, capitalist tendencies and demanding he be stripped of his citizenship, then exiled. Pasternak sent a letter to Khrushchev, the new Soviet leader, begging to remain at home; in the end, it took intervention by the Indian prime minister, Nehru, to save him, after Nehru threatened to form an international committee in Pasternak’s defense.

Pasternak was endlessly harassed by the KGB, which, at one point, had agents in the bushes under the windows of his home, recording his conversations with Olga.

Meantime, Doctor Zhivago benefitted from one of the most unlikely PR campaigns in literary history. Both the British spy agency, MI6 and the American CIA, bought thousands of copies, spreading them to influential magazines and critics and at events like the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels.

Pasternak, who had been a Nobel shortlister since the late 1940s, won the 1958 prize, only to decline it after the Soviets warned him going to Stockholm meant h would only need a one-way ticket.

Such was the furor that the American editorial cartoonist Bill Mauldin won the 1959 Pulitzer Prize for a drawing of two men doing menial labor, one saying to the other, “I won the Nobel Prize for Literature. What’s your crime?”

Worn down by poor health and stress, Pasternak died in his sleep in May, 1960.  A secret Russian Orthodox mass was said after his civil funeral. Nor did the trouble stop there. The KGB raided his house in 1961, seizing his papers. Olga and her daughter were arrested. Olga was held for two years.

A blockbuster Hollywood version of Doctor Zhivago came out in 1965. By then the Soviet government’s obsessions and paranoia was being transferred to another writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Olga’s memoirs, smuggled to West Germany, were published in 1978. It was another decade before the government’s smears of Pasternak ended, in the days of Gorbachev. Doctor Zhivago was serialised in a Russian magazine in 1988. Pasternak appeared on a postage stamp in 1990. A 2006 mini series on Russian television was rated a more faithful adaptation of Doctor Zhivago than the American hit of the 1960s.

Pasternak's brother, who had a successful career as a Moscow architect and teacher, died in 1982. Olga died three years later.

Pasternak’s parents and sisters lived in Berlin from 1921 to 1938, when they fled Germany just ahead of the first roundups of the Jews. They settled in Oxford, England, where Pasternak’s niece, Ann, is a fellow of St Anne’s College and wife of the British poet Craig Raine.

In 1989 Pasternak’s son was allowed to travel to Sweden to collect his father’s Nobel Prize.

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