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From Lyric Poet to Epic Novelist: Boris Pasternak (1890-1960)

Boris Pasternak was born in Moscow to a cultured Jewish family. His father Leonid was a professor at the Moscow School of Painting and an illustrator of Tolstoy's works. His mother, Rosa Kaufman, was an acclaimed concert pianist. His parents received frequent visits from prominent Moscow writers, artists, and intellectuals, including composers Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alexander Scriabin, poet and playwright Alexander Blok, writer Andrei Bely, and poet Rainer Maria Rilke, whose writing would greatly influence Pasternak.

While he drew well, Pasternak's first love was botany and his second, music. Inspired by Scriabin, Pasternak studied composition for six years, from which three of his finished piano pieces have survived. Pasternak entered the Moscow Conservatory, but dropped out in 1910 because he lacked confidence in his technical skill. He entered the Law Faculty at Moscow University and later studied philosophy at Marburg University in Germany. Ultimately he gave up his academic career, returning to Russia in 1913 to pursue his poetry. He would not find success for another ten years.

Unable to serve in the army because of a fall from a horse that left him with one leg shorter than the other, Pasternak spent World War I working as a clerk at a chemical works to the far east of Moscow. Pasternak's poetic debut was Twin in the Stormclouds (1913), published by Lirika, a cooperative publishing enterprise he formed with a group of seven fellow poets. When Lirikia disbanded, Pasternak briefly joined the Futurist group Tsentrifuga, which jettisoned tradition in favor of innovation in style and subject with poets Sergei Bobrov and Vladimir Mayakovsky. Though influenced by topical urban, symbolist, and futurist elements, Pasternak's early poetry was distinguished by its alliteration, rhyme, rhythm, and use of metaphor.

He wrote two books in 1917, My Sister Life and Themes and Variations. The Bolshevik Revolution and World War I would delay their appearance for five years, during which he translated plays by Heinrich von Kleist and Ben Johnson and poems by the German expressionists. When it was finally published in 1922, My Sister Life secured his place among the leading writers of the time. Its lush imagery and idiomatic language contrasted with its disciplined quatrain form. That same year Pasternak married Art Institute student Evgeniya Lurye and brought her to Berlin to stay with his family, who would relocate there permanently. This was the last time Pasternak would ever see them, as his repeated applications for permission to visit were denied. In 1923, the couple began their own family with a son, Evgenii. Pasternak finally published Themes and Variations that same year.

Although Pasternak initially welcomed the Bolshevik Revolution, the brutality of new government came to horrify him, a reversal acknowledged in his collection Aerial Ways (1924), which showed his growing disregard of politics as a primary human and artistic concern. Vladimir Lenin's new Soviet government maintained that art should motivate political change while Pasternak insisted that art focus on eternal truths rather than historical or societal concerns. For his stance, he became a silent hero among Russian intellectuals. Living in an overcrowded communal flat in Moscow, he continued to write short poems, but came to believe that poets and artists had no assured place in society and could only live as outsiders. During the 1920s his poetry turned from the lyric to narrative and epic forms, addressing the 1905 Russian Revolution in Sublime Malady (1924), Lieutenant Schmidt (1927), and The Year 1905 (1927).

In 1924 Lenin died and the struggle for succession ensued. In 1928, Stalin emerged victorious; Trotsky was driven into exile and one by one Stalin's other rivals were eliminated. While the most sweeping changes in Russia occurred in agriculture, which was collectivized, a clampdown occurred in all fields, including that of literature. By 1932, the doctrine of Socialist Realism, the principle that the arts should glorify the ideals of Communism, was established. Independent artistic groups were disbanded in 1932 and the new Union of Soviet Writers assumed control of literary affairs, imposing adherence to socialist realism.

Pasternak's first foray into prose, Spektorsky (1931), showed scenes from the life of a young poet, who shared the author's own historical passivity and fatalism in the face of the Revolution. While many writers and artists became despondent and felt the temptation to commit suicide, Pasternak believed that poets must continue working when art and even spiritualism were no longer secure. He expressed this theory through the metaphor of "second birth," the title of his 1932 poetry collection. Pasternak has been criticized for self-centeredness, a sentiment embodied in the popular saying, "Everything changes under our zodiac, only Pasternak remains Pasternak." While he was not oblivious to the terror going on around him, he was resistant to its impact on his work, hoping to create something transcendent.

The love poems in Second Birth also addressed a change in Pasternak's personal life: he had fallen for Zinaida Neigauz, wife of composer Genrikh Neigauz. He would eventually leave Evgeniya and take Zinaida as his second wife. While these poems expressed a newfound optimism and reconciliation of lyrical and social elements, his artistic rebirth was short-lived. Second Birth and his autobiography Safe Conduct (1931) were Pasternak's last original works before the state forbade him to publish, considering his work contrary to the aims of Communism. Pasternak resorted to translation as a safer livelihood, taking on classic works by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Rilke, William Shakespeare, and Paul Verlaine. Both successful and well compensated, he was able to buy a house in a writers' village just outside Moscow in 1936. It would be his principal home for the rest of his life. In the late 1940s he also translated the major tragedies of Shakespeare, and these remain the standard versions used in Russia.

During World War II, as Hitler's troops marched into Russia, Pasternak published two new poetry collections, On Early (1942) and The Terrestrial Expanse (1945). In 1945 Zinaida's son, Adrian, died, a loss that left her bereft and joyless. The following year Pasternak fell in love with Olga Ivinskaya, who from then on was Pasternak's de facto wife, though he still shared a home with Zinaida. Olga inspired his later love poems and served as a prototype for Lara in Doctor Zhivago.

Pasternak was one of the rare poets to be popular during his lifetime. If he forgot a line in one of his poems during a reading, the crowd would assist him. During the war, letters he received from the front line reminded him of the reach that his voice had. He did not want to lose this contact with the masses so Pasternak began a large novel that glorified freedom, independence, and a return to Christian religion that would become Dr. Zhivago. Basing the story on his own experience of wartime and revolution, Pasternak employed Yuri Zhivago as mouthpiece for his own philosophical and artistic beliefs. He presented Zhivago's inability to influence his own fate not as a fault, but as a sign that he was destined to become an artistic witness to the tragedy of his age. The author closely identified Zhivago's predicament with that of the suffering Christ.

The government's postwar ideological clampdown forced Pasternak to labor on the manuscript in secret. Rejected in Russia, Doctor Zhivago was smuggled west in 1957 and published first in Italian and then in English in 1958. The epic novel about the life and loves of physician and poet Yuri Zhivago during the political upheavals of 20th-century Russia was acclaimed as a successful combination of lyrical, descriptive, and epic dramatic styles. The book, which concludes with a cycle of Zhivago's poetry, was translated into 18 languages. In October 1958, Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, "for his important achievement both in contemporary lyrical poetry and in the field of the great Russian epic tradition." Russian authorities, unhappy with his harsh depiction of life under Communism, forced him to decline the Nobel Prize and ejected him from the Union of Soviet Writers. While he was not sent into exile or arrested, all publication of his translations came to a halt and he fell into poverty. He wrote his last complete book, When the Weather Clears, in 1959. That summer, he began The Blind Beauty, a play about an enslaved artist during the period of serfdom in Russia, but fell ill with lung cancer before he could complete it. Pasternak took to his bed in his home at Peredelkino, where he succumbed the evening of May 30, 1960. Upon hearing of his death, many thousands of people traveled from Moscow to his funeral. For the Russian people, he remains a symbol of resistance in the face of terror and oppression.

In 1988, the Union of Soviet Writers posthumously reinstated Pasternak, making the publication of Doctor Zhivago in the Soviet Union finally possible. Pasternak's son, Evgenii, accepted the Nobel Prize medal on his father's behalf at a ceremony in Stockholm in 1989.

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Selected Works

Poetry
Twin in the Clouds (1914)
Over the Barriers (1916)
Themes and Variations (1917)
My Sister, Life (1922)
On Early Trains (1944)
When the Weather Clears (1959)

Prose
Safe Conduct (1931)
Second Birth (1932)
Childhood (1941)
Essay in Autobiography (1956)
Doctor Zhivago (1957)

Translations
Boris Pasternak's Translations of Shakespeare (1978)


Essays + Interviews:
The Making of Doctor Zhivago | Russian Love Stories | Boris Pasternak



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