Boris Leonidovich Pasternak (February 10th, 1890 – May 30, 1960) was a Nobel Prize-winning Russian poet and writer, in the West best known for his epic novel Doctor Zhivago. The novel is a tragedy, whose events span through the last period of Tsarist Russia and early days of Soviet Union, and was first translated and published in Italy in 1957. In Russia, however, Boris Pasternak is most celebrated as a poet. My Sister Life, written in 1917, is arguably the most influential collection of poetry published in Russian language in the 20th century.
Pasternak was born in Moscow on February 10th, 1890. His father was a prominent Jewish painter Leonid Pasternak, professor at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture and his mother was Rosa (Raitza) Kaufman, a concert pianist, the daughter of painter Isidor Kaufman. Pasternak was brought up in a highly cosmopolitan atmosphere, and visitors to his home included pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and writer Leo Tolstoy.
Inspired by his neighbor Alexander Scriabin, Pasternak resolved to become a composer and entered the Moscow Conservatory. In 1910 he abruptly left the conservatory for the University of Marburg, where he studied under Neo-Kantian philosophers Hermann Cohen and Nicolai Hartmann. Although invited to become a scholar, he decided against making philosophy a profession and returned to Moscow in 1914. His first poetry collection, influenced by Alexander Blok and the Russian Futurists, was published later the same year.
Pasternak's early verse cleverly dissimulates his preoccupation with Kant's ideas. Its fabric includes striking alliterations, wild rhythmic combinations, day-to-day vocabulary, and hidden allusions to his favorite poets like Rilke, Lermontov and German Romantic poets.
During the First World War , he taught and worked at a chemical factory in Vsevolodovo-Vilve (Perm gubernia, near Perm), which undoubtedly provided him with material for Dr. Zhivago many years later. Unlike many of his relatives and friends, Pasternak did not leave Russia after the revolution. Instead, he was fascinated with the new ideas and possibilities that revolution brought to life.
Pasternak spent the summer of 1917 living in the steppe country near Saratov, where he fell in love with a Jewish girl. This passion resulted in the collection My Sister Life, which he wrote over a period of three months, but was too embarrassed to publish for four years because of its novel style. When it finally was published in 1921, the book revolutionized Russian poetry. It made Pasternak the model for younger poets, and decisively changed the poetry of Osip Mandelshtam and Marina Tsvetayeva, to name a few.
Following My Sister Life, Pasternak produced some hermetic pieces of uneven quality, including his masterpiece - the lyric cycle entitled Rupture (1921). Authors such as Vladimir Mayakovsky, Andrey Bely, and Vladimir Nabokov applauded Pasternak's poems as works of pure, unbridled inspiration. In the late 1920s, he also participated in the much celebrated tripartite correspondence with Rilke and Tsvetayeva.
By the end of the 1920s, Pasternak increasingly felt that his colorful modernist style was at odds with the doctrine of Socialist Realism approved by the Communist party. He attempted to make his poetry more comprehensible to the masses by reworking his earlier pieces and starting two lengthy poems on the Russian Revolution. He also turned to prose and wrote several autobiographical stories, notably The Childhood of Lovers and Safe Conduct.
By 1932, Pasternak had strikingly reshaped his style to make it acceptable to the Soviet public and printed the new collection of poems aptly entitled The Second Birth. Although its Caucasian pieces were as brilliant as the earlier efforts, the book alienated the core of Pasternak's refined audience abroad. He simplified his style even further for his next collection of patriotic verse, Early Trains (1943), which prompted Nabokov to describe Pasternak as a "weeping Bolshevik" and "Emily Dickinson in trousers."
During the great purges of the later 1930s, Pasternak became progressively disillusioned with Communist ideals. Reluctant to publish his own poetry, he turned to translating Shakespeare (Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear), Goethe (Faust), Rilke (Requiem für eine Freundin), Paul Verlaine, and Georgian poets. Pasternak's translations of Shakespeare have proved popular with the Russian public because of their colloquial, modernized dialogues, but critics accused him of "pasternakizing" the English playwright. Although he was widely panned for excessive subjectivism, Stalin is said to have crossed Pasternak's name off an arrest list during the purges, saying "Don't touch this cloud dweller." Another version of Stalin's remark, possibly on a separate occasion, is "Leave that Holy Fool alone!"
His cousin, the Jewish-Polish poet Leon Pasternak was not so lucky. As a result of his political activities in Poland — writing satirical verses for socialist revolutionary periodicals - he was imprisoned in 1934 in the Bereza Kartuska Detention Camp.
Several years before the start of the Second World War, Pasternak and his wife settled in Peredelkino, a village for writers several miles from Moscow. He was filled with love of life that gave his poetry a hopeful tone. This is reflected in the name of his autobiographical hero Zhivago, derived from the Russian word for live. Another famous character, Lara, is said to have been modeled on his mistress, Olga Ivinskaya.
As the book was frowned upon by the Soviet authorities, Doctor Zhivago was smuggled abroad and published in an Italian translation by the Italian publishing house Feltrinelli in 1957. The novel became an instant sensation, and was subsequently translated and published in many non-Soviet bloc countries. The American edition spent 26 weeks at the top of The New York Times' bestseller list in 1958. In it, the newly-Christian Pasternak laments that his Jewish people long ago refused to listen to the "new force which had come out of their own midst." He also disagreed therein with the Bolshevik idea of "building a new man". Although none of his Soviet critics had the chance to read the proscribed novel, some of them publicly demanded, "kick the pig out of our kitchen-garden," i.e., expel Pasternak from the USSR. Doctor Zhivago was eventually published in the USSR in 1988.
Pasternak was named the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958. On October 25, two days after hearing that he had won, Pasternak sent the following telegram to the Swedish Academy: “Immensely thankful, touched, proud, astonished, abashed.”
However, four days later came another telegram: “Considering the meaning this award has been given in the society to which I belong, I must refuse it. Please do not take offense at my voluntary rejection.” The Swedish Academy announced: “This refusal, of course, in no way alters the validity of the award. There remains only for the Academy, however, to announce with regret that the presentation of the Prize cannot take place.”
Reading between the lines of Pasternak's second telegram, it is clear he declined the award out of fear that he would be stripped of his citizenship were he to travel to Stockholm to accept it. After struggling a lifetime to avoid leaving Russia, this was not a prospect he welcomed. Despite turning down the Nobel Prize, an official witch-hunt immediately started against Pasternak, and he was threatened at the very least with expulsion.
Although he wasn't exiled or imprisoned, a famous Bill Mauldin cartoon at the time showed Pasternak and another prisoner in Siberia, splitting trees in the snow. In the caption, Pasternak says, "I won the Nobel Prize for literature. What was your crime?" The cartoon won the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning in 1959.
Pasternak's post-Zhivago poetry probes the universal questions of love, immortality, and reconciliation with God.
Pasternak died of lung cancer on May 30, 1960. Despite only a small notice appearing in the Literary Gazette, thousands of people traveled from Moscow to his funeral in Peredelkino.