Boris Pasternak: Family Correspondence, 1921-1960

Boris Pasternak: Family Correspondence, 1921-1960

by Maya Slater

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This selection of Boris Pasternak’s correspondence with his parents and sisters from 1921 to 1960 sheds new and revealing light on the great writer’s life and work.  His letters are accomplished literary works in their own right, on a par with his poetry in their intensity, frankness, and dazzling stylistic play. In addition, they offer a rare

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This selection of Boris Pasternak’s correspondence with his parents and sisters from 1921 to 1960 sheds new and revealing light on the great writer’s life and work.  His letters are accomplished literary works in their own right, on a par with his poetry in their intensity, frankness, and dazzling stylistic play. In addition, they offer a rare glimpse into his innermost self, significantly complementing the insights obtained from his work.  Those glimpses are especially poignant in that after 1923 Pasternak was never to see his parents again.

The collection reflects the events of Pasternak’s life during forty turbulent years. His father was a distinguished painter and his mother, a concert pianist; his admiration for them colors the entire correspondence. But other topics also find a place: descriptions of his life under the harsh Soviet regime, reflections on his work, on his meetings with famous contemporaries, and on current events, including arrests and executions. In particular, the dramatic happenings of 1956-1960—the publication of Doctor Zhivago, being awarded the Nobel Prize, and the international political storm that followed—weighed heavily on Pasternak and his family. As an evocation of his times, his letters are as powerful as his literary works, with their intimate biographical detail, emotional honesty and—despite the tightening censorship—the openness and candor of their revelations.

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Hoover Institution Press
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Boris Pasternak

Family Correspondence, 1921-1960

By Maya Slater, Nicolas Pasternak Slater

Hoover Institution Press

Copyright © 2010 Evgeni Pasternak, Elena Pasternak, and the Estate of Boris Pasternak
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8179-1025-9



Preparations for the journey to Germany occupied Leonid Pasternak, his wife and daughters throughout the early months of 1921. An ophthalmologist had warned Leonid that he needed surgery for a cataract, whose progression threatened his work.

Josephine left first, on 27 June 1921, to submit her application to Berlin University in good time to begin her studies in the autumn. Boris had introduced her to his and Mayakovsky's friend Osip Brik, who worked for the Cheka and had obtained an exit visa for her. She travelled via Riga, where she stayed with her relatives the Hosiassons. In Berlin she was met by her second cousin Frederick Pasternak (Fyodor, Friedrich, Fedia), and on July 4th he telegraphed her parents in Moscow to report her safe arrival. He rented a room for her at the Pension Fasaneneck.

The events of recent years in Russia — the years of political unrest, the crushing death tolls of the First World War, the October Revolution and the Civil War that followed it, and the accompanying hardships and privations — inevitably conjured up associations with the French Revolution. In the summer of 1917 Boris started writing a verse drama about the last days of the Jacobin dictatorship, which involved him in extensive research on Parisian history and cartography. It was at this time that he first read Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, which became one of his favourite books.

In this letter written to his twenty-one-year-old sister he carries on their game of associations, comparing her departure to the liberation and regeneration of Doctor Manette, the prisoner (and enforced cobbler) in Dickens's novel. Boris refers to the family's happy years living together on Myasnitskaya (1894–1911) and more recently on Volkhonka (from 1911 onwards). And he gives Josephine herself the name of Lucie Manette, the heroine of A Tale of Two Cities.

At the same time, brother and sister continue their discussion about the central elements of a writer's creative life. Boris's tone is reminiscent of a letter he had written from Marburg when Josephine was only twelve years old, a letter in which he expounded laws of literary prose which subsequently became an integral part of his own aesthetic credo. Both Boris and Josephine shared a pleasure in subjective, introspective, rather than factual, correspondence.

Boris Pasternak to Josephine Pasternak

21 July 1921. Moscow.

My dear Zhonyurochka!

Don't be upset that I haven't written you a single letter. I did write, but I ventured too deep, and — well, in a word, there was blood all over the page. But your letters have been simply wonderful — all of them so far written from railway carriages. As to their charm, see below; but I must tell you that the only letters to arrive were those which (for lack of a more reliable route, as you very reasonably thought) you posted willy-nilly in a letterbox. There were no consulates out there at New Jerusalem or Verzhbolovo, so you simply entrusted the letters to the post; and would you believe it, the post is being touchingly efficient. In fact, every detail to do with your departure and crossing is purifyingly and classically touching.

So, let me inform you that the letter and package that you handed to the train-conductor at Riga never reached us. We looked out for the conductor in a desultory way and didn't find him; and when I thought harder about you, I avoided hunting for him at all. He's tied up with the dawn of your first journey, and remains as dear and kind as he seemed to you in those first few days of your trip, despite his very pardonable and understandable lapse. The parcel perished because of its filling — the stuffing, no doubt of chocolate, that filled this cake otherwise composed of books and printed matter. Well, we'll forgive him his light fingers and sweet tooth.

Eglit remembers you very well and sends his regards, and asked me to tell you that if you should want to send anything, with the mail being unreliable (and they wouldn't accept it anyway), you should send it to the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, addressed to him for forwarding to us (write a note on the address). I've given him our telephone number, and if anything arrives he'll ring us. But letters you should send by registered post, the simple and reliable way. His name is Robert Andreyevich. He is very, very kind. A propos des voisins: if you want to send anything, then send books; but don't spend money, and, my dearest, don't burden your compassionate little heart. Our life here has unexpectedly eased up a bit. Materially speaking. Though one can't tell how long that will last.

But your letters are amazing. On the day you left, Lucie, at the barrier on the Vindava platform, I realised that the element of the miraculous is washed by a sea of epically agitated tenderness; that this sea is bottomless, not disturbing; almost wordless, not deafening; that the miracle lisps haltingly, without proclaiming or prophesying; that the miracle was watching from the hillocks as your train sped past; that it met you and sheltered you at Riga — and that every line you wrote was miraculous, since it conveyed that element in which you were bathed, and still are. If you think you owe any apologies, you're cruelly deluded, when you can see for yourself how these vapours of miraculousness overshadow everything else — deeds and facts, the Bashkirovs and pure reason. There's no room for any of that here, nor for apologies either.

Take Bashkirov, for example. I couldn't care less whether you fulfilled my errand (let's call it that) well or badly. And if I'm interested in how you did it, then it's only because on your travels, you Dickensian comet, you crossed the horizon of this person for an hour, or for ten minutes; and that you were seen on Nikolaevskaya, you and the comet-tail of your miracles, the first ones in our lives.

The errand, you say? But at the time I entrusted you with it, a day earlier, could I have known that on the next day you would be reminding us of life, and Mama of health? — and the day after, of nature, and the following day, of the non-fictitiousness of the recent war, and the real possibility of peace, and after that, of the feasibility of the best fantasies; and from start to finish, of the existence of facts as miracles in principle, if we approach them with faith, without brushing aside the things and people that surround them. And you did all that, you miracle-worker.

Do you remember, Lucie (à propos of your journey from town to town) that passage where Manette, as he sits in the stagecoach, again and again bursts out with the words 'recalled, recalled to life'?

Surely it's just this atmosphere of miraculous tenderness (unblocked ears, unrationed imagination and compassion), de qua res agitur for you and me. See how this Tale, with its wonderful spirit, echoes everything you have experienced — and now (most importantly of all) you've made us experience it too. Each of us, in his own way, is a Doctor Manette. Papa and I most of all. Passive and majestic in his ignorance of his own suffering; majestic in his helpless sterility: for one of us, the hammer tapping at the shoe is a brush painting a Sovportrait; for the other — a pen writing a Sovpoem. Mama and Shura, in their own way, are Manettes too. Lida, it seems, has been spared because of her youth.

What do I mean by this? Letting a habit become mechanical; distorting one's profession or family role to an almost insane degree; thinking but saying nothing when a fact is out of sight, letting it become no more than an empty word, while remaining heartlessly deaf to its meaning. Didn't we know what was written on the edges of those pages, and what it really meant? And now, here you are, taking this evil hammer out of our hands, and carrying our familiar cobbler's last out of the door.

It didn't happen all at once. It took a week, and another week, for your psychiatric role to work. Laughter came back to me. Now, once again, I know that there are hurdles which exist so that one can glance back after clearing them, and marvel at how low they are. It's you who bring me money and spill it out for me.

If the old cobbler-woman isn't overcome by her evil craving for the hammer, then Mama will smile more than she ever did on Volkhonka or Myasnitskaya Street. If the old cobbler's craving for his last doesn't lead him to value 'worldly wisdom' and 'common sense' higher than he has recently done, then the fearsome law of mortal peril which governed all his plans and actions will give place to the laws of a living faith in life — life which you yourself have shown to be so easy, beautiful and trustworthy. Oh my dear one, I knew all this once, and I gave the miracle a name. It's just what is meant by 'my sister life'.

And for God's sake don't adopt, per usum epistolarem, a dry and informative style; don't turn traitor in your tone, in the name of communicating facts and conveying information, until the vapours of miraculousness which you and your lines breathe have condensed and merged, drop by drop, with the stream of liquid facts, whose true origins they share. Very soon the time will come when your direct and precise return home from some university office, along a street which has lost the intimacy of novelty, or the planning of German affairs for the German tomorrow, will move the sphere of miraculousness even into this objective plane; and then prices, and the Berlin way of life, and the new post-war alignments, will be related by you as an actor, not an observer, that is, vaporously, preserving that spiritual balance which so impresses me in your communications.

It's possible to be too clever, at the expense of content. Schematism. Diaries in the spirit of ... Amiel, as it were.Whole stacks of emotional sauce-boats from Garrach's — profound and most deep soup-plates, gleaming in their porcelain whiteness and — waiting to be filled, to warm up their icy and empty and meaningless meaning. All this is contemptible. It's all wrong. But your 'groundlessness' and 'gaseousness'— as you perceive it — is material, chemical; it gives us, in a spiritually dissolved form, the basic composition of reality, which you don't speak about directly; and empowers us to act on what you have sent us, and to reconstitute matter. And, as I have said, we develop a taste for railway lines, an eye for Latvia, ears for Berlin. Meanwhile, why write to us about factual things, when the two reports that you probably gave at the Hosiassons' and then at the Rosenfelds', and to Fedia — aren't these just pages of the same Tale set on its feet, isn't this just the same novel? And the background to your stories, at this stage of novelty — these rooms full of gaping mouths and objects, these windows full of murmuring cities and lives — are these facts interesting for us — aren't they rather just a temporary embellishment for your accounts of what you, and we with you, have lived through? For the time being, they too are vapour, vapour, vapour.

So please, don't be afraid of being subjective: at present, that's the only objectivity for us and you. By preserving that very spiritual symmetry that you have shown, you will become truly objective, when objectivity becomes your own property and you are not obliged to borrow it. The present tense used in the letter relates to the time of your arrival in Berlin. For you, it's already long obsolete. And by now you have probably already started distilling facts, with that objectivity which, for me, still lies in the future tense. If so, then write about that too. If so, then you too will enjoy talking about it, because it too ('the trams in Berlin, my dear ones ...', or 'as regards the universities ...', or 'people here view Russia ...') will be a confession.

When I lived in Tikhie Gory, it irritated me to hear anything that didn't relate to the health of Volkhonka, or our friends, or what Papa was working on and how your studies were going. My letter is bound to upset you, no matter how you deceive yourself and me. Instead of bread, I'm giving you literature. It's simply become a rule in cases like this that the prose of family communications, the chewing-over of chewed-up everyday life, is regarded as worth its weight in gold. When you're living apart, that's exactly what you want to chew. But I've allowed myself to upset you, so that this rule shouldn't lead you astray; so that you shouldn't submit to it. It has its exceptions. You're one of them. Write freely, little ladybird, about how you crawl about, or what's crawling around in your little head. I wanted to write Fedia a good long letter. My dear Fedia, I smother you in embraces. Isn't this whole story just like Hamsun's mysteries?

And another thing, Zhonia. I think that what I've said today expresses what we all feel. I'll give the others my letter to read. This is the best thing I could say to you, and it has been said in the very worst way, hurriedly and without pausing — and of course you understand that it's a subject for a treatise. Soon I'll write to you about myself and them. But this topic (Lucie, and the 'recall to life') had to be dealt with.

Your very loving Borya

Once in Berlin, Josephine succeeded in getting German visas for her parents. With the support of Lunacharsky, the People's Commissar for Education, Leonid and Rosalia Pasternak and their eighteen-year-old daughter Lydia were granted permission to travel to Germany. They left Moscow on 13 September 1921, and reached Berlin three days later.

Josephine rented them rooms in the Pension Fasaneneck where she herself was staying. Both sisters entered the university, but high fees obliged Lydia to abandon her medical vocation, and take up biochemistry. Leonid sought out the congenial company of other Russian-Jewish émigrés. An ophthalmic examination showed no urgent need for surgery, although it would eventually be inevitable. He set about reestablishing himself in the artistic world of Berlin, arranging exhibitions of the works he had brought with him from Russia, learning the art of lithography and dry-point, and publishing both a monograph of his own work and a study of Rembrandt.

There was no news from Boris for a month. It was not until 24 October that two letters from him arrived, and his father replied at once.

Leonid Pasternak to Boris and Alexander Pasternak

Berlin, 24 October 1921.

My dear boys!

At last, at last, at last! Hurrah! At last, dear Boryusha, you've finally given birth — and what a splendid offspring it is. A splendid letter — wonderful! I had been consoling Mama —'I promise you, they're fine! You know Borya — he's probably written us four volumes, and then burned them; no doubt he's just finishing off a new Verlag, and is on volume 3. Any day now we'll get two or three letters from him, you'll see.' I was just about to send off this fat letter when the postman knocked, bent under the weight of the mail to me: 'Gnädiger Herr, öffnen Sie bitte schneller — es ist mir schwer, dieses Geschäft weiter noch zu tragen! Poor man — I opened the door, and oh joy! A whole mass of registered letters [...]

Unfortunately Boris's letters referred to here have not survived. His father in Berlin was always on the look-out for any newspaper reports reflecting Boris's growing fame. Ilya Ehrenburg helped him to send Boris cuttings about potential publishers. One of them, Z.I. Grzhebin, was transferring his publishing house from Soviet Russia to Berlin, and preparing to publish Boris's My Sister, Life.

Leonid Pasternak to Boris Pasternak, undated

[...] Yes — I must say that when you wrote that Annenkov (I don't know him) had done your portrait and that you didn't like it, and were convinced — as I am — that it's not a good likeness, of course I was upset to think that I'd see your distorted image.... Now you see, Borya — I always wanted to draw you and you always refused and got cross, and never had any time, or got out of it somehow. If the portrait had been a good likeness and well done, I should have been very pleased, but I'm convinced it isn't — otherwise I should have heard of this man. So that's enough about that now. If you're willing to write to Grzhebin, and if I see him, perhaps I could do a lithograph of your face for him from the 'Congratulations' picture, or the Merreküll one; I've got a very good drawing of you here — or one from a separate study for the 'Congratulations'. But only if that suits you and you want me to do it. If Grzhebin is going to be printing soon, I should like to do this. Let me know what you think.

Only one of Boris's letters from the autumn of 1921 has survived. It was written to his sisters Lydia and Josephine in response to Josephine's description of her new life in Berlin, and Lydia's account of an expedition with their brother Shura the previous year to the village of Cheryomushki, near Moscow, to collect potatoes. The sisters' ceremonial enrolment at the university reminded Boris of the traditional matriculation ceremony when he entered Marburg university in the summer of 1912.


Excerpted from Boris Pasternak by Maya Slater, Nicolas Pasternak Slater. Copyright © 2010 Evgeni Pasternak, Elena Pasternak, and the Estate of Boris Pasternak. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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