The poet Blok once wrote about the ‘gloomy roll-call’ in Russian history of tyrants and executioners, ‘and opposite them a single bright name – Pushkin’. Quite true. But to put it like that is the equivalent of a single bright name outside the cinema – Omar Sharif as Dr Zhivago. The Russians have a word for the process – poshlost. This is not vulgarity, which is a good honest affair, but a factitious emphasis placed where none should exist, the facile forcing into expression and standardisation of what can only be true at the level of private, exploratory feeling. Television and advertising, politics and journalism, are the natural homes of poshlost, where it has its proper uses and its presence is so much taken for granted as to be relatively benign. Though bad art may embody poshlost, its pretensions are usually harmless and recognisable: worse things happen when good art is taken up by poshlost, and has the kind of qualities which it can take over.
When does this happen? Not with Mozart, with Shakespeare or with Pushkin, geniuses who can never be denatured, no matter what is done to them in the name of admiration or idolatry. Not even with Tolstoy, in spite of all the ballyhoo of Tolstoyism: his great achievements in art stand inevitably separate from the committed, parabolic aspects of his life. But the larger his talent the less easy it is for the 20th-century writer to separate himself from the exploitation of his own personality, an exploitation which he initiates, with which he collaborates, and which continues after his death. This occurs in a very obvious sense in relation to an artist like D.H. Lawrence, but in a much more subtle and peculiar sense it is true of a great poet-artist like Pasternak. The tradition in English is different: the greatness in poetry of a Yeats or an Eliot, however complex a matter, does not depend directly on their ‘views’, or upon their self-appointed role in society. Their legend is personal, not exemplary, and their achievement as poets is not a sort of holy collaboration with the national soul, a struggle requiring the poet to present himself as both prophet and sacrifice. And of course they had not participated, as Pasternak did, in the convulsions of a revolution and its aftermath. Pushkin did not consciously or voluntarily become the single bright name opposed to the record of Russia’s rulers: he got on with the job of being an artist. But for Pasternak that job turned into becoming such a bright name, making a sacred identification of himself and his art with life, the life that had gone down into the grave and would rise again. The only thing of importance in the lives of the minor characters in Dr Zhivago is that they lived in the times of the great man; they could bear witness to the mystery and miracle of his existence.
In his excellent book on the Russian Revolutionary novel Richard Freeborn discusses the many forerunners of Dr Zhivago, and implies, what is certainly the case, that the novels which had sought to come to terms with the new world of the Revolution – Fedin’s Cities and Years, Veresaev’s The Deadlock, Bulgakov’s The White Guard, and perhaps most of all Olesha’s Envy – all oppose to the new revolutionary phenomena a solitary intelligent who is unable to come to terms with them, and who tries to make something out of his life in terms of former mystical, national or artistic traditions, seeking unsuccessfully to reconcile the new with the old. Zhivago has plenty in common with such heroes, but he is not only incomparably more compelling, as a projection of his creator, in terms of art: he is also strong where they are weak and vacillating, filled with confidence and sureness where they are hollow and empty. Whatever his anguish in terms of his personal life and of the collective scene, Zhivago/Pasternak is a man who knows he is right. In terms of art he is as Lenin was in terms of politics. Unlike the traditional Russian intelligent, he opposes to the Bolshevik scene a conviction as convinced and as crafty, an ideology as sure of itself, as that with which Lenin and his entourage were able to seize power from the nerveless hands of the liberals and the bien-pensant Russian intelligentsia.
It is precisely this ideological confidence which lends itself to and collaborates with the kind of poshlost which in the Soviet Union is now in charge of the Communist legend. Although Zhivago is dead before the great purges, he is in his own way a colleague in Stalin’s cult of personality. Pasternak himself had a strange relation to Stalin, a relation involving a kind of mutual respect. ‘Don’t touch the cloud-dweller,’ Stalin is supposed to have said about him, and the assumption is that the tyrant, who had a nose for such things, sensed that Pasternak was no threat to him but was admiring him in his own peculiar way. The poet Gumilov, Akhmatova’s husband, had actually taken part in an anti-Bolshevik conspiracy, for which he was executed, and if Pushkin had been present in Petersburg at the time of the Decembrist uprising, he would have been on the square with his friends. Milton and Petöfi are true revolutionary poets. Pasternak was no more capable of throwing himself into the struggle than Tennyson would have been, or Rilke. This is to speak frivolously of a terrible matter, but his role seems to have been ultimately understood by Pasternak rather than chosen by him – one can hardly speak of deliberate choice in such a context – because the figure of the sacrificial artist claimed the same kind of unique role and unique authority, at a given historical moment, as Stalin implicitly claimed. A saviour was needed, to lead the people back to life, as a new Tsar of steel had been needed, at least by the inherent logic of the Bolshevik ethos, to fuse the national sense of purpose, the will to drive towards the industrial future.
On several occasions Pasternak insisted that there could, as it were, be only one true artist at a given time. In addition to everything else about Communist ideology, he utterly rejected the role of the artist as a kind of social engineer or welfare worker, playing his part beside his party colleagues. This was the view that Mayakovsky promulgated, at least officially – that artists and poets must be turned out by the Soviet state in ever-increasing numbers, like tanks and lorries and doctors and TV sets. For Pasternak the saviour poet of the age must be a single figure, and the poems reveal his identity. In true art ‘the man is silent but the image speaks’, as it does at the end of the last Zhivago poem.
You see, the progress of the ages is like a fable, which on its way has the power to burst into flame. In the name of its awful majesty I will go down with willing torments into the grave.
I will go down, and rise again on the third day, and as boats float on the river, the centuries like a caravan of barges shall float out of the darkness to me for judgment.
In representing Christ speaking in the Garden of Gethsemane, this extraordinary and deeply moving poem makes no claim on behalf of its author, but it exhibits a final realisation of what his life and art have meant to himself and to his age. It is to become, as Solzhenitsyn described the purpose of literature in his Nobel speech, ‘the living memory of a nation’. That echoes the opening words of Dr Zhivago: ‘On and on they went, singing eternal memory.’
The relation between Zhivago and Pasternak is thus itself a unique one. We are familiar with a comparable kind of process, the relation of the poet’s persona, the self that he makes in his poetry, to the actual self that gets through life like the rest of us. In the descendants of Yeats, Lowell and Berryman, the deliberate creation of such a self in poetry became itself art’s function and justification. But paradoxically it is easier for a poet of this kind to avoid the poshlost process than it is for Pasternak. In the completion and creation of the self art seals itself off from the powers of the media, as it does when a Pushkin or a Shakespeare writes. Pasternak’s art was much more vulnerable, and it was a part of his sacrificial role to contribute to his own vulnerability. One contradiction is that though the artist accepted a sacrificial role, the man himself bore a charmed life. Mandelstam was martyred in the flesh. Pasternak lived on year after year in his comfortable dacha in Peredelkino, the writers’ colony outside Moscow. Like Dr Zhivago, whose mysterious half-brother Yevgraf perennially reappears to assist from his high position in the party hierarchy, Pasternak had a curious protector in Fadeev, a handsome Siberian author who lived near him in Peredelkino and was high up in the Writers’ Union. Fadeev was also liked and trusted by Stalin, and could be relied on to interpret zealously the party line and take the correct view of those who transgressed it. But he was also human and retained human weaknesses. De Mallac has a story of his calling on the Pasternaks because he was very fond of Mrs Pasternak’s baked potatoes, with which he would consume very large quantities of vodka and talk with monumental indiscretion. Next day Pasternak would ring him up and say: ‘Don’t worry, Sasha, you told me nothing.’ Sometimes denouncing Pasternak in public but supporting him in private, Fadeev continued in his powerful position as secretary of the Writers’ Union until the Khrushchev thaw, when he was demoted for his Stalinist loyalties and committed suicide. The Byzantine nature of Soviet literary intrigue is shown by the fact that Tvardovsky, the comparatively enlightened editor of Novy Mir, another human being and hard drinker, lost his post at the same time. Paying his last respects in Russian style to Fadeev in his coffin, Pasternak is reported to have said: ‘He has rehabilitated himself.’
Both these biographies tell the story of Pasternak’s life and art with the authority of a complete and up-to-date scholarship. De Mallac’s is the more hagiographical, but that in a sense is to be expected, and may even be fitting: a modern saint’s life bears witness against the forces of evil, and it was against just such forces in Soviet Russia that Pasternak’s art and his personality bore witness. For this reason they have a historical importance that is not comparable with the personalities and gossip of our own literary scene; the recorder has a responsibility towards them, whether as scholar and critic like the present biographers, or, in the case of writers like Solzhenitsyn, as a creative presence comparable with Pasternak’s own. Solzhenitsyn bore the same sort of witness when in The Oak and the Calf he told the tale of himself and the Soviet literary establishment.
Nonetheless, Hingley’s book, tauter, more economical, more balanced, and containing some good translations and commentary on the poetry, must on balance be considered the better biography, and indeed the most useful book on Pasternak to date. The two books also complement each other, one being essentially sceptical, the other by a devotee, and on occasion they agree to differ. Pasternak’s cousin Olga commented on his ‘maidenly purity retained until comparatively late years’. How late is ‘comparative’? asks Hingley, querying de Mallac’s rather coy observation that his hero, like the young Tolstoy, ‘was not above calling on ladies of easy virtue,’ and that this ‘will be documented by some later, less bashful biographer’. But can it be? asks Hingley. There is no evidence one way or another. De Mallac’s suggestion is illustrative of his tendency to try to get as close as possible to his subject and to exhibit him as like one of ourselves in all his lovable frailties. In fact, as Hingley recognises, there is something especially impenetrable in Pasternak’s personality: he is not at all an easy man to get to know, and the famous monologues to which he treated his friends as well as interviewers seem designed to hold them off while giving the impression of a deep and delphic intercourse.
But of course Pasternak’s celebration of life means that everything is transfigured in his eyes, and for his poetry, by the act of living. Meanness, anti-climax, ironic reversal – they seem not to exist in the vision of his art and of his being. His idealism offers a kind of parallel to early Soviet idealism, ignoring it, certainly not celebrating it, but not so far from it in the spirit. Mayakovsky, the official poet of the Revolution, passionately admired Pasternak’s poetry, and the older poet Bryusov, a shrewd critic who had also joined the Communist Party, wrote that it was ‘without its author’s knowledge saturated with modernity, and could only have crystallised in our conditions’. Pasternak himself remarked in a discussion of his first collection, My Sister Life: ‘I saw on earth a summer that seemed not to recognise itself ... as in a revelation. I left a book about it. In it I expressed all that can possibly be learnt of the most unprecedented, the most elusive aspects of the Revolution ... the feeling of eternity having come down to earth and popping up all over the place; that fairy-tale mood I sought to convey.’
This process of ‘making it strange’, as the Formalists would say, is conveyed in the selection of poems translated by Jon Stallworthy and Peter France, and in France’s excellent study Poets of Modern Russia, which besides that on Pasternak contains informative essays on Blok, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Mayakovsky, and the poets of today. A particularly admirable feature of this Cambridge series is that the Russian text is given before the translations. It’s a pity that this sound convention isn’t more generally followed in the now numerous books of translation from the Russian poetry of this time.
A pictorial analogy, perhaps the paintings of Van Gogh, seems apposite for the early poems of Pasternak, whose father was a well-known artist, and Hingley refers to Christopher Barnes’s suggestion that the painting of the Expressionist school – Munch, Kandin-sky, possibly Chagall – seeped sideways, as it were, into the young poet’s vision,
Where the air is as blue as a bundle of clothing
In the arms of a patient discharged from a clinic.
The poems had a breathtaking freshness which, as Hingley says, is of the kind which shows that the Russian language possessed resources which might have remained untapped if this poet had not taken up his pen. It is also in some degree leprechaun verse, lacking the quietness of feeling. That came later, as a result of persecution, but it is arguable that Pasternak the artist could only have strong feelings about himself. One looks in vain for anything like the infinitely touching little poem (‘We’ll sit together in the kitchen,/The white paraffin smells sweet’) which Mandelstam addressed to his wife at the time when his time was running out. Pasternak’s art is as lacking in intimacy as in humour – two qualities usually found together.
His inability, in the context of art, to examine himself or to take a close interest in others, is an all but fatal handicap to Pasternak as a novelist, but as an idealised autobiography Dr Zhivago has the same amazing freshness as the early poems – the awe and joy in both the verbal equivalent of the red figures dancing on Matisse’s great canvas in the Hermitage. There is a painful contrast between the Lara of Dr Zhivago (the freshness of the book sliding with fatal ease into the poshlost of the film) and the actual personality of Pasternak’s mistress, Olga Ivinskaya, on whom the dream projection is based. A shrewd, accurate and by no means uncharitable observer, Lidia Chukovskaya, who had been a colleague of Pasternak’s mistress on the staff of Novy Mir, recalled how ‘slovenly, pathologically mendacious, boorish’ she had seemed, and much given to vulgar boasting about her love affairs. A more serious accusation is that she had stolen the food parcels and money entrusted to her by a mutual friend for dispatch to a woman who remained in the Gulag, and whom Ivinskaya had known there before her own release. The poetess Akhmatova wished that those who knew or suspected this should tell Pasternak, but they refused, wishing to spare the poet’s feelings. It seems likely, in any case, that he would have paid little attention, for he was one of those geniuses for whom other people have no existence outside the one he has imagined for them. Other artists and their art had no real existence for him, not even Akhmatova herself, for whose work he professed great admiration, but without apparently having bothered to read it properly. Akhmatova saw this and forgave it, not however without remarking, in her quizzical way, that Pasternak’s behaviour could be ‘intolerable’.
All this, as Hingley says, is part of Russian literary folklore; and it is the kind of folklore which, given the peculiar conditions of Soviet literature, means a great deal to those who have taken part in it. It accreted round Pasternak precisely because his psychology did not mesh with it, because of what Edward Brown in Russian Literature since the Revolution calls ‘his long exile inside himself’. Brown’s beautifully informative study, now republished in a revised and considerably enlarged version, is incidentally a storehouse of such folklore, which becomes the more essential the more it keeps alive memory and memorial in such an age as these Russian writers lived through.
Pasternak’s personality, like Pushkin’s, does have that mysterious brightness which transcends the conditions in which they worked and the people they consorted with. Both poets were a mixture of shrewdness, compromise and ‘holy fool’: Pasternak’s relation to Stalin was not so very different from Pushkin’s with Nicholas I. But Pasternak had to do consciously and with painful craft what for Pushkin seems to have been instinctive: adapting himself to the regime while retaining wholeness of being. For Mandelstam and Akhmatova such a process was impossible. They either did their own thing, or else wrote, under compulsion, pieces in praise of Stalinism of such grotesque badness that no one was deceived. Pasternak was not like that. His attempts at work that would immortalise Revolutionary annals (always the emphasis on history as a seamless garment), The Year 1905 and Lieutenant Schmidt, had been popular, and they were serious attempts to reconcile a personal vision with a communal revolutionary one. As de Mallac points out, the attempt is more impressive though even more self-conscious in the 1932 collection of poems, Second Birth, in which ‘the poet states his intention of including “everything” – his past experiences, his present ideals and aspirations, his place as a poet in Soviet Russia.’ Where Pasternak is concerned, such an attitude is quite compatible with what the great Polish poet Milosz, himself a deep admirer of Pasternak’s poetry, called ‘a programmatic helplessness in the face of the world’, and ‘a carefully cultivated irrational attitude’.
Pasternak’s later sense of isolation, of abandonment in the Garden of Gethsemane, together with the messianic sense of being a chosen witness that went with it, arose as much as anything from the fact that in seeking to be all-inclusive he displeased both camps: both the Marxists, who found that his ‘civic poetry’ laid too much stress on ‘intimism’, and atavistic opponents like Akhmatova, who knew that true art can never be produced by enforced idealism and enforced communality. Pasternak in his own way soon came to know it too, and during the purge years adopted what Babel called ‘the genre of silence’, producing no original work but only translations. Nonetheless, his curiously ambivalent attitude to the regime, and especially to Stalin, persisted. Undoubtedly he was fascinated by Stalin, whom Mandelstam saw as a murderous and barbaric thug, and by the power he wielded, in the same way that Pushkin’s imagination had responded to power embodied in the statue of Tsar Peter. When Stalin’s wife died, by suicide or possibly by murder, 33 prominent writers published a letter of condolence in the Literary Gazette. Pasternak declined to add his name to this fulsome document but produced his own personal statement, added as a postscript. ‘I share the feelings of my comrades ... I was shaken exactly as though I had been present, as though I had lived through it and seen everything.’ This odd form of backing into the limelight may have gratified Stalin, establishing Pasternak as his personal poet-seer. When Pasternak received the famous phone-call from the Kremlin, asking for his views on Mandelstam, he expressed a wish to have a long talk with Stalin, ‘about love, about life, about death’, upon which the dictator rather naturally hung up.
Pasternak’s evasiveness about Mandelstam himself may have helped the other poet or not: opinions vary, and Mandelstam’s destruction was in any case imminent. What is certain is that news of the phone-call made all the hard-line functionaries of the Writers’ Union forget their hostility and fawn upon Pasternak. On the other hand, it is said that he refused to translate some youthful poems by Stalin, who had expressed the wish that he should do so. Apart from other considerations, he must have lost a lot of money from not doing this, for most of his income came from his translations and he had done many versions of Georgian poets, two of whom – friends of Pasternak’s – were killed in the purges.
His second wife, Zinaida Nikolaevna, remarked on Pasternak’s ‘tortuous meekness’ – a striking phrase from one whose lack of intellectual sympathy appears to have been deplored by his friends. What woman would have been worthy of the man who aroused in and expected from his friends the sort of worship that he did? As Hingley comments, Pasternak’s meekness, though perfectly genuine, is indistinguishable from ‘profound immodesty’. His self-disparagement, as his brilliant cousin Olga Friedenburg remarked, was a way of disguising vanity. The women in the life of a genius of this type both ‘see through and revere’. And yet Pasternak was genuinely humble, confused, even masochistic, essentially like Goethe’s good man who in all his difficulties knows the truth. And this in a very evil time. ‘Should one suffer without falling prey to any illusions,’ he wrote to an émigré, ‘or thrive while deceiving oneself and deceiving others?’ There is a special force of simplicity in his use of a Russian proverb in the last line of a famous poem. ‘Living your life is not like crossing a field.’ Certainly he had no appetite for disaster, and no need for it; he was no Baudelaire or Berryman, nor had any conventionally artistic bohemian tastes. Where marital complications were concerned he was exceptionally good at staying on the side-lines and leaving the women to fight it out. In his work habits he resembled his father, Leonid, who, though the most sociable and affectionate of friends and fathers, hated ‘having a good time’ in the sense understood by his fellow artists. Like his father and brother, Pasternak was in an important sense a professional man, needing quiet and space for his twelve-hour day as poet and translator, and he went to great lengths to hold on to the family flat in Moscow and to the dacha in Peredelkino that the Writers’ Union had awarded him. Mandelstam, a true bohemian in his way, was amused by its air of bourgeois comfort and stability.
The tormented poetess Tsvetaeva, who herself probably loved him, was probably thinking of herself when she said that Pasternak could never be happy in love. Certainly he reproached himself bitterly when she hanged herself in despair in 1941, evacuated to the godforsaken Tartar settlement of Elabuga, neglected by the Writers’ Union and, as he felt, by Pasternak himself. In those times one’s own life had somehow to be lived. Pasternak in fact fell in love with a good deal of prudence, preferring like a Turgenev hero the sort of strong women who either refused him outright or took him on in a businesslike spirit and without illusions. Olga Ivinskaya seems to have had a good deal in common with his second wife Zinaida Nikolaevna, who looked after him devotedly in the critical time before the war, and from whom he never became totally estranged. He needed women who possessed, in de Mallac’s quaintly expressed phrase, ‘a certain Telluric stability’. There are drawbacks to such women, as D.H. Lawrence found, and Pasternak needed much more than he the long hours of quiet concentration and craftsmanship. De Mallac, who in spite of his hagiographic approach has a knack for telling in a wide-eyed way the revealing story, describes a typical nocturnal scene at Peredelkino, with Pasternak shut up in his study, his wife playing cards and the gramophone and fortune-telling with Nina Tabidze, widow of the Georgian poet martyred in the purges, and Yury Krotkov, protégé of his fellow Georgian Lavrenty Beria, whose speciality in the KGB was blackmailing foreign diplomats by means of beautiful Soviet agents, called ‘swallows’ in secret-police jargon. Krotkov was also an author who wrote several anti-American plays including one called John, Soldier of Peace, based on the life of Paul Robeson. While Pasternak worked, this strangely-assorted group would sit up smoking and playing till dawn.
Hingley is detached, dry, basically unforthcoming: de Mallac enters into the legend with warmth and abandonment. With a story like Pasternak’s there is something to be said for this approach: in its loving recapitulation with all the trimmings, all the recollections, all the dévoué gossip, poshlost is inevitable, and one might as well meet it head-on. This de Mallac certainly does, understanding perhaps that in Russia as in California the thing can be done on an heroic scale and not just as in the Reader’s Digest. If you are writing about a modern saint it is not unfitting to do it in a traditionally hagiographical manner. Thus we are told: ‘During his walks he stopped to talk to those he met, gazing at them with his large radiant dark-hazel eyes with an air of trustfulness. To the children who sometimes followed him he gave candy from the supply stuffed in his pockets.’ This, in a sense, is the price the poet pays for the wholeness of his being, for the fact that biography and autobiography, gossip and reminiscence, are all involved in the vision of life that he saw, that he wished to give and be. A far from sympathetic Soviet critic, Zelinsky, grudgingly admitted that no writer of the age had given such intense realisation in his art to the Russian ideal of zhivaya zhizn – ‘living life’ – although this quality of ‘inner wholeness’ had to be ‘bought at the price of biography’.
This is a profound judgment, as is Zelinsky’s other, sharper comment that the poems in Pasternak’s Second Birth are ‘full of the hieroglyphs of his biography’. And the critic wrote that long before the ballyhoo began. In such a poem as ‘The Garden of Gethsemane’ Pasternak seems to give himself to biographical poshlost with the impassive fervour of Christ surrendering himself to the servants of the high priest. In a bargain of such totality good taste cannot be included, any more than with Tolstoy or St Francis, and their life and work do not include their biography in the determined sense that Pasternak’s seem to. Thus there is a certain rightness and inevitability in Milosz’s prediction that there will one day be a statue of Pasternak in Moscow, and even in the way in which de Mallac takes leave of his hero in the churchyard, where ‘the grave has been kept meticulously clean by one of Pasternak’s devoted admirers – an ordinary workman in baggy trousers and muddy shoes.’ As John Strachey enthusiastically wrote in a 1963 Observer piece, ‘Pasternak’s Children’, annual pilgrimage is made from Moscow to the Peredelkino cemetery, and sometimes young girls sing the poem ‘Winter Night’, accompanying themselves on the guitar.
All poets, as Auden wrote in his poem on Yeats, ‘become their admirers’, but Pasternak has done so in a specially complete and sacrificial way. Even his remarkable face, like that of a soulful horse, seems ours now and not his, reproduced as it is in its sombrely conscientious grandeur on almost every page of de Mallac’s narrative. His father, also a remarkably handsome man, but in a more conventional style, recounts in his memoirs how he was asked in his youth by a famous artist to sit for a picture of Pushkin’s Don Juan. That could not have happened to his son, who resembled no one but his own photographs, and his identification with them becomes oppressive after we have been exposed to so many. This lends a certain pathos to one of the most interesting comments that Pasternak ever made on his art, in a letter in English to Stephen Spender: ‘Nineteenth-century art, either in painting or poetry but above all in the great novels of the period, is fixed in narratives which are irrevocable, like verdicts or sentences, beyond recall.’ The fixedness is that of the individual, the Flaubert, the Dickens, the Tolstoy. In Dr Zhivago life itself is the hero, and may at any time go in any direction, determined by the living play of coincidence. Nothing in a sense ‘happened’ to Zhivago, or it does not matter what happened; events do not determine his individuality.
The architects of the Revolution wished to construct such fixed 19th-century-style narratives, and in their theories and actions there is, as Zhivago reflects, ‘everything that is rejected by life itself’. Pasternak’s aesthetic has a certain logic about it, but in practice both the art and the artist (as the photographs show) remained intensely self-conscious – more so if possible than those narratives and individuals of the 19th century. In any case, when we say of a work of art that there is ‘life’ in it (still a good and ready criterion), we do not mean that it has been deliberately constructed to embody life. Pasternak takes to the limit of self-consciousness the idea that is implicit in all realistic narrative, although his art, his novel, and particularly his poetry, are not oppressed by the theory in them. Yet his life itself now is, because the biography on which his art depends can never become ‘life’ as he understood it. Our Pasternak is bound to be an imitation.