Issue 24, Summer-Fall 1960
Fragment of a letter from Boris Pasternak to a fellow poet:
“The melodic authenticity of most of your work is very dear to me, as is your faithfulness to the principle of melody and to “ascent” in the supreme sense that Alexander Blok gave that word.
"You will understand from a reading of my most recent works that I, too, am under the power of the same influence, but we must try to make sure that, as in Alexander Blok, this note works, reveals, incarnates, and expresses thoughts to their ultimate clarity, instead of being only a reminder of sounds which originally charmed us, an inconsequential echo dying in the air.”
I decided to visit Boris Pasternak about ten days after my arrival in Moscow one January. I had heard much about him from my parents, who had known him for many years, and I had heard and loved his poems since my earliest years.
I had messages and small presents to take to him from my parents and from other admirers. But Pasternak had no phone, I discovered in Moscow. I dismissed the thought of writing a note as too impersonal. I feared that in view of the volume of his correspondence he might have some sort of standard rejection form for requests to visit him. It took a great effort to call unannounced on a man so famous. I was afraid that Pasternak in later years would not live up to my image of him suggested by his poems—lyric, impulsive, above all youthful.
My parents had mentioned that when they saw Pasternak in 1957, just before he received the Nobel Prize, he had held open house on Sundays—a tradition among Russian writers which extends to Russians abroad. As an adolescent in Paris, I remember being taken to call on the writer Remizov and the famous philosopher Berdyayev on Sunday afternoons.
On my second Sunday in Moscow I suddenly decided to go to Peredelkino. It was a radiant day, and in the center of the city, where I stayed, the fresh snow sparkled against the Kremlin’s gold cupolas. The streets were full of sightseers—out-of-town families bundled in peasant-like fashion walking toward the Kremlin. Many carried bunches of fresh mimosa—sometimes one twig at a time. On winter Sundays large shipments of mimosa are brought to Moscow. Russians buy them to give to one another or simply to carry, as if to mark the solemnity of the day.
I decided to take a taxi to Peredelkino, although I knew of an electric train which went from the Kiev railroad station near the outskirts of Moscow. I was suddenly in a great hurry to get there, although I had been warned time and again by knowledgeable Muscovites of Pasternak’s unwillingness to receive foreigners. I was prepared to deliver my messages and perhaps shake his hand and turn back.
The cab driver, a youngish man with the anonymous air of taxi drivers everywhere, assured me that he knew Peredelkino very well—it was about thirty kilometers out on the Kiev highway. The fare would be about thirty rubles (about three dollars). He seemed to find it completely natural that I should want to drive out there on that lovely sunny day.
But the driver’s claim to know the road turned out to be a boast, and soon we were lost. We had driven at fair speed along the four-lane highway free of snow and of billboards or gas stations. There were a few discreet road signs but they failed to direct us to Peredelkino, and so we began stopping whenever we encountered anyone to ask directions. Everyone was friendly and willing to help, but nobody seemed to know of Peredelkino. We drove for a long time on an unpaved, frozen road through endless white fields. Finally we entered a village from another era, in complete contrast with the immense new apartment houses in the outskirts of Moscow—low, ancient-looking log cottages bordering a straight main street. A horse-drawn sled went by; kerchiefed women were grouped near a small wooden church. We found we were in a settlement very close to Peredelkino. After a ten-minute drive on a small winding road through dense evergreens I was in front of Pasternak’s house. I had seen photographs of it in magazines and suddenly there it was on my right: brown, with bay windows, standing on a slope against a background of fir trees and overlooking the road by which we had accidentally entered the town.
Peredelkino is a loosely settled little town, hospitable-looking and cheerful at sunny midday. Many writers and artists live in it year-round in houses provided, as far as I know, for their lifetimes, and there is a large rest home for writers and journalists run by the Soviet Writers’ Union. But part of the town still belongs to small artisans and peasants and there is nothing “arty” in the atmosphere.
Chukovsky, the famous literary critic and writer of children’s books, lives there in a comfortable and hospitable house lined with books—he runs a lovely small library for the town’s children. Constantin Fedin, one of the best known of living Russian novelists, lives next door to Pasternak. He is now the secretary general of the Writers’ Union—a post long held by Alexander Fadeev, who also lived here until his death in 1956. Later, Pasternak showed me Isaac Babel’s house, where he was arrested in the late 1930s and to which he never returned.
Pasternak’s house was on a gently curving country road which leads down the hill to a brook. On that sunny afternoon the hill was crowded with children on skis and sleds, bundled like teddy bears. Across the road from the house was a large fenced field—a communal field cultivated in summer; now it was a vast white expanse dominated by a little cemetery on a hill, like a bit of background out of a Chagall painting. The tombs were surrounded by wooden fences painted a bright blue, the crosses were planted at odd angles, and there were bright pink and red paper flowers half buried in the snow. It was a cheerful cemetery.
The house’s veranda made it look much like an American frame house of forty years ago, but the firs against which it stood marked it as Russian. They grew very close together and gave the feeling of deep forest, although there were only small groves of them around the town.
I paid the driver and with great trepidation pushed open the gate separating the garden from the road and walked up to the dark house. At the small veranda to one side there was a door with a withered, half-torn note in English pinned on it saying, “I am working now. I cannot receive anybody, please go away.” After a moment’s hesitation I chose to disregard it, mostly because it was so old-looking and also because of the little packages in my hands. I knocked, and almost immediately the door was opened—by Pasternak himself.
He was wearing an astrakhan hat. He was strikingly handsome; with his high cheek-bones and dark eyes and fur hat he looked like someone out of a Russian tale. After the mounting anxiety of the trip I suddenly felt relaxed—it seemed to me that I had never really doubted that I would meet Pasternak.
I introduced myself as Olga Andreev, Vadim Leonidovitch’s daughter, using my father’s semiformal name. It is made up of his own first name and his father’s, the short-story writer and playwright, Leonid, author of the play He Who Gets Slapped and The Seven That Were Hanged, etc. Andreev is a fairly common Russian name.
It took Pasternak a minute to realize that I had come from abroad to visit him. He greeted me with great warmth, taking my hand in both of his, and asking about my mother’s health and my father’s writing, and when I was last in Paris, and looking closely into my face in search of family resemblances. He was going out to pay some calls. Had I been a moment later I would have missed him. He asked me to walk part of the way with him—as far as his first stop, at the Writers’ Club.
While Pasternak was getting ready to go I had a chance to look around the simply furnished dining room into which I had been shown. From the moment I had stepped inside I had been struck by the similarity of the house to Leo Tolstoy’s house in Moscow, which I had visited the day before. The atmosphere in both combined austerity and hospitality in a way which I think must have been characteristic of a Russian intellectual’s home in the nineteenth century. The furniture was comfortable, but old and unpretentious. The rooms looked ideal for informal entertaining, for children’s gatherings, for the studious life. Although it was extremely simple for its period, Tolstoy’s house was bigger and more elaborate than Pasternak’s, but the unconcern about elegance or display was the same.
Usually, one walked into Pasternak’s house through the kitchen, where one was greeted by a tiny, smiling, middle-aged cook who helped to brush the snow off one’s clothes. Then came the dining room with a bay window where geraniums grew. On the walls hung charcoal studies by Leonid Pasternak, the writer’s painter father. There were life-studies and portraits. One recognized Tolstoy, Gorky, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff. There were sketches of Boris Pasternak and his brother and sisters as children, of ladies in big hats with veils… . It was very much the world of Pasternak’s early reminiscences, that of his poems about adolescent love.
Pasternak was soon ready to go. We stepped out into the brilliant sunlight and walked through the evergreen grove behind the house in rather deep snow which sifted into my low-cut boots.
Soon we were on a packed road, much more comfortable for walking although it had treacherous, icy patches. Pasternak took long, lanky steps. On particularly perilous spots he would take my arm; otherwise he gave all his attention to the conversation. Walks are an established part of life in Russia—like drinking tea or lengthy philosophical discussions—a part he apparently loved. We took what was obviously a very roundabout path to the Writers’ Club. The stroll lasted for about forty minutes. He first plunged into an elaborate discussion of the art of translating. He would stop from time to time to ask about the political and literary situations in France and in the United States. He said that he rarely read papers—“Unless I sharpen my pencil and glance over the sheet of newspaper into which I collect the shavings. This is how I learned last fall that there was a near revolution against de Gaulle in Algeria, and that Soustelle was ousted—Soustelle was ousted,” he repeated—a rough translation of his words, emphasizing both approval of de Gaulle’s decision and the similarity in the words as he spoke them. But actually he seemed remarkably well informed about literary life abroad; it seemed to interest him greatly.
From the first moment I was charmed and impressed by the similarity of Pasternak’s speech to his poetry—full of alliterations and unusual images. He related words to each other musically, without however at any time sounding affected or sacrificing the exact meaning. For somebody acquainted with his verse in Russian, to have conversed with Pasternak is a memorable experience. His word sense was so personal that one felt the conversation was somehow the continuation, the elaboration of a poem, a rushed speech, with waves of words and images following one another in a crescendo.
Later, I remarked to him on the musical quality of his speech. “In writing as in speaking,” he said, “the music of the word is never just a matter of sound. It does not result from the harmony of vowels and consonants. It results from the relation between the speech and its meaning. And meaning—content—must always lead.”
Often I found it difficult to believe that I was speaking to a man of seventy; Pasternak appeared remarkably young and in good health. There was something a little strange and forbidding in this youthfulness as if something—was it art?—had mixed itself with the very substance of the man to preserve him. His movements were completely youthful—the gestures of the hands, the manner in which he threw his head back. His friend, the poetess Marina Tsvetaeva, once wrote, “Pasternak looks at the same time like an Arab and like his horse.” And indeed, with his dark complexion and somehow archaic features Pasternak did have something of an Arabic face. At certain moments he seemed suddenly to become aware of the impact of his own extraordinary face, of his whole personality. He seemed to withdraw for an instant, half closing his slanted brown eyes, turning his head away, vaguely reminiscent of a horse balking.
I had been told by some writers in Moscow—most of them didn’t know him personally—that Pasternak was a man in love with his own image. But then I was told many contradictory things about him in the few days I spent in Moscow. Pasternak seemed a living legend—a hero for some, a man who had sold out to the enemies of Russia for others. Intense admiration for his poetry among writers and artists was universal. It was the title character of Doctor Zhivago that seemed most controversial. “Nothing but a worn-out intellectual of no interest whatsoever,” said a well-known young poet, otherwise very liberal-minded and a great admirer of Pasternak’s poetry.
In any event, I found that there was no truth to the charge that Pasternak was an egocentric. On the contrary, he seemed intensely aware of the world around him and reacted to every change of mood in people near him. It is hard to imagine a more perceptive conversationalist. He grasped the most elusive thought at once. The conversation lost all heaviness. Pasternak asked questions about my parents. Although he had seen them but a few times in his life, he remembered everything about them and their tastes. He recalled with surprising exactness some of my father’s poems which he had liked. He wanted to know about writers I knew—Russians in Paris, and French, and Americans. American literature seemed particularly to interest him, although he knew only the important names. I soon discovered that it was difficult to make him talk about himself, which I had hoped he would do.
As we walked in the sunshine, I told Pasternak what interest and admiration Doctor Zhivago had aroused in the West and particularly in the United States, despite the fact that in my and many others’ opinion the translation into English did not do justice to his book.
“Yes,” he said, “I am aware of this interest and I am immensely happy, and proud of it. I get an enormous amount of mail from abroad about my work. In fact, it is quite a burden at times, all those inquiries that I have to answer, but then it is indispensable to keep up relations across boundaries. As for the translators of Doctor Zhivago, do not blame them too much. It’s not their fault. They are used, like translators everywhere, to reproduce the literal sense rather than the tone of what is said—and of course it is the tone that matters. Actually, the only interesting sort of translation is that of classics. There is challenging work. As far as modern writing is concerned, it is rarely rewarding to translate it, although it might be easy. You said you were a painter. Well, translation is very much like copying paintings. Imagine yourself copying a Malevich; wouldn’t it be boring? And that is precisely what I have to do with the well-known Czech surrealist Nezval. He is not really bad, but all this writing of the twenties has terribly aged. This translation which I have promised to finish and my own correspondence take much too much of my time.”
Do you have difficulty receiving your mail?
“At present I receive all of it, everything sent me, I assume. There’s a lot of it—which I’m delighted to receive, though I’m troubled by the volume of it and the compulsion to answer it all.
“As you can imagine, some of the letters I get about Doctor Zhivago are quite absurd. Recently somebody writing about Doctor Zhivago in France was inquiring about the plan of the novel. I guess it baffles the French sense of order… . But how silly, for the plan of the novel is outlined by the poems accompanying it. This is partly why I chose to publish them alongside the novel. They are there also to give the novel more body, more richness. For the same reason I used religious symbolism—to give warmth to the book. Now some critics have gotten so wrapped up in those symbols—which are put in the book the way stoves go into a house, to warm it up—they would like me to commit myself and climb into the stove.”