Archive for February 1st, 2011

Boris Pasternak: Family Correspondence: British praise, American silence … so far

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011
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Portrait of the artist as a young man: cover painting by Leonid Pasternak, the Nobel laureate's father

In general, Hoover Press isn’t known for its groundbreaking literary fare — its more usual titles embrace such topics as Social Security: The Unfinished Work and The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East. So last summer, as I attended a reception for the appearance of Boris Pasternak: Family Correspondence, 1921-1960, I wondered how how much press attention the first English of the Nobel laureate’s family letters would get.

So here’s the upshot:  some reviews in top-notch British literary journals — The Times Literary Supplement and The Literary Review; zip in America. All the votes have not been cast, of course — the slower literary journals may yet make an appearance (perhaps they’re teaming it up with the new Peavear/Volokhonsky translation of Doctor Zhivago, but the surprise is that some of the more mainstream dailies on both sides of the Atlantic have ignored it.

Or rather, not a surprise.  The point is (and here is where I turn into a scold), that is exactly what the prominent reviewers and their editors used to do: ferret out the good from a basket of seasonal rubbish.  But book reviews have been shaved and then butchered; unemployed and hungry literary critics are feeding out of dumpsters.

That’s the bad news.  Here’s the good.  The book has received two awards: the American Library Association’s  Choice award for Outstanding Academic Title for 2010.  It also received the BookBuilders West prize.

One American has written about the book:  moi.  Here’s what I wrote about the book last summer (the rest is here):

The newly published correspondence is important: The Pasternak family was a close-knit one, and leading figures like Leo Tolstoy were family friends. Boris’ father, Leonid Pasternak, was an important post-Impressionist painter, and his mother, an accomplished pianist; they immigrated to Germany in 1921. After 1923, Pasternak was never to see his parents or two sisters again, except for one visit with a sister.

Slater said he originally began translating these letters out of a feeling of family loyalty. Pasternak did not write much about arrests, imprisonments and executions, but his intimate letters to his family have been considered works of art in themselves.

As the Nazis took power in Germany, Pasternak’s Jewish parents began to consider returning to Russia. According to Slater, “Boris found himself writing contorted letters in which he on the one hand assured his parents that he would love to have them living with him, and that they wouldn’t be a burden, but simultaneously tried his hardest to dissuade them from coming – since he knew, but couldn’t tell them, that their lives would be in danger if they came.

“I don’t think they understood his hints, and they probably did find him a bit inhospitable.” (They took refuge with Slater’s parents at Oxford instead.)

The book has, at least, gotten a few favorable reviews in the British press.  Peter France, writing in the Times Literary Supplement:

“It is not a complete translation, and one may regret the omission of certain passages discussing poems in detail, and above all the natural decision to focus on the letters of Pasternak himself. But the translator, Nicolas Pasternak Slater, the poet’s nephew, has done an admirable job, writing with enough freedom to bring across the meaning strongly, but enough faithfulness to convey something of the sheer oddity of Pasternak’s range: his exalted tone, his obscurity and his idiosyncratic eloquence. …

At Hoover reception: Anastasia Pasternak, great-granddaughter of the poet; Oxford scholar Ann Pasternak Slater, niece of the poet; Maya Slater, editor of the new volume, and her husband Nicolas Pasternak Slater, translator of the new volume and nephew of the poet. Anastasia Pasternak, great-granddaughter of the poet; Oxford scholar Ann Pasternak Slater, niece of the poet; Maya Slater, editor of the new volume, and her husband Nicolas Pasternak Slater, translator of the new volume and nephew of the poet.

Boris Pasternak has sometimes been seen as a happy man who survived miraculously when his fellow writers were meeting tragic fates.  What comes over most strongly here, however, is the sheer difficulty of his life: the anxiety, fear and depression with which he struggled for decades. … It was an increasingly hard place to be, with the arbitrary arrests, exiles, and executions, the horrors of collectivization, and, less tangibly, what Pasternak calls ‘the dark night of materialism.'”

And George Gömöri (one of the contributors, incidentally, to An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz … couldn’t resist the plug for my book), wrote in the Literary Review’s “Prisoner of Peredelkino” that the new volume of letters “will remain an indispensable source of information for future biographers” writes that Pasternak’s fortunes worsened considerably after the trial and execution of Nikolai Bukharin (we’ve written about that here, following the publication of Paul Gregory‘s engrossing book on the subject, The Story of Nikolai Bukharin and Anna Larina, last year).

One American had some nice words to say about the kudos drifting in from awards committees — even if from the very farthest corner of America, the far-flung islands to the west. John Stephan, professor emeritus of the University of Hawaii wrote:

“The Pasternak book richly deserves the awards. It’s a pleasure to see intellectual integrity and scholarly quality win public recognition.

It’s a marvelous work, rich in literary and historical insights, meticulously edited and handsomely produced.  Its utility for researchers is enhanced by an excellent index–notable not only for completeness and accuracy but for bio info (years of birth & death–and in some cases manner of death) of each individual mentioned in the text.  A standard all editors should emulate.”