Posts Tagged ‘Boris Pasternak’

News that’s not news: CIA funded Dr. Zhivago

Monday, April 7th, 2014
Share
pasternak

No trip to Stockholm. (Photo courtesy Hoover Institution)

The internet is all abuzz with the news that the CIA funded Boris Pasternak‘s classic Doctor Zhivago.

Except that this is not news. I wrote about Pasternak, who was awarded a 1958 Nobel Prize that the U.S.S.R. would not allow him to accept, here.  An excerpt from the 2007 article, featuring a Stanford conference on Pasternak’s famous book:

The Nobel lightning bolt came not a moment too soon for Pasternak. Dark political clouds had been gathering around him. Without the prize, the poet might have faced more obvious persecution—poet Osip Mandelstam died in a prison camp, poet Marina Tsvetaeva was hounded to her suicide. Both were friends of Pasternak.

Doctor Zhivago was published in Milan. Albert Camus, who won the 1957 Nobel Prize in literature, nominated it for a Nobel. However, the book required publication in its original language to be considered. There was little financial motive for a non-Russian publisher to publish a book in Russian, and huge disincentives for Russian publishers, who faced long imprisonment in a very cold place—or worse. In recent years, researcher Ivan Tolstoi has revealed details of how the CIA financed a Russian translation of the book. Tolstoi is one of the speakers at the Stanford event. He will be speaking in Russian on a panel. A discussion in English will follow.

Tolstoi told the Moscow News this year that “both sides during the Cold War used different methods, but as for ideological subversion of Soviet power, the Americans always used above-board methods. Instead of using poison, derailing trains and kidnapping, the CIA subverted the Kremlin by Russian culture, which the Soviets were prohibited to know or remember.”

“Thanks to the fact that Pasternak won the Nobel Prize, Pasternak wasn’t arrested,” Tolstoi told Radio Free Europe last year. “This deed by the CIA served to ennoble and save Pasternak. The actions of American intelligence saved a great Russian poet.”

The CIA similarly published Mandelstam, Akhmatova and others. “Such a reprehensible organization—and such nice deeds,” Tolstoi told the Moscow News. “How is that for thinking evil, but doing good.”

At the 1958 Brussels World Fair, copies of Doctor Zhivago were distributed by a Russian-speaking priest at the Vatican Pavilion. The ground nearby was reportedly littered with the dark-blue binding. Russians tore it off so the book could be divided in half, one for each pocket—it was a huge book, and Russians could assume they were being watched. With samizdat redistribution in the Soviet Union, it achieved fame on the underground book market.

Pasternak's_Doctor_Zhivago_-_Flickr_-_The_Central_Intelligence_Agency

Skip the movie. Read the book.

It would be 30 years before the book was published in its native land. Its launch heralded the collapse of the Soviet Union and of the “Warsaw bloc” of socialist countries.

[Nikita] Khrushchev, after his own fall from power, expressed regret for the hounding of Pasternak. He had entrusted the matter to others, he said, and only realized later, when he had had a chance to look through the book himself, that he had been misled.

“In connection with Doctor Zhivago, some might say it’s too late for me to express regret that the book wasn’t published,” Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs. “Yes, maybe it is too late. But better late than never.”

It was known that the CIA was underwriting other efforts, such as the YMCA Press in Paris, which published Aleksander Solzhenitsyn‘s astonishing Gulag Archipelago. That’s what made the work of Ardis so astonishing – it didn’t.

So what’s new?  The Washington Post article here makes use of 130 newly declassified CIA documents that detail the agency’s secret involvement in the printing, so it’s worth a read. It’s just not the lightning bolt it’s made out to be.

George Kline: scholar, translator, and chronicler of Soviet bugaboos

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013
Share

In 1974…

George L. Kline is someone you’ve likely never heard of, unless you have an interest in Russian philosophy,” writes Michael McIntyre over at “Extravagant Creation.”

Well, that’s not quite true.  Those of us who know Russian poetry will know his translations of Joseph Brodsky, and perhaps also of Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetaeva, and others.  The Eric Voegelin scholar Paul Caringella alerted me to McIntyre’s 2010 post, which celebrates my Bryn Mawr friend and correspondent:

What’s so great about reading Kline is that you are not only learning at the hands of someone who has thoroughly mastered his field, you are doing so via writing that is at once scholarly and accessible, that doesn’t take ten pages to explain what only needs one page.  Kline’s monographs are few in number – he seems to prefer writing articles and book chapters – and relatively brief in length.

In the academic world of publish-or-perish overproduction, that comes as a splash of sanity.  McIntyre is attuned to a side of my scholarly  friend that I had overlooked – for example, his 1968 book Religious and Anti-Religious Thought in Russia (University of Chicago Press).  To my shame, I didn’t know George had written such a book, but I immediately made amends by ordering it for $5.60 on Abebooks.

A “chamber of horrors”?

The history George describes is a fascinating one:

Some former churches – notably the former Kazan Cathedral in Leningrad – were turned into anti-religious museums that included “chambers of horrors” exhibits that graphically portrayed torture practices used during the Spanish Inquisition.  In 1960 alone, half a million people visited the anti-religious museum in Leningrad; many groups of children were sent there by their schools and they were treated to guided tours by museum staff who provided them with extensive anti-religious commentary.  Religious instruction for children was restricted to private homes only, in groups of three or less.  Since 1962, children could be baptized only if both parents applied for it, and both parents supplied a certificate from their workplace or place of residence (the issuers of these certificates were expected to do all they could to try to dissuade the “misguided” parents).

From the posts of some of my more virulently anti-religious Facebook friends, one would think that the “chamber of horrors” is overdue for revival.  In any case, one could see why Joseph Brodsky’s “Elegy to John Donne” was such a knock-out punch in the U.S.S.R., and why George was so swept away by it, as the Book Haven explained yesterday.  Take, for example, the concluding lines of the poem:

Man’s garment gapes with holes. It can be torn,
… And only the far sky,
in darkness, brings the healing needle home.
Sleep, John Donne, sleep. Sleep soundly, do not fret
your soul. As for your coat, it’s torn; all limp
it hangs.  But see, there from the clouds will shine
that Star which made your world endure till now.

I’ve benefited greatly over the years from George’s tireless generosity, scholarly precision, and remarkable experiences.  So have others.  From “George L. Kline: An Appreciation,” included in the 1994 book Russian Thought After Communism : The Recovery of a Philosophical Heritage (edited by James P. Scanlan):

In many ways as important as Kline’s formal teaching is the informal help he has provided to a multitude of students and colleagues in the field, not only in the United States but throughout the world.  Anyone who has sought George Kline’s advice or assistance on some matter relating to Russian philosophy is fully aware of his remarkable readiness to share information from his vast store of knowledge, go over a translation, review a paper, or comment on a research project – all with the most careful and patient attention, the highest scholarly standards, and the most humane sensitivity to the needs and interests of others.

It’s a joy to discover people like George L. Kline!

Couldn’t agree more.

Nabokov on Lolita: “I leave the field of ideas to Dr. Schweitzer and Dr. Zhivago.”

Monday, February 27th, 2012
Share

I had never heard Vladimir Nabokov speak, until I ran across this video while reading up my post a few days ago. In this late-1950s video, Nabokov discusses his novel Lolita – or appears to – with an unnamed moderator and the critic and author Lionel Trilling. I suspect much of what he’s saying is a leg-pull. If these comments and questions are typical of the kinds of interviews he faced, it’s no wonder he skived off to Switzerland with the cash he made on the appalling film version of Lolita with Sue Lyon.  (And the comments on the youtube video are a good indication of why he stayed.)

I learned a few things from these videos: According to Mr. Nabokov, I am a philistine.  I confess that I am, on occasion, “a user of cozies” – tea cozies, anyway.  Who knew it was so easy? On those who think his book is about sex? “But maybe they think in clichés. For them sex is so well-defined there’s a gap between it and love. They don’t know what love is, and perhaps they don’t know what sex is, either.” What does it all mean? “I leave the field of ideas to Dr. [Albert] Schweitzer and Dr. Zhivago.” He doesn’t miss a chance to get in a dig at Boris Pasternak.

Postscript on 3/8:  The Book Haven attracts a very broad readership, but never before have we attracted a fan from the tea cozy world.  This from a reader who identifies himself/herself only as FlockofTeaCosy: “This video is from Close Up, a CBC programme from the 1950s, and Nabokov is being interviewed by Trilling and Canadian author Pierre Berton.” There you have it. The name of the third man in the clips.  (And check out the avant-garde tea cozies here.) And from one of our more usual readers, Elena Danielson, “I think Nabokov would approve of your tea cozies – but not of Pasternak.” See their comments below.

New poems, old stories: Robert Conquest balances “the inhuman reign of the lie” with naughty verse

Monday, December 26th, 2011
Share

Conquest at work (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

When Christopher Hitchens died this month, I thought immediately of Robert Conquest and his wife, Elizabeth, who were close friends of the renowned journalist and author. Believe it or not, Hitchens used to spend a good deal of time in Palo Alto – his wife’s family, as I recall.

No, Bob did not have anything he wanted to share publicly in memoriam; he is not of the “sharing” generation who tweets his thoughts.  But there’s plenty else that is public.

Britain’s Standpoint is printing ten poems from Bob’s new book of light verse: Blokesongs and Blokelore from Old Fred, which will be out from the U.K.’s Waywiser Press in May.  You can read them here.

Here’s the nasty truth: I’ve never been attracted to “light verse.” Limericks are lost on me.  I’ve never, really, seen the point.  But Bob Conquest has devoted years to them, and it occurred to me that the silly poems are a necessary release from his groundbreaking historical work on the effects of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe – the work that earned him an Order of Merit from Poland in 2009.

Maybe it’s not a coincidence that, at almost the same moment Standpoint published the new poems, the Daily Beast published Bob’s analysis of the current crisis with the Russian anti-Putin protests following the Dec. 4 elections.

The upshot of the article: “The present regime may have abandoned the compulsive economic ideologies of the Communist past, but it has not developed anything like an open society.”  It comes down to a peculiar relationship to truth:

Honored in 2009

After the disaster of collectivization [1929–33], the leadership had two options: either to admit failure and change policy—perhaps even to relinquish total power—or to pretend that success had been achieved. Falsification took place on a barely credible scale, in every sphere. Real facts, honest statistics, disappeared. History, especially that of the Communist Party, was rewritten. Unpersons vanished from the official record. A spurious past and a fictitious present were imposed on the captive minds of the Soviet people. To focus solely on the physical manifestations of the Communist terror—the killings, the deportations, the people who were driven to suicide—would be to overlook the larger context: what Boris Pasternak called “the inhuman reign of the lie.” Until Gorbachev came to power, the country lived a double existence—an official world of fantasy, grand achievements, wonderful statistics, liberty, democracy, all juxtaposed with a reality of gloom, suffering, terror, denunciation, and apparatchik degeneration.

When lies become part of the national fabric, the result was a thoroughly corrupted society:

Sakharov nailed it. (Photo: RIA Novosti)

Sakharov described the problem in the late 1970s: “A deeply cynical caste has come into being, one which I consider dangerous (to itself as well as to all mankind)—a sick society ruled by two principles: blat [a little slang word meaning ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’], and the popular saw: ‘No use banging your head against the wall.’ But beneath the petrified surface of our society exist cruelty on a mass scale, lawlessness, the absence of civil rights protecting the average man against the authorities, and the latter’s total unaccountability toward their own people or the whole world.”

The Soviet bureaucracy’s reaction to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster demonstrated what Sakharov had been talking about. As David Remnick later noted in The New Yorker, it was typical of the regime that plant director Viktor Bryukhanov, on being told that the reactor’s radiation was millions of times higher than normal, replied that the meter was obviously defective and must be thrown away. Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina rejected a suggestion to order a mass evacuation. “Panic is worse than radiation,” he said.

So what’s changed in 2011?  As everywhere, technology makes certain lies untenable:

Russians are used to electoral fraud. There were never any expectations that the Dec. 4 elections would be carried out with complete honesty, any more than Russia’s past votes were. But this time, instances of ballot irregularity were recorded by mobile devices and then posted on the Internet, to which more than 40 percent of Russians now have access. Outrage—and calls to protest—flashed from computer to computer. Political discourse is thriving in blogs, tweets, posts to Facebook, uploads to YouTube—challenging the regime’s old-media monopoly on news and opinion.

Read it all here.

 

The trail of “an Arab and his horse”: Poet Boris Pasternak, artist Leonid Pasternak, and Oxford

Sunday, November 20th, 2011
Share

The poet as a boy, 1898 (Photo: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)

The poet Marina Tsvetaeva said that fellow poet Boris Pasternak looked like “an Arab and his horse.”

He does, really.  It’s an amazing, slightly Asiatic face.

I had ample opportunity to gaze at the visage of the Nobel laureate at the Ashmolean Museum, in the inconspicuous Print Room in a secluded corner on the second floor.

Not enough people know the author of Dr. Zhivago – for example, that he was primarily a poet, not novelist – but even fewer know the prominent members of his family.  His father, Leonid Pasternak (1862-1945), was a brilliant painter and friend of the Tolstoys.

In the Print Room, the helpful librarians brought out a large portfolio of the artist’s chalk and watercolor sketches and paintings of his family, of the leading figures of his times, of still lifes and landscapes.  With the white cotton gloves the museum provided, I lifted and examined each in turn, including portraits of Albert Einstein, Rainer Maria Rilke, and others.

I met the Pasternak family during the Pasternak celebration at Stanford last year (I wrote about it here). I was delighted to renew the acquaintance with two of them in Oxford – Ann Pasternak Slater and Catherine Oppenheimer, both nieces of the poet and granddaughters of the artist.  Catherine is an eminent psychiatrist; Ann is professor emeritus of English literature at Oxford (she is currently writing about Evelyn Waugh).

Ann is also a formidable critic, and a matchless champion for Pasternak’s work.  She wrote last year in The Guardian:

As a public speaker he was incomprehensible. His work is notoriously hard to translate. …

Pasternak’s work is also difficult because his mind-set is unpredictably complex, evocatively associative, synaesthetic and polysemous. His vocabulary is exceptionally wide, and his intellect has a pronounced metaphysical cast. In an uncollected letter to TS Eliot, Pasternak explores their shared aesthetic in ambitiously faulty English. Eliot’s art, he writes, like his own, is “a casually broken off fragment of the density of being itself; of the hylomorphic matter of existence . . .” Pasternak became much more accessible in his later work. Doctor Zhivago was suicidally vivid and forthright. The poems that accompany it are translucent.

"The Yellow Tree: Autumn Landscape," 1918 (Photo: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)

From his schooldays, Pasternak tells us, Yury Zhivago had dreamed of writing “a book of impressions of life in which he would conceal, like sticks of dynamite, the most striking things he had so far seen”. Doctor Zhivago was that book. It was packed with dynamite and, as Pasternak expected, it blew up in his face.

I talk a little about that explosion here.

I had lunch with Ann and Catherine in the former’s Oxford home, which is almost a museum of their grandfather’s artwork.  (A link for the Pasternak trust is here.) Of course we talked about the translations of the poet (Ann dissed the newest Pevear-Volokhonsky translation in the article I’ve quoted).

Ann describes her uncle’s poetry this way: “Boris’s poetry is formally rich, regularly rhymed, and metrically precise. It is full of delectable assonances, at once musical and wholly natural. My mother’s first priority was to reproduce his aural effects. She did. This difficult demand inevitably exacted its own price. Her English is flawed – it sounds Russian. But it sings, as Pasternak’s poetry does.”

My inevitable question:  Which of the Pasternak translations does she favor?  Her answer: Mother knows best.  (The link, here, also has rare recordings of Pasternak reading his poems in Russian.)

Ann kindly gave me an out-of-print volume of her mother’s translations.  Here’s an example of Lydia Pasternak Slater‘s translation:

Sultry Night

It drizzled, but not even grasses
Would bend within the bag of storm;
Dust only gulped its rain in pellets,
The iron roof – in powder form.

Rainer Maria Rilke, 1921-24 (Photo: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)

The village did not hope for healing.
Deep as a swoon the poppies yearned
Among the rye in inflammation,
And God in fever tossed and turned.

In all the sleepless, universal,
The damp and orphaned latitude,
The signs and moans, their posts deserting,
Fled with the whirlwind in pursuit.

Behind them ran blind slanting raindrops
Hard on their heels, and by the fence
The wind and dripping branches argued –
My heart stood still – at my expense.

I felt this dreadful garden chatter
Would last forever, since the street
Would also notice me, and mutter
With bushes, rain and window shutter.

No way to challenge my defeat –
They’d argue, talk me off my feet.

Nobel prizewinner Albert Camus – snuffed by the KGB?

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011
Share

On the verge of a breakthrough? (Photo: NY World-Telegram/Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection)

There is a danger, of course, in being exposed to literature too young.  So when  I read Albert Camus‘s L’Etranger in high school, in French and in English, it was like being punished twice.  I thought it a squalid little book.  I never returned to it, so I’ve never reconsidered my youthful impression.

But I have changed my mind several times in recent years about the author.

Camus himself seems to have been a remarkable man.  Czeslaw Milosz, for example, praised Camus as the only man in postwar Paris who remained friendly to him after the Polish poet’s 1951 defection.  The entire French intellectual class, which was entirely left-wing, turned against him for abandoning the communist dream.  Pablo Neruda denounced him in an essay as “The Man Who Ran Away” (and if anyone has ever seen the article, I’d love to get a copy).  And recently, I’ve been reading René Girard, who praised La Chute as an “admirable and liberating book” in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel.

Now we hear that the Soviet authorities hated him enough to have the KGB snuff him in 1960 – at least according to a new report in Corriere della Sera, which was reported in The Guardian.  Another point in his favor:

The theory is based on remarks by Giovanni Catelli, an Italian academic and poet, who noted that a passage in a diary written by the celebrated Czech poet and translator Jan Zábrana, and published as a book entitled Celý život, was missing from the Italian translation. In the missing paragraph, Zábrana writes: “I heard something very strange from the mouth of a man who knew lots of things and had very informed sources. According to him, the accident that had cost Albert Camus his life in 1960 was organised by Soviet spies. They damaged a tyre on the car using a sophisticated piece of equipment that cut or made a hole in the wheel at speed.

“The order was given personally by [Dmitri Trofimovic] Shepilov [the Soviet foreign minister] as a reaction to an article published in Franc-tireur [a French magazine] in March 1957, in which Camus attacked [Shepilov], naming him explicitly in the events in Hungary.” In his piece, Camus had denounced the “Shepilov Massacres” – Moscow’s decision to send troops to crush the Hungarian uprising of 1956.

Camus, who won the 1957 Nobel Prize in literature, angered the Soviets even more when he publicly supported Boris Pasternak, the author of Doctor Zhivago, nominating the clandestine novel for a Nobel. I tell the astonishing story of its Cold War publication here and a little bit here.

Pasternak: The final straw (Courtesy of Hoover Institution Archives)

Pasternak: The final straw (Courtesy of Hoover Institution Archives)

Oliver Todd, author of Albert Camus: Une Vie, doesn’t necessarily believe the new assassination theory:

“My first reaction is that nothing about the activities of the KGB and its successors would surprise me, but this claim has left me flabbergasted. You have to ask yourself who would benefit from this coming out and why.”He added: “It’s interesting and amusing and it is certainly true that KGB documentation is full of accounts of how the Soviets used the Czechs to do their dirty work. But while I wouldn’t put it past the KGB to do such a thing, I don’t believe the story is true.”

But I have to admit that, whether it’s true or not, the fact that the story is plausible enough to publish makes me almost ready to take on La Chute, though I’m still creeped out by L’Etranger‘s  Meursault.

But the fatal car accident en route to the René Girard’s own native Provence was a different kind of tragedy.  His final published novel,  La Chute, René said, marked a turning a point:  “Albert Camus died at the moment when a whole new career was probably opening up for him.”

Read the whole story here.

Literary pilgrimages here and there, and Sylvia Plath in Chalcot Square

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011
Share

Mells, Somerset

Okay. I’ll admit it’s a habit. When I travel, I often check out literary landmarks — the place where a favorite author was born, died, wrote, or was buried.  I’ve seen Mikhail Bulgakov‘s digs in Kiev, Elizabeth Bishop‘s glorious hideaway outside Samambaia, C.P. Cavafy‘s modestly exotic flat in Alexandria, Siegried Sassoon‘s grave in Somerset — I even visited Boris Pasternak‘s idyllic dacha in Peredelkino.

Milton scholar Martin Evans shares my enthusiasm.

His journeys to London are sometimes literary pilgrimages — he’s intrigued by the fact that his beloved John Milton and (my beloved) John Donne were both born on Bread Street.  He wants to show you these and more literary coincidences for your next trip.  Hence his new website,  Authorial London.  Please, do not be daunted.  It’s not complicated at all.  It’s  a really easy site.  And if you’d rather read about it than look at it, try Corrie Goldman‘s description of the site and how it came about here.

One passage intrigued me:

Nice man, odd habit (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Readers may be surprised to learn that Sylvia Plath once lived in the same modest house in Primrose Hill in which W.B.Yeats lived many years earlier. In Plath’s time, it was a working class area beset with blue-collar workers and struggling artists. These days, glamorous socialites like Kate Moss and Sienna Miller have been dubbed by the British tabloids as the “Primrose Hill set.”

The website explains that Plath’s apartment consisted of a small bedroom, a kitchen, a living room and a bath. “Plath loved it, at least at the beginning,” the website explains. Here, Plath wrote her great social commentary of mental illness, The Bell Jar.

I was among the readers not surprised by this revelation — in fact, Plath moved to this flat precisely because Yeats had been a previous tenant.

I remember a trip to London — oh, over a decade ago — when I was writing a piece for the San Jose Mercury on the British reception of Sylvia Plath (a bare-bones, unillustrated version of it is here; the August 20, 2000 piece has disappeared from the Mercury‘s website).

The article opened:

Yeats lived here, too

IN THE Primrose Hill area of London, where Gloucester Road and Prince of Wales Road wind back on each other in a hopeless bend, one arrives at 3 Chalcot Square, a turquoise door on a five-story building painted the color of raspberry sorbet.This summer, a simple plaque was added to the building’s facade:

Sylvia Plath
1932-1963
Poet
lived here 1960-1961

Question: Why has it taken Britain nearly 40 years to offer this first, minimalist postmortem recognition for the American poet who spent her last five years in London?

One answer: The British hardly see the need for it. When it comes to Plath, one of America’s most celebrated female poets, the British just don’t get it.

Alas, since the painting of the building has disappeared over the years, we are left with these newer images.  The torquoise door remains — but raspberry sorbet?  I think not.

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

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011
Share

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.”

Remembering Bella Akhmadulina: “purity, conscience, and independence”

Sunday, December 19th, 2010
Share

I ran across Robin Varghese‘s recent post on 3 Quarks Daily noting that, he, too, had somehow missed the obituaries for the 73-year-old Russian poet Bella Akhmadulina, who died on November 29 of a heart attack.  I spent a little time this afternoon catching up: William Grimes‘s New York Times obituary for the “bold voice in Russian poetry” is here.

Akhmadulina came to fame in the post-Stalin years, the years of the Thaw.  She never emigrated, and never was exiled.  The Telegraph reported:

“Yet in her own quiet way Bella Akhmadulina was as much of a dissident as better known Soviet writers. Her work as a translator – she translated into Russian poetry from France, Italy, Chechnya, Poland, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia and many other countries – led to her expulsion from the Soviet Writers’ Union in the Brezhnev era, and she openly supported persecuted writers like Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn and political dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov.”

In 1979, she fell out of favour by contributing a surreal short story, ‘Many dogs and one dog,’ to the Samizdat publication Metropol, and was subsequently condemned for the “eroticism” of her verse and banned from publication.”

Said the poet:  “How did I manage?  Well, I think a person has some sort of guiding light.  Without doubt, something or someone looks after us from on high.” sThat quotation is from Valentina Polukhina‘s exhaustive and enlightening series of interviews, Brodsky Through the Eyes of His Contemporaries, volume 1.

I didn’t know her poetry — or at least I didn’t know it much.  I remember her instead as the the bright, original, and unambiguous voice in Polukhina’s 1987 interview:  “The presence of any great poet in the world creates a marked effect on human existence.”

An excerpt:

“But in exceptional cases, as with Bunin, with Nabokov, we are talking about people who have taken with them something that became … as if they created the Russian language inside themselves.  He doesn’t need to hear Russian spoken around him; he himself becomes a force that is ripe.  He himself is both garden and gardener. …

I said this at some time to Nabokov.  He asked me, ‘Do you like my language?’ and I answered, ‘Your Russian, it’s the best,’ and he said, ‘But it seems to me that it is like frozen strawberries.’  And whatever fate does … Well, with such people what is fate?”

In a literary world notorious for backbiting and artistic rivalries, she said this of Joseph Brodsky:

“My particular relationship to Brodsky can be described quite simply: uncritical, one of adoration.  I myself have stated somewhere in connection with Akhmatova:  ‘Of all calamities, adoration is the worse.’  An admirer can never expect his adoration to be returned.  And I am sure, that Joseph … I never think about myself when I think about him.  And even when they said to me, ‘you know, what Brodsky thinks of you!’ (Thumb downward.)  As he pleases.  But it is my business to talk about him with thumbs up.”

Polukhina, however, contradicted her:  “He said that Bella is one of the few Russian poets living in Russia who by some miracle has succeeded in preserving her purity, conscience and independence.”

Akhmadulina’s finest online send-off may be the memoir from Gregory Freidin on Arcadehere.  He gives us the context for Akhmadulina’s rise to prominence:

“Because of the richness of inflection and infinite melodic variability of the language, Russian poetry is blessed with extraordinary expressive force and a mighty mnemonic potential. This comes in handy if you happen to live under a repressive ideocracy like the Soviet Union, since verses can be easily memorized and leave little material evidence. Indeed, there was no better time to realize Russian poetry’s mnemonic and ethereal  potential than in the post-Stalin Soviet Union where the absence of independent publishing coexisted with burgeoning youth culture and a minimal – and for that reason infinitely titillating – lifting of the skirt of Soviet censorship. For us, who belonged the post-WWII generation, shaped by the de-Stalinization campaign and cold war, known euphemistically as ‘peaceful coexistence,’ this toying with the ideological hemline excited our imagination and set our minds on fire! Grim and sclerotic as the Soviet empire was in its decline, it became a Garden of Eden for poetry – and a purgatory, not to say a minor inferno, for the poets themselves. Some, like Brodsky, were exiled or jailed, others went through torments of hell in trying to combine the imperative of remaining true to their calling with the relentless and crushing pressure to conform. That was the cup that Akhmadulina, twenty and otherworldly beautiful in 1956, drank to the dregs.”

I won’t spoil Freidin’s post for you; it deserves a full reading here.  And for a taste of Akhmadulina’s distinctive voice, girlish and throaty, click below: