HEROES & VILLAINS
Saturday 18 March 1995
After 1936, he believed, as Samuel Beckett said of himself: "Success and failure on the public level never mattered much to me."
Doctor Zhivago is about the force of inner logic which Boris Pasternak believed in, the connections, the capillaries, which solder together different lives and destinies. His logic survives him like the candle he so often wrote about.
Doctor Zhivago was virtually the first serious book I read after Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, the William books. I was still wearing a coolie- type coat. I got the book from Ballinasloe library, which smelt of paraffin and carbolic soap. Jacqueline Kennedy was the person most frequently referred to here. The writers I found at this time have never been surpassed for me: DH Lawrence, F Scott Fitgerald, Katherine Mansfield, Carson McCullers, Boris Pasternak (although some have joined them, like Malcolm Lowry or Virginia Woolf or Nadezhda Mandelstam).
I had a friend then who used to wear a flamingo scarf, have a lilac scent, whom I used to meet on a red bench on the prom. She shared my love of Pasternak. We underlined his poems together. In a town which, despite the melli- fluousness of the library, seemed oppressive, Pasternak helped give the option of inner faith.
Boris Pasternak was born in Moscow on 10 February 1890 (29 January in the old Russian calender). His father was a painter and his mother a pianist. He attended university in Marburg. Early portraits by his father capture the androgynous face, protuberant eyes, almost Mongol mouth, the Cyrillic contortions in the face, the cheekbones that startle, the skirmished crest of hair, the indrawn body in its favourite clothes.
Between 1914 and 1923, Pasternak published four collections of poetry, accruing in Europe what Rilke called "a youthful fame". In 1922, he married the painter Evgeniia Vladimirovna, having a son by her. Olga Freidenberg watched the disintegration of the marriage: "He was used to the Tolstoyan standard: a daily life based on lofty ideas and family life such as that depicted in War and Peace. Zhenya offered him a Bohemian life." In 1931, they parted. He married Zinaida Nikolaevna in 1934. In the following years he suffered from terrible insomnia, a condition brought about by the tyranny of the times.
Primed by Stalin to be the foremost Soviet state writer he withdrew. At a Party congress in 1936, he said, "You can't produce literature the way one pumps water." He tried then to be "a civilian, a natural person, with mixed luck, withdrawn, unknown".
During the Second World War, soldiers at the front were sustained by bits of Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova on scraps of paper. One of those scraps of paper, maybe deciphered over what Akhmatova called "a crimson bonfire in the snow" could have been what Akhmatova wrote about Pasternak: "The whole world was his inheritance/and he shared it with everyone."
In the autumn of 1946, Pasternak met Olga Ivinskaya and fell in love with her. Doctor Zhivago was published in Italian in November 1957, won the Nobel Prize in 1958, but brought ostracisation in Russia. In 1959, he wrote: "I should like for one second/My tears to be wiped away/ By someone on my right hand." The countryside around Peredelkino, his home village, was in lilac blossom when he died on 30 May 1960, his coffin covered in lilac.
Coming towards New Year's Eve 1988, I took the train from Kiev station to Peredelkino. An old lady sold pictures of the Mother of God with freesias on her gown and pink fans with Valentine hearts on them. The sun was carnelian over the snow as I approached Peredelkino. I'd been through a bad time that year and going to Peredelkino was part of the healing, but schisms too, I can now see, are part of life, of not fitting in, of drifting away from a society you don't feel part of, of simply trying to survive alone.
The light had almost gone as I stepped off the train and walked towards the church with its onion domes.
The following night it snowed at midnight on the New Year, and I walked away from the lights of bars into streets of stucco houses where you could see other people's Christmases through windows, a Christmas tree with silver threads on it, coloured diamant, gibbous moons, the ex voto of a candle burning. The candles could have been the ones Boris Pasternak wrote about, telling of heroic, sculpted faith, of inner logic, in the face of any kind of fascism or totalitarianism.
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