Obituary: Josephine Pasternak

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Josephine Pasternak, poet and philosopher, born Moscow 19 February 1900, married 1924 Frederick Pasternak (died 1975; one son, one daughter), died Oxford 16 February 1993.

MY MOTHER Josephine Pasternak was born with our century. She died three days before her 93rd birthday. She was the sole surviving sister of the writer Boris Pasternak; her father Leonid was a leading Russian painter, and her mother Rosalia an acclaimed concert pianist who had given up her career for marriage and a family.

Josephine was born in a house frequented by artists and writers and musicians, and she imbibed this rich cultural mix with her mother's milk. But the Bohemianism so often associated with 'artists' was totally lacking in that house. The children were brought up with love, but also with insistence on a kind of enlightened puritanism: truthfulness and integrity, as well as modesty and courtesy, were expected.

Josephine absorbed the culture and the mores, and they were an integral part of her for life. She was fun-loving, had a great sense of humour, and was the official school mimic because she could imitate the teachers with such delightful accuracy. But she had days, too many, when her normal level of nervousness became excessive, when she was plagued by unfounded fears and premonitions of disaster. These attacks haunted her from infancy to old age; they left her feeling depleted and exhausted for considerable periods at a time, and restricted her creative output. They were surely linked to her fervent religious convictions and an unshakeable belief in original sin, so that all her life she - the incarnation of innocence - saw herself as a sinner and performed penances.

Her brother Boris thought so highly of her intelligence and critical judgement that, even when he was no more than 11 years old, he read his poems to her for approval. Later, he would sometimes (very rarely, because parental permission was required) take her along to visit his writer friends. Thus she spent a memorable evening in the company of the poet Mayakovsky, his mistress Lili Brik and her husband. It was a revelation, an intimation of freedom from the over-protection which existed at home.

By then, the Revolution was in any case bestowing certain freedoms and abolishing others. In 1921 she left her native Moscow for Berlin, soon to be followed by her parents and sister. She decided to study philosophy, not so much from inclination as from a desire to debunk it more effectively. Her chief target was Aristotle, whose views on philosophy she found quite untenable. Much later she expounded her own views in a work which will be published this autumn.

In 1924 she married her second cousin Frederick Pasternak, a banker, who was 20 years her senior and had, as a young man, danced at her parents' wedding feast. The couple moved to Munich and here Josephine finished her studies and obtained a degree in philosophy. She also began writing some of her evocative and lyrical poems which were published in a volume entitled Co-ordinates (under the pseudonym 'Anna Ney', 1938), and were sold out almost immediately. She bore two children; she enjoyed a brief spell of socialising; and then it was time to move once more.

In 1938 the family left Germany and settled in Oxford, where Josephine was to spend the rest - the greater part - of her life. Her mother Rosalia died in 1939 and her father Leonid in 1945. The events of the war and her father's death provoked a nervous breakdown. After her recovery she turned again to writing poetry and a second collection of poems (in Russian) was published, In Memory of Pedro (1981). She continued revising and rewriting her work on refuting some of Aristotle's tenets. But principally she devoted the rest of her life to the promotion of her father Leonid whose work was little known outside Russia. With her sister Lydia she arranged numerous exhibitions, and she began the huge task of assembling and editing her father's memoirs. They were published in Russia in 1975 and, in a shortened version, in England in 1982.

After her husband's death in 1975 - they had been happily married for 51 years - my mother continued to publicise her father's work which, she felt, had been unfairly overshadowed by his son's fame. She wrote numerous articles and gave interviews, some of which were televised. She preferred increasingly to stay at home, but she loved people to visit her, and hardly a day passed without a friend or relation, or even a stranger, knocking on her door. They were all warmly received and regaled with anecdotes and memories of long ago.

I shall miss my mother in all kinds of ways: for the fact that she kept an open mind on most things and never prejudged an issue; for her readiness to listen and give advice when it was asked for; for her sense of humour and the stimulus of her companionship; but most of all for teaching me that love in all its forms is the most vital and precious ingredient in the business of living.

(Photograph omitted)