Wednesday 3 March 2010

Boris Pasternak

Over the last few months I have been reading 'Letters to Georgian Friends' by Boris Pasternak. It's not the kind of book that you can write a review of as such. It is quite simply a collection of letters, most of them to literary friends and poets in Georgia. Many of them are quite ordinary, sending greetings and good wishes, asking after their health and wellbeing, discussing domestic arrangements and holiday plans, but in quiet subtle ways I feel like I have had an intimate glimpse of the life of a great writer. I should own up to not having read Doctor Zhivago (his only full length novel), thought I do feel quite inspired to at some point. I guess this book dominated his reputation to such an extent that I was not even aware that poetry was the more significant part of his literary output.

His career covered the time from the revolution until his death in 1960, but this book includes letters from the early 30's, the time of his first visit to Georgia and his initial acquaintance with many of the Georgian poets who were to become significant friends. Surprisingly, in spite of his prominence, he was never subject to imprisonment or expulsion during the Stalinist years, a period when when literary figures, as well as political ones, were subject to both literary controls and arbitrary arrest and detention. He does seem to have adapted his writing somewhat in order to fit in with the 'Socialist Realism' that was approved by the Communist Party, though he became increasingly disenchanted with the regime. As time went on he supported himself mostly by translating rather than his own writing, which was subject to official hostility and frequent bans.

It was his friendships with Titsian Tabidze and Paolo Iashvili (both influential Georgian poets) that make this collection so interesting. In amongst the everyday there is the background of a horrific, repressive political regime. Tabidze was arrested and executed during the purges of 1936, though his wife and friends lived for many years with the hope of his imprisonment, not learning officially until 1955 that he had been executed within two months of arrest. Iashvili tried to save himself by renouncing his work and avowing loyalty to Stalin and the revolution but faced with being forced to denounce his friend he committed suicide. Many of the letters in the book are to Nina, Tabidze's wife, with whom Boris and his family remained in close contact for the rest of his life. The letters show how closely linked their literary world was, how people knew each other, worked together, Boris translating works for many of the Georgians to make them accessible to a wider russian audience. The endnotes give a brief biography of the people mentioned in the book, and could be an interesting starting point for an exploration of some pretty obscure poetry.

It is hard to pin down why I persevered with this book. Maybe it was the chat and personal anecdotes, although they were written long ago and far away, that showed life was pretty much the same for literary geniuses as it is for us mere mortals. The background details of his ordinary life make him so very real. I grew very fond of him, he was very self depreciating, unassuming, and a loyal devoted friend. He mostly signs himself "your Borya" and is always warm and affectionate. In spite of bouts of ill health and the worsening political situation he was very positive, sometimes almost naively so, and frequently expresses his gratitude for the life he had been privileged to lead:

"I am very satisfied with my life, with the chance of earning an honest living, and with the serenity of my state of mind. I have never considered myself in any way offended or passed over. If anyone thinks that to a detached observer I may appear to be a 'martyr', then let me say that, first, I am not responsible for anyone's crazy ideas or ridiculous fancies and secondly, it is sufficient that they who may be interested in such a theory should life the ban on my books and let me mount the rostrum and this 'semblance of martyrdom', which does not exist as far as I am concerned, will disappear by itself." (letter to Nina, 1950)

1 comment:

  1. Interesting piece Martine - thanks very much for sharing. I enjoy reading letters because of the way that they combine the every day and the ground breaking - they can often be a really wonderful window onto a person's life. Lovely piece.



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