Catholic Herald, 16 February 1990
Review: Boris Pasternak: A Biography by Peter Levi (Hutchinson £17.95)
This serious book pre-supposes considerable background knowledge of the history, politics and culture of 20th century Russia. The average reader, among whose ranks I include myself, needs his wits about him if he is not to flounder among these pages.
Boris Pasternak was born in Moscow 100 years ago and died in 1960. Few writers have straddled such a momentous epoch, and to immerse oneself in this book is to see history unrolling before one’s eyes – history in a part of the world that is today of quite staggering importance.
Pasternak saw Tolstoy, a close friend of his father, on his death bed; and he outlived Stalin, “a pock marked Caligula,” by a few years. It is difficult to over-emphasise the pace of change in Russia during this time, particularly between 1905 and the rise of Stalin in the late twenties.
These were chaotic years! Dangerous, exhausting, hopeful, madly invigorating.
The intellectuals (that “class” so alien to the British scene, so cultivated in modern Eastern Europe) were in. their element, bursting with creativity in the comparative fresh air of post-Tsarist Russia. Tolstoy’s influential shadow lingered on, the deadly sinister pall of Stalin lay ahead. Boris Pasternak towers like some wide-winged bird above a vast country that heaved in turmoil.
If the scene is unfamiliar to the reader, some complementary reading will enhance the impact of Levi’s masterly biography. Rarely have I read a book that sent me scurrying in search of potted histories, encyclopaedias, maps and the like. It was as if 100 doors were opened simultaneously, with ideas, events and personalities exposed to view. Quite apart from immediately buying a replacement for my battered edition of Doctor Zhivago – and all the poems by Pasternak I could lay hands on.
This biography is unusual because it is the life of a poet by a fellow poet. The reader who looks for old Nanny’s reminiscences, school reports; or anecdotes from the next-door neighbour, will be disappointed. Personal details are used to the extent that they explain or enhance Pasternak’s poetry and prose.
Levi explores his subject’s soul rather than his outward life. Which is not to say that he neglects to keep the reader informed of what is happening in his world – far from it; the comment and background is rich and varied, the sources equally diverse. “By their fruits you shall know them” seems to me to illustrate Levi’s approach. Pasternak, one feels, would entirely approve – he was his work.
Levi is an acute, expert, and often amusing guide though early influences and development, to the full-flowering genius of his subject. A host of fellow writers, artists and musicians throng the pages. These friends, acquaintances and colleagues help to shape the emerging genius and one realizes how necessary it is for artists (and I use the word in the widest sense) to mix and mingle with each other, to exchange ideas and strike sparks against like minds. The raison d’etre perhaps for the “intellectual class”?
It is Pasternak’s poetry, so pure, true and beautiful, that pierces the heart. Levi’s translations left me gasping with admiration.