- Boris Pasternak: A Literary Biography. Vol. I, 1890-1928, and: Four Contemporary Russian Writers, and: Soviet Literature in the 1980s: Decade of Transition
Pasternak: A Literary Biography is a major contribution; in the gallery of Pasternak scholarship it draws our attention by its scope, its forceful details, and its stamp of careful preparation. In this first volume Barnes presents Pasternak's childhood, boyhood, and youth in almost pointillist fashion, after which he picks up a larger brush, working his way through poetry, prose, and criticism to what he describes as "an arbitrary and unclean break" in 1928 when Pasternak was thirty-eight and the first five-year plan was a reality.
Pasternak's insistence on the bond between life and art may be traced namely to his formative years under the watchful eyes of his parents, Leonid Osipovich, a well-known painter, and Rozalia Osipovna, and accomplished concert pianist. To Boris "home" was linked to studios, galleries, recital halls, theatres, and salons. What better preparation for the artistic movements of a new century and the literary debates of a new society? From the very beginning, therefore, Boris's experiences were rarely free from art, rarely free from the smell of paint, the sound of the keyboard and the discourse of the intelligentsia. In the Pasternak home Tolstoy and Scriabin were not merely household words, but house guests. Culture was a given.
From Barnes's reconstruction of Pasternak's early years, one gets two distinct impressions: that Boris was born into a privileged milieu, and that beginning with Boris's student years there was a personal struggle at almost every level of existence. It is not that Boris faced a new wave of anti-Semitism or fell out of political favor. On the contrary, through connections he managed to find work, get published, obtain visas, enroll at the university and secure living space. But as Barnes summerizes, "Pasternak's biography consisted significantly of non-meetings, rejections and renunciations: the abandonment of music and philosophy, the suppression of romantic artistry, unrequited love, discovery of Tsvetaeva as a soul-mate in absentia, his loss of Rilke through silence and death, and his deprivation of Europe and the civilization in which his personality was rooted."
A literary biography predicates a detailed analysis of all major works in the context of their inception and reception. Barnes devotes ample space to Pasternak's works, including newly discovered fragments. He takes every opportunity to identify patterns (contiguity), show relationships (nature/the behavior of man), and discuss images (movement of inanimate world), clarifying Pasternak's position vis à vis symbolism, futurism, and realism. Moreover, he relates prose sketches such as "The Death of Reliquimini," "Suboctive Story," and what are called Dramatic Fragments to Pasternak's major works. Most important, Barnes carries on an open [End Page 325] discussion, admitting to the gaps in Pasternak's life, for example, the Berlin years, as well as to the many lost manuscripts and letters.
Barnes reinforces the image of Pasternak as a shy, sensitive, serious, and somewhat stubborn man. But he also presents him as someone driven, someone torn and always about to turn a corner. Reading about Pasternak's relationship with Ol'ga Freidenburg, Shura Shtikh, Ida Vysotskaya, or even Mayakovsky, more than one Pasternak follower will feel uneasy. And more than one literary critic will be puzzled over Pasternak's early imagery as well as the ideological constructs of The Year 1905 and Lieutenant Shmidt in view of Pasternak's afterthoughts. Such afterthoughts, indeed, misgivings, and confessions, come forward in Pasternak's letters, the sum of which adds up to Barnes's reconstruction of Pasternak's epistolary voice.
What gives Barnes's study a large measure of authority is not the synthesis of the growing body of research on Pasternak, but the careful mining of the recent load of Pasternak materials (namely...