The Poet's Life and Death in the Autobiographies of Boris Pasternak

Donald Loewen, Binghamton University

Much has been written about Pasternak's early autobiography Oxrannaja gramota, where Pasternak describes his path to poetry with flamboyant eloquence. Much less has been written about Pasternak's later and much more restrained Ljudi i polozhenija (Avtobiograficheskij ocherk), where he renounces the style of the earlier autobiography and retells some of the events with a distinctly different tone and emphasis. The two works deserve to be looked at together, for in both style and substance they tell the story of a poet's beginning and end. Where Oxrannaja gramota describes Pasternak's circuitous path to poetry and his first experiences as a young poet, Ljudi i polozhenija is his attempt to set his poetic house in order, a kind of prose Exegi monumentum in which he establishes the terms of his poetic legacy and in effect says how he would like to be remembered.

I will examine the way Pasternak uses death as an organizing theme in each of these two works, first in an attempt to define a place where the poet canactually continue to exist as a poet in the increasingly non-poetic literary atmosphere of the Soviet state, and then to prepare for his own death as he recognizes his approaching end. No juxtaposition of these two works has yet been done in these terms.

I will draw on the theoretical approaches of scholars like Lidija Ginzburg and John Paul Eakin in studying these autobiographies, and will show how Pasternak works through various steps in defining a non-heroic role for the poet in Oxrannaja gramota, setting himself apart both from non-poets (as he turns aside from music and philosophy) and also from other poets, especially Majakovskij. What remains is a tenuous middle ground where Pasternak as a poet resists both the call of the state to become its new Prophet (following Majakovskij), and the call of poetry to sacrifice himself in defiance of the state (like Mandel'shtam). Poetry needs living defenders, says Pasternak, and he tries to define a place and mode where he can act out this apparently more modest role. By the time Pasternak comes to Ljudi i polozhenija almost thirty years later, he recognizes that his time is drawing to an end. Now the crucial question occupying him is no longer "How can a poet live?", but "How should a poet die?". Pasternak tackles this issue by conjuring up a virtual dead poets' society, and by establishing the links and terms by which he would like to be remembered. Perhaps most poignant of these is his regret at not doing more to help Marina Cvetaeva, and his prophecy that she would someday achieve great fame. This strong confessional element is repeated elsewhere in Ljudi i polozhenija, but the work is more an attempt to define Pasternak's place for posterity, than to evaluate or apologize for his past experiences.