Boris Pasternak’s Elusive Nobel Prize
By Lance Hickerson, Reference Department
Boris Leonidovich Pasternak (1890-1960) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 “for his important achievement both in contemporary lyrical poetry and in the field of the great Russian epic tradition.” The Prize was prompted by his crowning achievement, Doctor Zhivago, an epic novel that concludes with a cycle of poetry by the main character weaving together the seasons of nature, love, redemption, and the life of Christ. While Pasternak was “infinitely grateful, touched, proud, surprised, [and] overwhelmed,” at the award, six days later he declined the prize in a telegram: “Due to the resonance caused by my award in the society I belong to, I have to decline the Prize; don’t consider my voluntary refusal an insult.”
Pasternak reflected on this moment in a poem entitled “The Nobel Prize,” which asks, “What sort of dirty trick I’ve done, am I a murderer, a villain? I, who made the whole world crying of my homeland’s beauty.”
Pasternak was neither murderer nor villain; however, his book challenged the presiding Russian-Soviet ideological vision of the world. He was given a strong indication of how Doctor Zhivago would be taken when he received a 10,000 word rejection letter by the Russian magazine New World saying that “the spirit of [the] novel [was] that of non-acceptance of the socialist revolution.” Explaining further, the magazine felt the novel’s main character, Dr. Yuri Zhivago, to be “an essentially immoral man who refuses to do his duty by the people and who is interested only in his own rights, including the alleged privilege of a superman to betray with impunity.”
It is at least obvious that the editorial board read his book. Following are some not so subtle statements that Pasternak made through his main character about those of whom it could be said, “We are the children of Russia’s terrible years”:
- “It turns out that those who inspired the revolution aren’t at home in anything except change and turmoil: that’s their native element.”
- “And do you know why there is this incessant whirl of never-ending preparations? It’s because they haven’t any real capacities, they are ungifted. Man is born to live, not to prepare for life. Life itself – the gift of life – is such a breathtakingly serious thing!”
- “They always talk of ‘remaking life,’ but “people who can talk in this way,” claims Zhivago, “have never known life at all, have never felt its spirit, its soul. For them human existence is a lump of raw material which has not been ennobled by their touch.”
- To Yuri, life “is always out of reach of our stupid theories.”
- “They are so anxious to establish the myth of their infallibility, that they do their utmost to ignore the truth.” Yet, “They had the boastful, dead eternity of bronze monuments and marble columns.” (Series of quotations from the poetry foundation and Geoffrey Hosking)
Pasternak was just as clear in his own poem, “After the Storm.” He closed with this stanza: It is not revolutions and upheavals / which clear the way to a new life / But the revelations, storms and bounties / Of someone’s spirit on fire.
Like other intellectuals at the time of his country’s Revolution, Pasternak held high hopes that change would work for a new and better Russia. But life 40 years “after the storm” gave him such extended and overwhelming evidence against the socialist utopia, that he went from disappointment to disillusionment to a “new birth” of sorts that included his taking seriously once again his Christianity. Pasternak was part of the intellectuals who could be called “pre-Soviet; post-Marxist.” This helps make sense of two statements Pasternak made during the Doctor Zhivago controversy when he requested his closest loved one to write “that I was born not in the Soviet Union, but in Russia,” while he wrote Premier Krushchev to avoid deportation, with this explanation: “Leaving the motherland will equal death for me. I am tied to Russia by birth, by life and work.”
While Doctor Zhivago was censured in the former Soviet Union, the novel escaped to the West in 1957 through a publisher in Milan, Italy, who refused to return the book “for revisions.” By the next year the novel had been translated into 18 languages, including English.
Meanwhile, The Union of Soviet Writers (of which Pasternak was one of the some 800 members) took swift action. It is important to understand that the Writer’s Union was indoctrinated and in full concert with Soviet Socialist Realism. “Socialist Realism is the officially sanctioned style of art that dominated Soviet painting for 50 years from the early 1930s. The style and content was laid down by the state with the purpose of furthering the goals of socialism and communism. The result was a huge body of work by thousands of artists, the majority of which is stultifyingly boring and which has been mocked in the West ever since as “Girl meets tractor”. (This description of Socialist Realism and policy quote below from http://www.russianartdealer.com/socialist-realism/)
Applying Socialist Realism to literature, The Union of Soviet Writers stated in 1934 that “Socialist Realism is the basic method of Soviet literature and literary criticism. It demands of the artist the truthful, historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development. Moreover, the truthfulness and historical concreteness of the artistic representation of reality must be linked with the task of ideological transformation and education of workers in the spirit of socialism.”
It is hardly surprising that Doctor Zhivago inspired hostility from those committed to the spirit of socialism. One Union representative called Pasternak, “a literary whore, hired and kept in America’s anti-Soviet brothel,” while a government official called him “a pig who has fouled the spot where he eats and cast filth on those by whose labor he lives and breathes.” Not only was Pasternak excommunicated from the Union of Soviet Writers, but some demanded that he be banished from Russia altogether.
Pasternak did not have to leave Russia; however, his being cut off from the Union of Soviet Writers meant that his many translations of the classics into Russian could no longer be published. This made it impossible for him to make a living as a writer. The love of Pasternak’s life, Olga Ivinskaya, said “The easiest way of dealing with intellectuals like us was simply to starve us into submission.” Ironically this did not silence Pasternak, and neither Ivinskaya. Another way of getting to Pasternak, however, was pressuring Ivinskaya. She was taken away to prison in 1950 while pregnant with Pasternak’s child. While there she experienced a miscarriage.
As Pasternak completed the translation of many tragedies of Shakespeare, it seemed his real life was just as tragic. Pasternak’s reaction to times of suffering is formulated, naturally, in poetic verse:
The order of the acts has been schemed and plotted / And nothing can avert the final curtain’s fall / I stand alone / All else is swamped by Pharisaism / To live life to the end is not a childish task.
Yet, Pasternak’s determination to stay the course, is neither simple defiance nor resignation. He expressed, “If there is suffering anywhere, why should not my art suffer and myself with it? I am speaking of the most artistic in the artist . . . of the sacrifice without which art becomes unnecessary.”
The insight of literary critic Mitzi Brunsdale is surely significant here. Explaining the novel’s point of view, she writes:
“Zhivago” itself derives from the Russian verb “to live,” lending irony to the opening scene of the novel, the funeral of Zhivago’s mother: “’Who’s being buried?’ – ‘Zhivago’ [the living one].” The name also has a wealth of religious connotations stemming from the risen Christ’s question in the Orthodox Easter liturgy, “Why seek you the living [zhivago] among the dead?” In his search for truth, the thinking man Yuri Zhivago at first naively embraces revolution as the natural result of the czarist repression of the people, only gradually realizing that enforced collectivization under the Soviets means the spiritual slavery of the very souls it falsely purported to free. The truth at which Yuri Zhivago at last arrives, after his long journey through the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, the savagery of World War I and the Civil War, and the struggle for survival that faced his people during the 1920s, is the old truth of humanity’s youth – that an individual can be fulfilled only by free choice in pursuing his own creativity, his own love, unhampered by political or social stricture.” (from the Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Volume 6, pp. 3464-3465)
Pasternak, “presented Zhivago’s inability to influence his own fate not as a fault, but as a sign that he was destined to become an artistic witness to the tragedy of his age. The author closely identified Zhivago’s predicament with that of the suffering Christ.” (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/zhivago/ei_pasternak.html)
Professor Brunsdale ends her critical consideration of Pasternak by refusing to ignore the strong religious aspect of Pasternak’s work. The cycle of poetry concluding Doctor Zhivago speaks not only of nature and love, but also the meaning of life and the life of Christ. She explains: “Pasternak exercised . . . intense awareness of all cosmic and human reality as ‘life in Christ,’ and the consequent plunge into love as the only dynamic and creative force which really honors this ‘Life’ by creating itself anew in Life’s – Christ’s – image. In the glorious healing lesson of Doctor Zhivago, that modern man’s renewal lies in identification of his sufferings with those of his Savior, undistracted by selfish materialistic desire, the poet of Doctor Zhivago thus is “the living one” against whom godless history cannot prevail.”
In 1987 Pasternak was posthumously reinstated to the Soviet Writer’s Union. In 1988, thirty years after its censure, Doctor Zhivago was published in Russia. The New World, which had rejected Doctor Zhivago, went on to publish Solzhenitsyn. Pasternak’s house was made into a museum. In 1989, Pasternak’s son accepted the Nobel Prize on behalf of his father.
Geoffrey Hosking (from The Cambridge History of Russian Literature), observes, Pasternak’s “novel and its accompanying poems . . . were to be very influential, for they helped to revive a concern with the human personality, with morality and with religion, which had been largely submerged within the majestic state sponsored collective certainties of the Soviet era.”
It is only appropriate to let Pasternak conclude with his poetry, the last three stanzas of HOLY WEEK from the “Poems of Yuri Zhivago.” Pasternak became the suffering artist he had mentioned, with a profound artistic message for his Motherland. His message neither suppressed nor submerged the suffering, but rather offered the highest social realism, transformation, and hope for the Russian people he loved so much.
March scatters handfuls of the snow; Like alms among the lame,
As though a man had carried out
The holy Ark outside the church,
And gave its all unto the poor.
They sing until the sunrise hour.
Then, having wept their fill,
Their chants of the Psalms and Acts
Flow with an air serene
Into an empty lamplit street.
All creatures hear the voice of spring
In the still of night, believing
That when good weather comes
Death itself shall be destroyed
By the travail of the Resurrection.
- “Boris Pasternak” by Mitzi M. Brunsdale in Critical Survey of Long Edition, Fourth Edition (Hackensack, NJ: Salem Press, 2010, 10 volumes) Volume 6: pp. 3460-3468.
- The Cambridge History of Russian Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1992)
- http://faculty.webster.edu/corbetre/personal/reading/pasternak-poems.html (based on The Poems of Doctor Zhivago. Hallmark, 1967. Translated from the Russian by Eugene M. Kayden)