BORIS PASTERNAK: His Life and Art by Guy de Mallac
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BORIS PASTERNAK: His Life and Art

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KIRKUS REVIEW

De Mallac (Russian, Univ. of Calif., Irvine) does not camouflage his double-tiered purpose: first comes the life; and then, in Part II, the discussion of Pasternak's art. The biography is clearly organized, copiously illustrated with fine photographs, and sturdily researched. Born in 1890, the son of famous Russian-Jewish painter Leonid and brilliant pianist Rosa, young Boris knew Tolstoy, Rilke, his idol Scriabin; the life of art was therefore never strange to him--and two separate family exiles to Berlin awakened Boris, as well, to the remarkable German culture of the Twenties. A course of philosophy study in Marburg, with the neo-Kantian Hermann Cohen, was especially influential (de Mallac even proposes that Husserlian philosophy may have played a great part in refining Pasternak's limpid sense of the impersonality of the subjective--the most extraordinary flavor of his later work). All this intellectual buttressing is valuable, a corrective to the widely (if lazily) held view of Pasternak as intuitive only--as the moony cloud-dweller that he appeared to Stalin, among others. The story from the Thirties on--the call from Stalin about Mandelstam; the translations of Shakespeare; the ""tightrope-walking"" to avoid the Purges; Zhivago; the Nobel--substantially overlaps with Gladkov's memoirs and those of Olga Ivinskaya, P.'s last mistress. (About Ivinskaya, de Mallac is on the whole approving; he chides her only for poshlost--vulgarity--in her book A Captive in Time; but he finds her never less than completely loyal to Pasternak.) So half, say, of this biography is seminal. The analysis of works is slightly less full (P.'s poetry is largely ignored in favor of Doctor Zhivago) and a bit more dry. But important topics are intelligently raised nonetheless: Zhivago as anti-fairy-tale; Pasternak's almost childish delicacy of belief--a podvig, a spiritual prowess traditional with Russian ascetics. And, perhaps most resonant of all: how P.'s personalism-become-stylelessness makes a poetic in which ""the last word belongs to poetry rather than the poet"" (as de Mallac quotes from critic Victor Erlich). The invisibility, the abnegation--learned from and for art--may once have saved Pasternak, and later killed him; and never before have its manifestations, in particular, been so richly (if a bit fustily) explored.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1981
Publisher: Univ. of Oklahoma Press