At Stanford, family celebrates Pasternak's life and letters with new book

The Pasternak family celebrates the English publication of the writer's letters – and its own survival – on the 50th anniversary of the poet's death. The university houses the largest archive of Pasternak material in the world.

Cover of new book, 'Boris Pasternak: Family Correspondence, 1921-1960'

Boris Pasternak: Family Correspondence, 1921-1960, was translated by the author's nephew, Nicolas Pasternak Slater, and was published by the Hoover Institution Press.

In the kitchen of the Scriabin Museum in Moscow in the 1950s, the young French scholar Jacqueline de Proyart noticed a thick volume bound in blue moleskin on the table. She opened it without thinking and read two words: "Doctor Zhivago."

The word samizdat – the clandestine copying and distribution of literature in the Soviet era – had not achieved wide coinage yet, but Boris Pasternak's book was clearly verboten. The underground novel, passed from hand to hand, was already promised to another reader. She read all she could on the spot; the manuscript, she said, "quickly convinced me that I was in the presence of an artistic and spiritual work out of the ordinary."

De Proyart, the woman who would become a crucial player in making Doctor Zhivago available to the world – and, in particular, to the nominating committee for the Nobel Prize in literature, which the author received in 1958 – spoke earlier this month at an international symposium at Stanford, "The Pasternak Family: Surviving the Storms."

The occasion marked the publication of the Pasternak family's letters for the first time in English. Boris Pasternak: Family Correspondence, 1921-1960, was translated by the author's nephew, Nicolas Pasternak Slater, and edited by Maya Slater. Published by the Hoover Institution Press, the book includes a foreword by Stanford Slavic languages and literatures Professor Lazar Fleishman, arguably the leading Pasternak scholar in the world.

Fleishman was the organizer of the conference, which brought De Proyart and the Pasternak family, who gathered from Russia, England and France, to celebrate the publication, and their own survival, on the 50th anniversary of the poet's death in 1960.

The joining of these events at Stanford was more than coincidence: In fact, the best place to study Pasternak is here, at Stanford, where the Hoover Institution houses the most extensive Pasternak archive in the world. The Pasternak family papers include correspondence, drafts of Doctor Zhivago and other writings, diaries, correspondence, photographs, and sound and video recordings of Boris Pasternak and other family members.

The newly published correspondence is important: The Pasternak family was a close-knit one, and leading figures like Leo Tolstoy were family friends. Boris' father, Leonid Pasternak, was an important post-Impressionist painter, and his mother, an accomplished pianist; they immigrated to Germany in 1921. After 1923, Pasternak was never to see his parents or two sisters again, except for one visit with a sister.

Linda Bernard Anastasia Pasternak, great-granddaughter of the poet; Oxford scholar Ann Pasternak Slater, niece of the poet; Maya Slater, editor of the new volume, and her husband Nicolas Pasternak Slater, translator of the new volume and nephew of the poet.

Anastasia Pasternak, great-granddaughter of the poet; Oxford scholar Ann Pasternak Slater, niece of the poet; Maya Slater, editor of the new volume, and her husband Nicolas Pasternak Slater, translator of the new volume and nephew of the poet.

Slater said he originally began translating these letters out of a feeling of family loyalty. Pasternak did not write much about arrests, imprisonments and executions, but his intimate letters to his family have been considered works of art in themselves.

As the Nazis took power in Germany, Pasternak's Jewish parents began to consider returning to Russia. According to Slater, "Boris found himself writing contorted letters in which he on the one hand assured his parents that he would love to have them living with him, and that they wouldn't be a burden, but simultaneously tried his hardest to dissuade them from coming – since he knew, but couldn't tell them, that their lives would be in danger if they came.

"I don't think they understood his hints, and they probably did find him a bit inhospitable." (They took refuge with Slater's parents at Oxford instead.)

Pasternak's code included hints such as this one: In a letter to his parents, Pasternak writes about the shooting of his friend, writer Vladimir Sillov, in veiled terms: "He died from the same illness as the late Liza's first husband. He was 28 years old. They say he kept a diary – not just the diary of a man in the street, but the diary of a supporter of the revolution – and he thought too much, which sometimes leads to that form of meningitis.

"When I heard about all this, I went to see his wife, who was once a great friend of mine. She had a deep scar over the whole of her arm – the result of her first attempt to throw herself out of the window."

Zhivago's publication in bootlegged editions unleashed a storm of persecution for the author, best known for his novel but beloved among Russians most of all for his poetry (Doctor Zhivago ends with a cycle of poems).

Again, Pasternak couldn't write openly, but he communicated what he could with his sister Lydia, Slater's mother.

"My mother congratulated him on the Soviet Sputnik, which had just been fired into space. 'We're collecting all the press cuttings we can find,' she said, and it was clear that the 'sputnik' meant the novel making its triumphant way around the world," Slater said.

"Boris responded with congratulations on her interest in this spaceship, and in his turn discussed the travels of a friend he called Yura, who was due to go visit people called Kolya and Galya." Yura was code for Yuri Zhivago, Kolya was British publisher Collins, and Galya was French publisher Gallimard.

Photo courtesy Pasternak Trust A 1914 painting by Leonid Pasternak of the Pasternak children, left to right:  Boris, Josephine, Lydia, Alexander Pasternak.  The occasion was their parents' 25th wedding anniversary.

A 1914 painting by Leonid Pasternak of the Pasternak children, left to right: Boris, Josephine, Lydia, Alexander Pasternak. The occasion was their parents' 25th wedding anniversary.

Petr Pasternak, the poet's Muscovite grandson, is responsible for the digital archives at Stanford that make it easily the most extensive Pasternak archive anywhere.

According to assistant archivist Lora Soroka, Hoover has electronic copies of documents held in the Moscow apartment of Evgeni Pasternak, Boris Pasternak's son (and Petr's father).  Fleishman said Evgeni Pasternak "can be considered the founder of modern Pasternak scholarship."

"Petya [Petr Pasternak] did actual work by scanning the documents and populating the database for each page of the Pasternak writings. This would have been impossible to accomplish without his knowledge of Pasternak's work and without his parents' expertise," said Soroka.

The Hoover archives received about 6,000 pages of documents, among them: pencil and ink drafts of Doctor Zhivago; the typescript of Doctor Zhivago with Boris Pasternak's corrections (1955) and corrected typescript of his play Slepaia krasavitsa; Pasternak's holograph and typed poetry and prosaic works, with his corrections; his huge correspondence, including his letters to the family, his first wife, Evgenia, and their son, Evgeni; to his cousin, friend and confidante Olga Freidenberg; to poet Osip Mandelstam and his wife, memoirist Nadezhda Mandelstam; and to poet Marina Tsvetaeva, among others.

The Hoover archives also have received more than 600 photographs of Boris Pasternak as well as biographical documents and university notes.

These "digital surrogates" are available only at Hoover. Digital images continue to be added to the collection.

Because of the Soviet government and the Cold War, it is a sad fact that, of those gathered for the celebration, de Proyart was the only one actually to have met Pasternak (besides Petr, who was 3 when his grandfather died), at his dacha in Peredelkino outside Moscow.

"From his entire person there emanated an impression of internal unity, of self-control, of joie de vivre that Pasternak described to me in a letter as his 'state of permanent jubilation,'" she said.

"As for me, still in the kitchen of the Scriabin Museum, I was discovering, page after page, the expression of a Christian faith that defied all the orders of militant atheism."

Pasternak's friend, the poet Mandelstam, put it this way: "To read the poems of Pasternak is to clear the throat, to strengthen the breathing, to restore the lungs; such poems must be a cure for tuberculosis."

James Falen, translator of the Oxford University Press edition of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, read an as-yet unpublished manuscript of translations of Pasternak. One late poem, published in 1956, "To Be Acclaimed," contains a passage that, considering the fame that would engulf him two years later with the award of the Nobel, has an unintended irony:

And one must seek to be obscured,
To hide the features of one's face,
The way the landscape is immured
Within the mist … and leaves no trace.