Thursday, February 10, 2011

Happy Birthday, Boris

Today is the birthday of Boris Pasternak (Борис Леонидович Пастернак), who was born in Moscow in 1890. Although he had begun as a supporter of the Revolution, he later - after colliding with reality - became a quiet dissident. He ceased writing original work but supported himself as a translator. But towards the end of WWII he began to work in secret on his masterpiece, Doctor Zhivago. It took him approximately a decade, and when he was done he smuggled it out of the Soviet Union to a publisher in Italy. The novel came out in 1957. It was immediately banned in the Soviet Union, but it became an international best-seller, selling 7 million copies worldwide. The next year, Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he was forced to refuse it. (The Academy announced: "This refusal, of course, in no way alters the validity of the award. There remains only for the Academy, however, to announce with regret that the presentation of the Prize cannot take place.") He died, in 1960, without ever having seen his novel in print (it was only published in the USSR in 1988) - but he felt it was worth it.

What most Americans don't know is that he was a poet - quite celebrated in Russia, especially for his influential first collection, My Sister Life, written in 1917 and published in 1921. He wrote two other collections of poetry before his pen became secret, and then silent. I just recently read a novel about Mandelstam, one of Pasternak's friends - The Stalin Epigram. It covers that crucial point in Stalin's Russia when the arrests began to spiral out of control. Pasternak is a character in it, and I highly recommend it.

Here are a couple of his shorter ones. (They're an interesting look at translating poetry, too, if you read Russian):

Ветер

Я кончился, а ты жива.
И ветер, жалуясь и плача,
Раскачивает лес и дачу.
Не каждую сосну отдельно,
А полностью все дерева
Со всею далью беспредельной,
Как парусников кузова
На глади бухты корабельной.
И это не из удальства
Или из ярости бесцельной,
А чтоб в тоске найти слова
Тебе для песни колыбельной.

Wind

I am no more but you live on,
And the wind, whining and complaining,
Is shaking house and forest, straining
Not single fir trees one by one
But the whole wood, all trees together,
With all the distance far and wide,
Like sail-less yachts in stormy weather
When moored within a bay they lie.
And this not out of wanton pride
Or fury bent on aimless wronging,
But to provide a lullaby
For you with words of grief and longing,

1953

Зимняя ночь

Мело, мело по всей земле
Во все пределы.
Свеча горела на столе,
Свеча горела.

Как летом роем мошкара
Летит на пламя,
Слетались хлопья со двора
К оконной раме.

Метель лепила на стекле
Кружки и стрелы.
Свеча горела на столе,
Свеча горела.

На озаренный потолок
Ложились тени,
Скрещенья рук, скрещенья ног,
Судьбы скрещенья.

И падали два башмачка
Со стуком на пол,
И воск слезами с ночника
На платье капал.

И все терялось в снежной мгле,
Седой и белой.
Свеча горела на столе,
Свеча горела.

На свечку дуло из угла,
И жар соблазна
Вздымал, как ангел, два крыла
Крестообразно.

Мело весь месяц в феврале,
И то и дело
Свеча горела на столе,
Свеча горела.


Winter Night

It swept, it swept on all the earth,
At every turning,
A candle on the table flared,
A candle, burning.

Like swarms of midges to a flame
In summer weather,
Snowflakes flew up towards the pane
In flocks together.

Snow moulded arrows, rings and stars
The pane adorning.
A candle on the table shone
A candle, burning.

Entangled shadows spread across
The flickering ceiling,
Entangled arms, entangled legs,
And doom, and feeling.

And with a thud against the floor
Two shoes came falling,
And drops of molten candle wax
Like tears were rolling.

And all was lost in snowy mist,
Grey-white and blurring.
A candle on the table stood,
A candle, burning.

The flame was trembling in the draught;
Heat of temptation,
It lifted up two crossing wings
As of an angel.

All February the snow-storm swept,
Each time returning.
A candle on the table wept,
A candle, burning.

1946


Translated by Lydia Pasternak Slater

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