Boris Pasternak as an Embodiment of Art’s Nonconformist Nature

Published: June 17, 2005

Book Review: Lazar Fleishman, Boris Pasternak: The Poet and His Politics (London, England; 1990) 359 pages

In Boris Pasternak: The Poet and His Politics, Lazar Fleishman provides his reader with an in-depth look at the novelist and poet Boris Pasternak, beginning with his origins as a child musician and concluding with his receipt, and rejection of, the Nobel Prize. This biography is not Fleishman’s first book on Pasternak, and much of his earlier research on the author is included in this text. Boris Pasternak presupposes a great deal of knowledge about Russia’s history.

Fleishman targets an audience who is aware of the different literary movements and figures in Russia, as well their political context, beginning with the late nineteenth century and concluding with the 1980s. In writing this book, Fleishman’s ultimate agenda was to portray Pasternak as a philosopher who posed questions without answering them, as an artist who did not fit into one exclusive mold, and as a nonconformist who was not defined by the will of the state.

Fleishman refers to Pasternak as proof of the tenacity of art to endure even through difficult social situations, such as severe censorship. For this reason, Fleishman focuses on the person of Boris Pasternak and not his artistic works. Although Doctor Zhivago was Pasternak’s most controversial and perhaps most famous novel, Fleishman does not speak of it in detail until nearly two hundred and fifty pages into the biography. Even then, he makes vague references without quoting directly or showing how exactly it represents Pasternak’s intellect or dissenting qualities. In painting a verbal portrait of Pasternak, Fleishman references a daunting list of names and movements, and often quotes other people’s perceptions or responses to Pasternak, without showing how, exactly, the context was manifested in Pasternak’s texts. Perhaps it is a weakness on Fleishman’s part; though he often references the names of Pasternak’s works, including his poetry and translations, he does not use direct quotes to supplement his analysis. Though his intention is to show that “Pasternak’s works and fate serve as a constant reminder of the eternally noncomformist essence of art” (314), the art itself is strikingly absent from the biography.

Instead of art, Fleishman presents intellectual history, especially the extreme intellectual fluctuation that occurred in Russia during the early part of the twentieth century. In a sense, Fleishman portrays Pasternak as an embodiment of the cultural flux, as Pasternak wrote in many different modes, through several genres, and his reception by the public varied greatly from year to year. Fleishman quotes Valery Briusov—a man “whose evaluations of young poets carried enormous weight at that time” (68)—as saying, “with Pasternak one feels the greatest power of imagination; his strange and at times awkward images do not seem artificial—the poets indeed felt and saw that way; the ‘futuristicity’ of B. Pasternak’s poems are not a matter of subordination to theory, but his own special kind of mentality” (69). As Fleishman outlines Pasternak’s intellectual and creative trajectory, he also notes Pasternak followed futurism as if an apprentice, learning from the genre and those who worked strictly within it. He refused, however, to identify wholly with any movement, or limit himself to writing within only one genre to express concrete ideologies. Similarly, Fleishman describes how, “as the members of Centrifuge [the publishing company with which Pasternak was involved] became more pronounced, Pasternak began to distance himself from its goals. It is here that we witness the birth of his consistent non-commitment, so clear throughout his life and works” (83). In the 1920s, he goes on to say, Pasternak was actually seen as “antifuturist” (112).

According to Fleishman, Pasternak was a man of inconsistencies. Fleishman never portrays these inconsistencies in a negative light, though, and always uses them to further his argument that Pasternak was a creative genius who transcended the limitations imposed upon him by his time. Fleishman writes, “in all the different periods of Pasternak’s life, literally in every text and perhaps in every phrase he wrote, there existed an essential evasiveness, relativism, and ambivalence. These qualities stood in sharp contrast to the directness, straightforwardness, and adherence to unquestionable truths which had been considered the supreme virtues of Soviet literature and thinking since the early thirties” (Preface, vii). Though Fleishman is successful in showing the ways in which Pasternak evolved as an artist and broke away from the status quo, his biography is problematic in that it is biased against the Soviet system, and does not portray Pasternak objectively. Throughout the biography, it is clear that Fleishman has high esteem for his subject—or else he would not have studied Pasternak in such depth—but he often seems to perpetuate the transformation of human into myth.  Fleishman justifies all of Pasternak’s actions as if they were the right actions—regardless of whether they were conforming, as with his rejection of the Nobel Prize, or dissenting, as with his repeated refusal to write within the rubric of Social Realism.  However, Fleishman convincingly portrays Pasternak as a man who represents the nonconformist nature of art, through his own inability to conform to his contemporaries, to the state, and to the past and future versions of himself.

In perceiving Pasternak as a nonconformist, two questions must be raised: if a person is a nonconformer, does that automatically make him a dissenter? Also, is a person a nonconformer and/or a dissenter if he is not consciously breaking with custom, but is merely expressing himself apolitically? Fleishman does not answer these questions directly. He does suggest, though, that although Pasternak was generally considered a dissenter, and certainly a nonconformist, he did not consider himself a dissenter, and did not generally act with political motivations. Pasternak

“never considered himself a member of the Communist—or any other—Party, and he too was not prepared to subordinate himself to its directives in his writing…In response to declarations expressing opposition to the Soviet regime, Pasternak loved to say that he was a communist. He would add then that he was a communist in the same sense that Peter the Great and Pushkin were communists, and that in Russia now, thank God, these were Pushkinian times” (115).

More than being a political conformist or a political dissenter, Pasternak was primarily politically ambivalent. Also, though his works became more controversial later in his life, Pasternak often managed to ride the political fence in ways that his contemporaries—who often found themselves in prison—could not, especially through the 1920s. Fleishman suggests that it was the “hermetic character of Pasternak’s poetry and prose, and the difficulty of his style” (161) that made Pasternak relatively immune to political attacks in the 1920s.

Regardless, this neutrality did not carry over into the 1930s. In 1931 Pasternak traveled to Georgia, and spent time with Georgian artists and intellectuals. After this trip, Pasternak insisted emphatically “on freedom of creativity for poets and protested against the tiresome instructions issued on literature [by the state]” (166). These claims coincided with Pasternak’s publication of Safe Conduct, which was condemned for being idealistic, and representing bourgeois restorationism; by 1933 Pasternak could no longer maintain his position as a neutral figure. Through the 1930s he suffered from growing creative difficulties: he did not know how to react to the burgeoning genre of “social realism,” or to the growing role of Stalin within the realm of literature. Pasternak experienced an “interval of silence” that lasted through the 1930s, and was unable to produce anything complete until the 1940s. Fleishman does not want Pasternak’s silent period to appear strictly a political demonstration, even though it was due, in part, to the difficult political climate. Instead, Fleishman makes Pasternak appear not wholly political, but more introspective and removed from place and time; he writes that Pasternak was quiet because he was conflicted within, trying to “find an answer to questions that were tormenting him” (172).

Yet he quotes Pasternak as saying, in 1934, “I have become a part of my times and the state, and its interests have become my own” (188). Does not this statement directly contradict the notion that Pasternak never identified with any party? Fleishman says that Pasternak was never so closely attached to the state as he was in 1934, when he was named a premier Soviet poet, yet that he was politically removed in the 1930s. The fluctuation that occurred within the literary scene is interesting to note, and may account for the inconsistencies within Pasternak and the words of his biographer. A man who was revered as a literary genius one day could be condemned the next; Pasternak saw some of his works banned and some exalted.

By the 1950s, Pasternak was almost a nonentity to the arbiters of the literary sphere; Fleishman quotes an editor of a literary magazine as saying, “Pasternak, unfortunately, has shown no advance in his understanding of people and the times, and he has expressed neither belief in these people nor belief in his epoch” (272). Perhaps Fleishman’s statement that Pasternak never identified with one movement can only be true if Pasternak is examined not from within his time, but from the removed perspective of the late twentieth century. In retrospect, Pasternak seems more of a nonconformist if looked at from a distance, since there were moments in his history during which he was more of a conformer than a nonconformer.

Pasternak’s greatest achievement of dissent, as is seen from the western perspective, was Doctor Zhivago. “In the 1960s not only disseminating Doctor Zhivago underground but even reading it were considered criminal offenses” (314). About Doctor Zhivago, Fleishman writes,

“[it] is not a philosophical treatise or a political pamphlet. It is a work of art, and as with all genuine works of art there are no final truths in it; the various points of view and theoretical systems are part of the formal composition…Pasternak obstinately refused to answer questions about his philosophical positions: ‘my philosophy itself…is in general rather an inclination than a conviction’” (266).

Fleishman’s biography would benefit from more detailed analysis of Doctor Zhivago and Pasternak’s works in general, and how they actually help prove his definition of art as open-ended, and as Pasternak as a philosopher. Fleishman ultimately does, however, achieve his goal of presenting nearly one hundred years of cultural transition and artistic nonconformity through the person of Boris Pasternak.


About the author

Shannon Meyerhoff

Shannon Meyerhoff is a senior double majoring in Russian and English Language and literature. She attends the University of Pennsylvania and plans to go on to graduate studies.

View all posts by: Shannon Meyerhoff