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October 23: Pasternak’s Nobel Prize

Lawrence Bush
October 22, 2016
Russian novelist Boris Pasternak, the son of artists, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature on this date in 1958 “for his important achievement both in contemporary lyrical poetry and in the field of the great Russian epic tradition,” said the Nobel Committee. Pasternak had published Dr. Zhivago, his only prose novel, the year before, which he had arranged to smuggle to Italy after Soviet authorities rejected the book. The Soviet regime forced Pasternak to decline the Nobel Prize or live in exile (in 1988 his descendants would accept the award in his name). Pasternak’s books include My Sister, Life (published in 1921, four years after its completion), an acclaimed volume of poems that deeply affected younger poets in the USSR, Rupture (1921), a lyrical poetry masterpiece, and numerous other books of poetry and prose, including translations of plays by Goethe, Schiller, Shakespeare, and others. Under Stalin in the 1930s, “Pasternak began to fear that the Soviet regime would force him to act as their official bard, which drove him to take considerable risks,” according to the American Academy of Poets. “Finally, after two controversial speeches in a public forum and the publication of a cycle of poems called ‘The Artist,’ the head of the Writers’ Union referred to him as a traitor in a speech to the Congress of Soviets. At that point onward, Pasternak was no longer called upon to play an active part in public affairs.” Nevertheless, “One of the questions that never was fully clarified during Mr. Pasternak’s life was the nature of his relationship with Stalin,” said the Associated Press in their obituary of May 31, 1960. “There were many who felt that in some manner he had come under Stalin’s protection, and that this was the reason why Mr. Pasternak seemed to lead a charmed life during the purges of the 1930s.” “In April 1934 Osip Mandelstam recited his “Stalin Epigram” to Pasternak. After listening, Pasternak told Mandelstam: ‘I didn’t hear this, you didn’t recite it to me, because, you know, very strange and terrible things are happening now: they’ve begun to pick people up. I’m afraid the walls have ears and perhaps even these benches on the boulevard here may be able to listen and tell tales. So let’s make out that I heard nothing.’ . . . Soon after . . . the telephone rang in Pasternak’s Moscow apartment. A voice from The Kremlin said, ‘Comrade Stalin wishes to speak with you.’ According to Ivinskaya [Pasternak’s lover], Pasternak was struck dumb. ‘He was totally unprepared for such a conversation. But then he heard his voice, the voice of Stalin, coming over the line. The Leader addressed him in a rather bluff uncouth fashion, using the familiar thou form: “Tell me, what are they saying in your literary circles about the arrest of Mandelstam?“ ‘ Flustered, Pasternak denied that there was any discussion or that there were any literary circles left in Soviet Russia. Stalin went on to ask him for his own opinion of Mandelstam. In an ‘eager fumbling manner’ Pasternak explained that he and Mandelstam each had a completely different philosophy about poetry. Stalin finally said, in a mocking tone of voice: ‘I see, you just aren’t able to stick up for a comrade,’ and put down the receiver. —Wikipedia

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.