Boris Pasternak Interviewed by Olga Carlisle

Fragment of a letter from Boris Pasternak to a fellow poet:

“The melodic authenticity of most of your work is very dear to me, as is your faithfulness to the principle of melody and to “ascent” in the supreme sense that Alexander Blok gave that word.

'You will understand from a reading of my most recent works that I, too, am under the power of the same influence, but we must try to make sure that, as in Alexander Blok, this note works, reveals, incarnates, and expresses thoughts to their ultimate clarity, instead of being only a reminder of sounds which originally charmed us, an inconsequential echo dying in the air.”

I decided to visit Boris Pasternak about ten days after my arrival in Moscow one January. I had heard much about him from my parents, who had known him for many years, and I had heard and loved his poems since my earliest years.

I had messages and small presents to take to him from my parents and from other admirers. But Pasternak had no phone, I discovered in Moscow. I dismissed the thought of writing a note as too impersonal. I feared that in view of the volume of his correspondence he might have some sort of standard rejection form for requests to visit him. It took a great effort to call unannounced on a man so famous. I was afraid that Pasternak in later years would not live up to my image of him suggested by his poems—lyric, impulsive, above all youthful.

My parents had mentioned that when they saw Pasternak in 1957, just before he received the Nobel Prize, he had held open house on Sundays—a tradition among Russian writers which extends to Russians abroad. As an adolescent in Paris, I remember being taken to call on the writer Remizov and the famous philosopher Berdyayev on Sunday afternoons.

On my second Sunday in Moscow I suddenly decided to go to Peredelkino. It was a radiant day, and in the center of the city, where I stayed, the fresh snow sparkled against the Kremlin’s gold cupolas. The streets were full of sightseers—out-of-town families bundled in peasant-like fashion walking toward the Kremlin. Many carried bunches of fresh mimosa—sometimes one twig at a time. On winter Sundays large shipments of mimosa are brought to Moscow. Russians buy them to give to one another or simply to carry, as if to mark the solemnity of the day.

I decided to take a taxi to Peredelkino, although I knew of an electric train which went from the Kiev railroad station near the outskirts of Moscow. I was suddenly in a great hurry to get there, although I had been warned time and again by knowledgeable Muscovites of Pasternak’s unwillingness to receive foreigners. I was prepared to deliver my messages and perhaps shake his hand and turn back.

The cab driver, a youngish man with the anonymous air of taxi drivers everywhere, assured me that he knew Peredelkino very well—it was about thirty kilometers out on the Kiev highway. The fare would be about thirty rubles (about three dollars). He seemed to find it completely natural that I should want to drive out there on that lovely sunny day.

But the driver’s claim to know the road turned out to be a boast, and soon we were lost. We had driven at fair speed along the four-lane highway free of snow and of billboards or gas stations. There were a few discreet road signs but they failed to direct us to Peredelkino, and so we began stopping whenever we encountered anyone to ask directions. Everyone was friendly and willing to help, but nobody seemed to know of Peredelkino. We drove for a long time on an unpaved, frozen road through endless white fields. Finally we entered a village from another era, in complete contrast with the immense new apartment houses in the outskirts of Moscow—low, ancient-looking log cottages bordering a straight main street. A horse-drawn sled went by; kerchiefed women were grouped near a small wooden church. We found we were in a settlement very close to Peredelkino. After a ten-minute drive on a small winding road through dense evergreens I was in front of Pasternak’s house. I had seen photographs of it in magazines and suddenly there it was on my right: brown, with bay windows, standing on a slope against a background of fir trees and overlooking the road by which we had accidentally entered the town. ...

Paris Review - The Art of Fiction No. 25


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