Poet Lydia Pasternak steps out of the shadow

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. 
Nicolas Pasternak Slater, nephew of celebrated Russian writer Boris Pasternak, is collaborating with the department of Slavonic studies at Vienna University to publish a trilingual edition of his mother’s poetry. Lydia Pasternak Slater has long been in the shadow of her famous brother, one of the most beloved poets of the 20th century and author of “Dr. Zhivago.” However her poetry allows her to stand alone in this celebrated literary family. Written in German, Russian, and English, her poems exhibit lyricism and range, encompassing witty pieces written for colleagues, as well as reflections on unhappy periods in her life. It also reflects her love for nature, a passion she shared with her brother, Boris.

Nicolas Pasternak Slater is a retired hematologist who now lectures at literary festivals and conferences, as well as working as a translator. He grew up in a household where his absent uncle was a constant presence, a figure he felt he knew intimately despite never directly communicating with him.

His memories of the excitement when the family received a letter from abroad inspired him to translate and edit a collection of his uncle’s letters, published as “Boris Pasternak: Family Correspondence, 1921-1960.” This correspondence with his relatives was the closest Boris Pasternak kept to a diary, and offers an insight into the mind of a man sustained by an unshakable inner confidence.

RBTH: What originally prompted you to translate the correspondence between Boris Pasternak and his family?

Nicolas Pasternak Slater: I had particularly vivid memories of my childhood and the great excitement that was generated in the household on the rare occasions when a letter would come from Russia.

Just at the end of the war when I was seven years old, letters came which were smuggled through by English diplomats, and my mother would be very emotional about it. She would ring up her sister and they would discuss whether there were things left unsaid, and worry about whether anything awful had happened to the family.

RBTH: How aware were they of the reality of life for Boris?


NPS: He didn’t write about individual terrible things, writing in general terms such as “oh if you only knew everything, I can’t go on, I’d begin to howl.” They were aware that terrible things did happen, that people disappeared, that people were arrested and that these were things he couldn’t write about. So they were looking for hints and allusions, trying to unlock the code that he used. For instance when Vladimir Sillov was arrested and shot, Boris wrote that “he has died of the same illness as our late Liza’s husband, he thought too much and sometimes this leads to this kind of meningitis.” The family knew that the late Liza’s husband had been shot in 1918, and so this allusion to the ‘same illness’ was a clear indication of what had happened.

RBTH: How can these letters help us understand his character?

NPS: They show his enormous inner strength. He didn’t really depend on other people to provide him with support. He was very lonely, but he took great strength from a confidence that was he was doing was right. He believed in his poetry and later in the novel he was writing, and that compensated for absolutely everything. Even in the 1950s, when he was writing “Dr. Zhivago” and being persecuted and hounded, he wrote “don’t worry about me, I’m happy, I’ve probably never been happier.” He was satisfied that he was doing the right thing. He was an extraordinary person in that respect, for drawing inner strength and being supported by it.

RBTH: Can these letters help us shed any light “Dr. Zhivago?”

“Dr. Zhivago” is a story of the things that happened in Russia around the revolution and after. But it’s a story told from inside the people that it’s talking about. Above all he’s interested in the inner life of his characters, and the way that this sustains them. Boris believed passionately in life as a kind of force that was much stronger and much more interesting than external events. In one of his poems he writes “to be alive, that only matters, alive and burning to the end.” That really was the only thing that mattered to him; to be living your life in an honest and creative way.

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