Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Pasternak and me

I heard about the publication of Dr Zhivago in 1958 as soon as it came out, and bought a copy. Being only 14, I did not really understand any of it, but I had heard of the book and the exciting and scandalous circumstances - how the manuscript was smuggled out of Russia, and the author as a result was in the doghouse with the Russian government - because I had just started studying Russian. I had just been sent from England to school on the Lake of Geneva near Montreux, where the school chaplain John Findlow was also the vicar of the English church at Territet, and was married to Irina, who was Russian. She had been born in St Petersburg where her grandfather was adviser to the Tsar on forestry, and her father was an artist. The family had lost everything at the Revolution in 1917, and moved to Estonia, and Irina had come to England as a penniless teenager to work as a skivvy. She and John had met through the auspices of the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius, an organisation which sought a rapprochment between the eastern and western churches. Many years later, in the 1990's I revisited Dr Zhivago in the course of writing a play about the murder of the Russian priest Alexander Men based on a rehearsal of T.S Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral. I became interested in a colour, lilac, which you will remember is the colour associated with the mysterious little old lady who passes Zhivago as he lies dying on a pavement, unnoticed by passersby. The Lilac Fairy in the Tchaikovsky ballet Sleeping Beauty commutes the sentence of death to sleep, and of course lilac features in 'April is the cruellest month...'. It was not until I studied at the Institute of Orthodox Studies at Cambridge that it dawned on me to what extent Zhivago is imbued with Christian language, metaphor and symbolism. To take just one example: the name of the protagonist,' Zhivago', is the routine Old Church Slavonic qualifier - 'living' - with the word for God, used in every church service . The work of a translator is really an impossible one in that sense - unless, like Nabokov (who was living at the Palace Hotel in Montreux while I was at school) you fill three of four volumes with footnotes, the fourth being the original text (in Nabokov's case, Pushkin's novel in verse, Eugene Onegin). I came to know people who had known Pasternak while he was living in Peredelkino, the writers and artists village outside Moscow. One of them rather like the mysterious passerby in lilac was Fr Alexander Men's literary secretary, helping to type manuscripts and research references. During a long interview, at which she presented me with a copy of her memoirs, she told me that she used to smuggle pieces of the consecrated bread which is left at the back of Russian churches after the eucharist for parishioners to take for invalids unable to attend from the church, to Pasternak during his last illness. Pasternak is Russian for parsnip.

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