The Writer and the Valet: The Story of Dr. Zhivago


Frances Stonor Saunders in the LRB:

In his youth Pasternak looked, Marina Tsvetaeva said, ‘like an Arab and his horse’. In older age, he looked the same. Sinewy and tanned from long walks and tending his orchard, at 66 he was still an intensely physical presence. This was the woodsman-poet who was waiting by the garden gate to greet his friend Isaiah Berlin, 19 years younger, bespectacled and pudgy, his indoor skin betraying the rigours of the Senior Common Room and the international diplomatic circuit.

‘The Foreigner Visiting Pasternak at His Dacha’ is its own subgenre of intellectual history. Its principal theme is the excitement of discovering a lost generation who, like ‘the victims of shipwreck on a desert island’, have been ‘cut off for decades from civilisation’ (Berlin). The foreigner, moved by his role as witness to an impossible reality, records every detail of the encounter: the welcome (Pasternak’s handshake is ‘firm’, his smile ‘exuberant’); the walk (oh, that ‘cool’ pine forest, and look, some dusty peasants); the conversation, with Pasternak holding forth ‘as if Goethe and Shakespeare were his contemporaries’; the meal, at which his wife, ‘dark, plump and inconspicuous’ (and often unnamed), makes a sour appearance; the arrival of other members of the Peredelkino colony, the dead undead; the toasts, invoking spiritual companions – Tolstoy, Chekhov, Scriabin, Rachmaninov. And finally the farewell at the gate, at which Pasternak disappears back into the dacha and re-emerges with sheaves of typescript. These are given to the visitor (‘the guest from the future’, as Anna Akhmatova put it), who is now tasked with the sacred and thrillingly immortalising responsibility of carrying Pasternak’s writings out of this place where the clock has stopped and into the world beyond.

Berlin’s reports of his meetings with Pasternak, which cover two periods spanning a decade, conform to the conventions of the genre (not surprising, as he largely invented it) but his published account of his visit of 18 August 1956 is curiously short on colour, and there is no mention of his bride, Aline, who accompanied him, or of Pasternak’s wife, Zinaida. We learn only that the two men convened in a lengthy conversation, which must have vibrated amid the pine trees like some strange antiphon. Pasternak, Berlin once observed, ‘spoke slowly in a low tenor monotone, with a continuous even sound, something between a humming and a drone’; Berlin’s voice was variously described as ‘a low, rapid rumble’, ‘a melting Russian river’, the ‘bubble and rattle’ of a ‘samovar on the boil’. At some point, Pasternak took Berlin into his study, where he thrust a thick envelope into Berlin’s hands and said: ‘My book, it is all there. It is my last word. Please read it.’

More here.