Boris Pasternak put his signature on every page he wrote. His lyric poems, letters, memoirs brim with personal feeling. Even Dr Zhivago is as much autobiography as epic. By contrast his son Evgeny, author of this sober account of the last thirty years of his father’s life, stays austerely in the background. You might guess that he was a researcher in the Institute of World Literature in Moscow, but not that he was a Pasternak.
He is dealing, though, with a time of almost unimaginable cruelty and oppression. Pasternak himself couldn’t write about it directly – it was no accident that let Yuri Zhivago’s fatal heart attack happen in 1929 – and Evgeny’s documentary detachment offers genuine glimpses of life under Stalin. ‘During that period of collectivisation and mass terror,’ Evgeny says in his foreword, ‘the question of the fate of the individual ceased to have meaning. Life lost its absolute value.’
For an English reader it’s an especially odd experience to read a biography that runs from middle years to death. So many recent three-tier lives of poets have dwelt on kindergarten scenes. Evgeny Pasternak has written a full biography, and why