Book Review

The Last Summer by Boris Pasternak

Photo on 09-01-2015 at 13.33 #2

Boris Pasternak was the author of Doctor Zhivago, which I didn’t realise when I picked up this slim novella about Russia just before the First World War and its concurrent Revolution. I knew nothing about Pasternak at all, but the introduction in this volume (and a surprisingly engaging Wikipedia page – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boris_Pasternak) led me to discover that he occupied a key position in the three-way tussle between the Russian literary tradition, Soviet repression of dissent and the CIA propaganda machine. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1958 and became a best-selling novelist the world over, though in part this was due to the US’s attempts to disseminate a mildly critical Soviet novel that had genuine literary merit. The CIA bought thousands of copies, encouraged multiple translations and lobbied the Nobel committee, seeing the success of Pasternak – not a supporter of the Soviet regime – as a major cultural blow. His funeral was a huge international event, with anti-Soviet speeches shouted over his coffin, and the large delegation of foreign journalists rendering the state unable to gun the mourners down. An interesting life.

Anyway, none of this is relevant to The Last Summer, first published in 1934 (over 20 years before Doctor Zhivago). It is about a man, visiting his sister in 1916, reflecting on recent memories and ignoring the horrors he saw fighting on the Eastern front in the First World War. Serezha used to work as a tutor, he used to live in Moscow, in the countryside, he fantasised about being generous with money that he didn’t have, he wrote notes for a play about someone living out his philanthropic fantasies by selling himself as a luxury slave…

It’s a collection of ideas, of moments, I suppose, much like Virginia Woolf’s  Jacob’s Room (see review here), actually. The difference is that The Last Summer is a bit more personal, as well as much shorter, more concise and a lot more… melancholy. Serezha is not happy, and the moments of happiness he reflects on are muted, weren’t moments of real joy even when they happened, it seems. Is this the taint of war and impending destruction that has damaged his memories, or was joy always lacking from his life?

Pasternak writes with a lot of poetry, very descriptively. The prose flows and eddies like a slow stream – there is not really a plot, more a sense. And not a sense of a world or a society, but of an emotion, of a tone. The style is highly literary, images are often arrestingly beautiful and the overall sense of loss – or, perhaps, of inability to have – is strong. Affairs seem to go nowhere, the play is never written, money never arrives, all that comes is sadness and loneliness and, alas, violence.

It’s a brief novella, but one full of strong and memorable images, the most powerful being associated with the steam, the smoke, that comes out of trains. In several scenes this black, industrialised dirt comes to mean something destructive but essential, something people try to use as sustenance but, of course, are unable to. It’s haunting. Or it was too me, starving people groping for black air in the hope it can be eaten…

As an introduction to Pasternak, I’m intrigued. I’ll have to give Doctor Zhivago a go…

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