Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
John McAuliffeBill Manhire in Conversation with John McAuliffe
(PN Review 259)
Patricia CraigVal Warner: A Reminiscence
(PN Review 259)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
Next Issue Gwyneth Lewis ‘Spiderings’ Ian Thomson ‘Fires were started: Tallinn, 1944’ Adrian May ‘Traditionalism and Tradition’ Judith Herzberg ‘Poems’ translated by Margitt Helbert Horatio Morpurgo ‘What is a Book?’
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
Reader Survey
PN Review Substack

This article is taken from PN Review 8, Volume 5 Number 4, July - September 1979.

Early Prose Fragments Boris Pasternak


First of all I want to speak of that tiding, that past, which sometimes appears on the threshold of inspiration. When it's a holiday, with the shops all closed, and the servants gone away, and people have vanished into houses of friends, the grey sky starts at the very asphalt; no umbrellas, hats or shopwindows full of vegetables would launch it so loftily and ceremonially.

A painter chancing to be in the street at this moment will notice how the sky is scantily, brokenly, tracked by the damp yellow Autumn wind. From this dark sludge of maples and aspens left in the sky he will sense the fluent step of Autumn. Then he'll look round and see how seldom the town on holiday without any people, hazy and faintly cracked by rains, touches the earth.

That's the painter. What a musician experiences, given this unpeopled vacation of streets, will be in the winter. It will be this. The winter day will slant from all the carriages and signboards, and copy them sideways in cursive script, at an angle, with prickly dry pellets of sleet. Everything will freeze together from sloping lines. This acute-angled dusk, frozenly sticking onto dawn-which lags not a pace behind the winter day, and onto evening-and evening is like a low ceiling: evening, from morning on, stops you standing up straight, straighten up and you'll bump against evening, and so you walk hunched all day-this leaning sloping day is a plank, such a day is [a road] laid down towards music, towards the multitude of fur-coats, tickets and twenty-copeck coins, and ladies arriving late.

And you force your way through a dark-blue fence of exhalations, stars, frost, darkness, sounds of squealing, freezing muzzles wrapped in sacking, separate halves of moustaches, letters of the alphabet, street-lamps, eyes which can't be paired up, and snowflakes, through a tundra of dark-blue manes and dark-blue alleys after sudden lakes of flame at café doorways.

These are hints of that most unprepossessing past which sometimes overtakes us; hints of it. But they aren't enough, and even while we are undergoing them we are given more. I have always experienced such truth as the stressed syllable in the final foot of a line [of verse] which has to have a feminine ending. Reality gave only the heavy syllable, the first half of the foot; a kind of melodic meaningfulness demanded the second half-evening, twilight-in which this truth, or its bandages, would weaken. (Bandages fastened onto poorly truth by the hand of culture that heals: the hand of the creative work of science and morality.)

See: the thirst for something unstressed, eternally unstressed, something which cannot begin, for the whole of the truth, even its twilight, is without exception stressed-it's all one single masculine ending, blunt, stopped short, and sometimes sung for us only because we feel: "this isn't the final syllable". For the native element of dreams is disyllabic, while truth is truncated, senseless, irrational, it pauses, trembling, halfway through a word.

Love, for life breaks off at love. At love life unfolds itself. Love, a break, without hands, my life has someone's supple distant hands, so new, I have to watch them all the time, and this is why I suffer from insomnia.

But love is schematic, it is only concerned with the formal dynamics of this edge, only with an almost a priori correlation; with the fact that the scale pan carrying the stressed truth, this heavy pan, goes up-goes away-when it's outbalanced by the pan of chaos.

Thirst for the unstressed, this apeiron of song-not the apeiron which anticipates Pythagoreanism (perfection of the theoretical and ethical spheres, which end with a heavy stroke, for they are masculine creative elements) but the other, which follows upon Orphism, that element which is eternally on the eve. The past (strange word-of masculine gender) is always imbued with the thirst for unstressed chaos, with the yearning will to be feminine, when it is on the threshold of inspiration.


Undialogical Dramas and Undramatic Dialogues
First non-act

In the blurred window the wintry twilight outlines of the boulevard seethe, filtered through thin curtains. Upon the boulevard-bedecked with worsted branches and weak, not properly brewed as yet, are street-lamps, swellings in the mist, pale because it is not yet dark; the sky is grey, cold, an arithmetic table, and on it plaintive little lines of smoke from chimneys are being crossed out by slate-crayons. At the beginning of the act, outside the windows, is the quiet empty hunger of the twilight. Towards the end, when it is getting dark, when the window-panes are being served with hoar-frost, and into wedge-shaped crystal services the yellow and violet street of shops is poured, when, down below, the arched lamps gasp for breath,-then into frosty crockery flows extinguished blue-grey winter, then winter deeply and evenly blows at the frame. It blows with noise, with roofs, with stars.

It blows with the swift speed of sledge-runners, with tinkling bells and horns of motors; and all this noise is dressed in furs, furcoats; the noise plays hide-and-seek with the room; and then winter blows with a starry ash, with a sky of grey crumbs and with thin black plates of sky in the yards. But again, down below in the shops, the lamps must be bursting, exploding upwards like coloured inkwells and rinsing with coloured ink the light snow crumbling at the tiny window; dear, wounded snow, tossed like a baby from someone's palm outside the winter-casement. And later on, by the end of the act, when the shops are being shut and it's dark, in the big white snow-entangled boulevard are the little scraps and stitches of unfinished passers-by.

Then the ripe paraffiny pomegranate-grains of the street-lamps are ringed with a misty, dirtily steamy juice, greenish or blackened with yellowness,-they are encrusted, like burdock seeds, with dry branches and intertwinings of twigs, and you can't tear them off from the smoothed, swollen boulevard, they have stuck so fast!

It is dark. Over there, in the distance, the livelier streets strike now and then like matches, with their startings-up and luminescent flarings-like little hyphens of noise. And there, down below, the cars breaking in, close up to the pavement, drop like pieces of burning paper into a dark well. Then the blizzard, like something dropped, smashes against the frame and spills itself in a thick hissing scalding substance to weep and hum through the long-drawn hysterics of sorrow bursting their way through. Meanwhile, in a generous girlish manner, it draws off the swept-up threads of snow that have risen in the air, and the smoke from chimneys, and twists them off to one side; and with this silk, borne widely sideways, it embroiders the dark in the frame.

A room is the radiantly patterned and painted sensitivity of objects. Without any mysticism: the things in the room (like children gifted with attention, who experience a speaker by subjecting themselves to the movements of his head and the play of his mouth)-the things in the room have secretly and openly yielded themselves to the influence of winter overhanging from the window. They shimmer with street and sky, palpably and impalpably.

But they are more than children. Here's this wintry room, which the lamp checks through like a proof-copy, and from behind the lamp the dusk peers in to give it various advice, and the paraffin lamp, narrative under its crimson lampshade, puts hundreds of quaint corrections on the furniture and the corners; it takes a liking to the tapestry drooping with grey depth and overgrown with Persian beasts, and how indistinctly it singles it out, like some confused sad monologue; the dusk likes it too and looks it through once again; but why has it crossed out the bookcase? And two gaslight paths creep from the seethed curtains to rescue the bookcase. In the middle of the room a whole handful of marvels: a small table with pencils on it and music paper; a grandpiano, open and dusty; and more to the left, by the wall, some bad engravings to the fables of La Fontaine, some sort of pencilled foxes.

This is the room of the composer, the music teacher. There is one small fact, just an observation, which must go into the scenario. In the consciousness three elements are sewn together with strong surgical thread, the kind that grows in. Music, a neighbourless land, into which you fall, fall, amid sounds, [this is the first]. Candles, rounding up the room of wallpaper, portraits, twilight and tapestry, like a turbid, turbid flood-candles that let down the furniture like hair; in a word, the whole room, uplifted up by the bathing candles, the room, the world of objects, is the second element, a world of fragile great reality-that is, what you encounter when you stand up after music. And the third is over there at the window: flakes of the street, flakes of the wintry sky, flakes of street-lamps, flakes of fur-coats, flakes of raised cabs, flakes of skirts and muffs along half-frozen gutters, flakes of light flying like split coloured alum, flakes of children and shopping and nannies and windows of shops, all these things that have started running to catch up with music.

O this big life, life which is milliards of living specks tossed upward and chased down there aslant by a dense black darkness bending over roofs, a black winter sky that is shivering with snowflakes, like the palm of a hand reaching down to the pavement and roadway and raking in the street. The third element: crumbled and various life in its merry chase after music which is hiding. As if music had arrived in the town and put up somewhere, and everyone were fighting their way towards music as if to a hotel with a celebrity; they keep on throwing themselves about, and whatever slides and rolls and meets and parts and shudders from the dealt-out snowy sky is agitated by this search for music. And you cannot hear, outside the window, covered with tears for a long time now, you cannot hear, blowing in these fragments, the all-fusing, merry, belated, delicate question of the queried street: where to find music, where is it staying: haven't you seen music.

Thus. Three groups. First: the true past, actuality as a great immobile legend of wood and cloth, objects in need, twilight in need, like a church parish grown stale of heart from waiting. And lyricism, music, this is the second. Lyricism, pure, naked, and lifted up; lyricism, never to atone either for the dusk that has come to ask for forgiveness nor for the things in need of lyricism. The first is reality without movement, the second is movement without reality. And the third: the music down there in the snowflakes, the music of people going into and out of their homes, in brief the street's music, which so strangely, strangely, seeks its own self; the movement of reality which tosses about and desponds and stretches at times, because it is reality, and reality is eternally in need;; and look, there is music in fur-coats and music in smiles, and the smiles and declarations are like soap bubbles blown by life into spaces all scratched by the freezing cold, and the shopwindows thaw, and the carriages flying through ashy air thaw against unseen walls of rapture-of love who is passing by as a pedestrian: this chase of music after itself, isn't this life altogether?

So life is the third element. And the composer Shestikrylov, who gave lessons in the winter twilight, the composer Shestikrylov, who was waited for by his pupils in the salon a long, long time, after which they would meet him in the entrance-hall where above the shelves with the musical scores on them, dusty and worthless, the gas-jet like a snug butterfly buzzed so nasally. They always took Shestikrylov's furcoat from him and the layers of heaped-up snow on its collar were like narrowing eyes and like lips licked, in the hall where the snug gas-butterfly hotly buzzed. The composer Shestikrylov was the surgical thread for the stitching up of the world-order that had been operated on. The first/to be stitched/is the dear, perhaps dearest of all, inanimate world: the motley, coloured neediness of objects, life without life; and second is pure music, the duty of an inconceivable something to become reality and life, a sort of great singing eternal duty, like a remainder after the third thing, after life, which also fulfils [its duty] of course but doesn't notice itself, merely offers itself as a caryatid for unrealized lyricism. These three layers were being sewn together by the life of the composer, so that one whole should result; and, according to which layer he was piercing, the composer Shestikrylov would at one moment be in deep distress, feeling the inanimate weight of guilt and inanimate need, while at the next, uplifted, he would gaze around: "Where are the worshippers?" But most often of all, most often of all, it was life that was stitched and embroidered by the composer, and together with it he would fling himself into the search for himself. There seemed to be in his soul a high-up weeping little casement, and outside it, many floors below, his life was flinging itself, harrowed and smithereened, black and white from blotches of brimful electric prices, searching for that very casement which was flying after it into the snowy night. All too often he forgot he had taken himself along with himself once for all. But is it possible to bear this in mind eternally?

Well? There is a stage, then, and upon it, embroidered by human emotion as if in satin-stitch, the hidings and seekings of music.

Now I shall unobtrusively tell a small truth; a drama has been promised, and like all dramas it begins with a scenario, a description of objects. This is vital, after all, for is not the setting out of furniture in life the beginning of a drama? A room with objects-isn't this the ordering of a drama? I have never found anything else possible myself than to live amongst objects, like everyone else I live on the basis of the inanimate, and if someone were to ask me suddenly and authoritatively: "Upon what basis do you live. . .?"

O, then I would point to recollection, and I don't know whether he would believe that the past is an inanimate object, and childhood too is something inanimate, that is, demanding. Here is the scenario: twilight in the composer's flat-and either there is no meaning in it or else it's to be followed by a drama. This is how it was in life too-there stood the inanimate principles, demanding to be set in motion, and people would start off here at a run, and some of them, the ones who always thought further than others, and more quickly, became unrecognizable to acquaintances, they endured this delicious suffering: to work, to think upon the inanimate. And grew conscious of it. Subsequently life knocked at their door. They opened. And life, who had lost her way, asked: "Does life live here?" They stared in amazement at this guest who was looking for herself in someone else's flat; but they understood that her loneliness was hard to bear; so then they would settle the world of colours, objects, people, events, this whole complex world of contents-settle it down in their home and try to distract it. And either they would tell reality hundreds of personal trifles about herself, or else they'd take her onto their lap and rock her to sleep with verses; so that by the time she left she would have completely forgotten herself, completely lost herself.

Later, they became artists. They were more attentive; approaching something which to most people seemed animate, they would say: we see your need, we see how inanimate and ornamental you are, you memories of ours; and we shall mourn and wring our hands for you.

How a drama is put together in life; how, unable to bear the inanimate pleas any longer, we move the chairs and armchairs back, to dance and dance-this is what I want to convey here. And how, in the dance, life is sharpened to a very sharp point. Oh what clean straight lines fate can draw with this agitation! How, in the dance, there's a desire to reach the unconscious; and maybe the furniture in its loose covers is ready to think that once it too sprang forth as a dancing soul and dropped [to the ground] as an inanimate past; then like ears of ripe barley the candleflame is carved into the black bloated window-panes, and the panes in the frame seem dilated horse-black nostrils.

Meanwhile, the town yawns with a kind of stony emptiness as on the evening before a holiday. And suddenly this on-the-eve yawn, this huge square of paving-stones, is cleft by the bow-shaped stroke of a bell, like a whip with a humming tip, and after it, crumbly, the black earthen avalance of deep-voiced churchbells, and all this is upon the earth, it's here, where we are; and dances too are upon the earth, and Relikvimini, and Angelika, they too are upon the earth, and not once have they had to go to hell or to heaven to experience an encounter with hell or with heaven. So, it is all the sad drama of happiness.

If someone could be found who would draw a curtain across this stage with its furnishing of twilight; and who, furthermore, would find it interesting to raise the curtain once a week, on the deserted windy holidays when the asphalt stretches and crawls up to the first floors of shops, for are not asphalts and lowered steel shutters one and the same thing on holidays. . .? Then flags hurry the dried secret snow; and the shrunken snow, withered in the solid cold, drags itself down the pavement, inviting various half-frozen bits of paper to follow it. So, on such days, when house-fronts, gleaming with woven drawing-rooms, meet in the dusk at advertisement columns, while the asphalts, those temple-bones of the migraine-paved square-the asphalts grow inexorably, and the sky too, charged with unfallen collected snows, is made up to look like an empty grey square of closed shops and vein-blue flags; on these days when the sky is made up as empty subsided pavements, perhaps that person I so much need will be interested in raising the curtain. And now let's suppose he's been found.. He is thin, but not unacceptably so for a decent person; he could have been painted by Holbein, for example. At any rate, when he moves off to pull the cord hanging from the edge of the inanimate, his face turns out to have been assembled from the simplest and purest anatomical alphabet. Evidently, he is one of those who go from the simple to the simple with a complex gait. Now he will raise the curtain; he'll find there, as at the beginning of every drama, a man's solitude. Here, on our stage, the man is Relikvimini, who is sitting on the window-sill watching the opposite pavement, composed of bakeries, chemists' shops and coachmen's yards, float up to the seaweed of the boulevard; all have gas-lit windows like protruding eyes, all are swallowing the shredded winter widely and lazily, and blowing warm steam-bubbles; and this is not at all because a few blocks away, from behind the roofs, attics are raking out like stokers the brick heat of the theatre wall, and not because the façade is that of the Aquarium, it is not because of this that Relikvimini is about to compare the turbid black-green darkness to an aquarium. And a flock of voracious shops is being fed from above with snowflakes. Relikvimini is waiting for the teacher; he wants to show him his recent compositions.

Oh, pardon . . . in my brochure of existence the days of creation have been shuffled too fast. Excuse me, I cannot remember except out loud, I can't do it silently, I'm sorry; silently I can only forget. And so . . . in the beginning was created the furniture, and then the word, which had created it, began to find the supplication of the inanimate unbearable, and it sent the musician Relikvimini among the furniture, as heroes used to be sent among the people; this musician was to arrive with a large country Bible, but solely for the sake of the inanimate. And now he was falling asleep. But as his day was all built-up with the inanimate world, his sleep too was a tangle of swaying exhausted objects.

Once in a dream the furthest veneer of this world came off (it must have been a burning convulsive dream that would not fit into the room): and the rural musician, rubbing his eyes, kissing the matting in a delirium, for once in his life perhaps, heard the thousands of creeping and winding, old and young, motley-hungry materials say that that, the bit which had come off, that thing in the corner, the furthest away from the prettily-tiled and heated dream-do you see, do you see, they mooed to the waking man, the veneer is dancing, it has returned to the dance, and we've been wanting to meet you, you ranged us along the walls and you whirled around, and you played on the Bechstein so as at some time to whirl your way to the furniture and the materials, but you too have been sleeping and you know it; we think you such a comic fellow, you warmed everything up with your dream as hotly as if you were expecting someone to come from outside, from the snowflakes and frost, as if you were expecting your sister, or the postman who would say to you: "No, Relikvimini, I know the world better than you, and I make bold to assure you there is no such sister in all the world, here is your impatience and expectation back again, all covered with writing, you can heat the flat with this bundle." And maybe you would say to him "Be quiet! isn't it twenty degrees below zero in here? And am I not dreaming fathoms and fathoms of dreams; aren't they fuel? do they smoke? aren't they fuel? And must I-oh Lord, oh Lord,-must I burn my impatience and expectation as well?"

But it happened otherwise. Oh, how enriched you are today, rural musician who almost punched the postman; you can stop dancing, and don't even play on the Bechstein, and-above all-stop using these dreams as fuel. Look, the window-panes are holding a service, and the mercury columns have risen on tiptoe like naughty children preparing to wail. In a moment you'll put out the lights and sit down, for look, there's enough light from the winter; and wait, well, you can strum a few chords into the half-dark if you really must. And with the soft pedal? Well, all right. Oh, how enriched you are today. Wait. Don't dance. Someone is dancing from us to you. The heating has been done. The veneer has torn off . . . it dances away . . . and there is Angelika.

Voilà! Hylozoism! Or the creation of Eve from a rib snapped in sleep. Yes, it is all splendid, but this whole dramatic scheme about Relikvimini and Angelika and the million necessary and unnecessary known and unknown `bestmen' of their lives-as if there were a wedding here-all this is not worth a farthing if one highly important matter is missed out. A few moments before my Holbeinesque Schleiermacher curtain-trader pulls the string, the piano-tuner's dull monotonous octaves, fifths and fourths are heard off-stage, the sort that only happen in winter, walled up by a heated twilit wall: the tuner's torture-chamber. This is essential. For this rite is enacted in life as well, in the same sequence. There he is, tightly holding in his teeth a couple of sounds, beginning to strike one note, like a nail, dully and long.

And isn't this what we do when we want to put love in tune; don't we nail it down? No, positively everything ends and begins with nails, if we follow the motto: Alles sei wohltemporirt. And don't we receive what arrives nailed-down and nail it down again when we send it away?

translated by Angela Livingstone

The translator would like to thank Valentina Coe for her help in rendering certain difficult words.

This article is taken from PN Review 8, Volume 5 Number 4, July - September 1979.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to
Further Reading: - Boris Pasternak Poem by... (1) Review of... (1)
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image