Having read Pasternak’s pseudo-epics (or, as one might uncharitably call them, failed epics) of the mid-1920s, 1905 and Lieutenant Schmidt (both of which seem pretty unknown to English-speakers, to judge from Google results), I’ve taken a break to read Marina Tsvetaeva (along with the biography by Viktoria Schweitzer), and I thought I’d take a moment to give my impression of the long Pasternak poems. They’re both about the 1905 Revolution — apparently Pasternak wasn’t ready to deal with the more recent ones (when he was ready, the result would be Doctor Zhivago) — but nothing in them aroused my interest in either the revolution or the noble Lieutenant Schmidt, who gave up his life for the sake of the revolting sailors. What excited and moved me, and I’m sure what Pasternak put his heart into, are the passages that have nothing to do with politics or biography but are pure descriptions of nature (always close to Pasternak’s soul).
In 1905 there is the bravura passage about the sea that opens the section Морской мятеж [Sailor’s revolt], beginning “Приедается все,/ Лишь тебе не дано примелькаться…” (‘Everything palls;/ Only to you is it not given to become overly familiar from looking’ — you can see from that second line how impossible it is to translate); Dmitry Bykov said it sinks instantly into the memory of any Russian speaker, and I had little trouble memorizing a substantial chunk of it. I suppose the closest thing in English is Byron’s “Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean,—roll!/ Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain…” In Lieutenant Schmidt there’s a similarly glorious section about the Sebastopol harbor beginning “В зимней призрачной красе/ Дремлет рейд в рассветной мгле…” [‘In winter’s spectral beauty/ The roadstead slumbers in dawn’s haze…’], which has an irresistible passage in which he lullingly lingers on palatalized l’s: “Еле-еле лебезит/ Утренняя зыбь./ Каждый еле слышный шелест…” [‘Barely, barely flatter-crawl/ The morning ripples./ Every barely audible rustle…’]. But what prompted me to post was another passage, the start of section 2, that begins “Вырываясь с моря, из-за почты,/ Ветер прет на ощупь, как слепой” [‘Pulling itself out from the sea, beyond the post office,/ The wind makes its way by touch, like a blind man’]. I memorized that as well, with the result that it was fresh in my mind when I hit this bit from Curzio Malaparte’s The Skin: “The black wind is like a blind man, who gropes his way, caressing the air and barely touching nearby objects with his outstretched hands. It is blind, it does not see where it is going…” I don’t think it’s likely that Malaparte had read the Pasternak poem, even though he knew Russian literature, since it probably hadn’t been translated into any language he read; it’s just a coincidence, but certainly a striking one. I will never encounter a wind in my face quite the same way again.