Years ago, sometime after I read Anna Karenina and knew that Russian Literature as one of my first literary loves as a result, I had this notion I would learn Russian one day. “Then I can read Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, and Dostoyevsky,” As one does when one is young, in literary love, and naive. When I realized I had no time to learn Russian (I was only interested in reading it), I decided to read W&P. I am still debating when to read DZ. I had seen the film years ago, and the DVD extras allowed me to be fascinated with Pasternak, this utter poet that had loved and lost in more than two wars and a revolution. A novelist as much as a poet. Often those two come hand in hand, but he seems to be both with a deftness and balance most other others do not or can not do. He is both completely, though poet seems to tip the scales of course. In this way, he reminds me of another writer I love which is Shakespeare, a dramatist and a poet. Unsurprisingly, Pasternak is lover of Shakespeare having translated many of his plays into Russian and referencing the bard in his own poetry.
While Doctor Zhivago cemented his place in world literature, his poetry changed the Russian literary landscape completely in the 1920s that it probably tipped the scale of his 1958 Nobel Prize in Literature. My Sister Life (sometimes a dash or a comma is placed between the last two words) was written in 1917, but not published until 1921. The collection of poems has themes of nature, Shakespeare (“English Lessons” and “Hamlet’), passion and life (“In Everything I seek to reach”), mythology and fairytale (“In memory of the demon”), love, change, and finally, like any good Russian literary legend, on history and politics (“1905”). I am not adept at reviewing poetry. I have only really started to be interested in it in the five years, and writing reviews even less. While English classes have allowed me practice to analyse novels and plays more thoroughly, poetry is often overlooked. I have never taken a university level literature class where poetry analysis is probably more common. All I know is that I like a lot of poets, their words, the music, the themes, and the feeling one often gets from reading it that the author is completely immersed and given to his works. Poetry can be so personal in a way prose is not always. I felt it for these poems, translated or not. I like them and that is the extent of my poetry criticism.
The edition I have was translated by Olga Andreyev Carlisle, she too of Russian literary progeny. Knowing the limitations of translating poetry which relies so heavily on tone and the language’s perfect uniqueness, Carlilsle wanted to translate more the imagery. I thought she did a fine job because I’ve read two other translations of some Pasternak poetry on the web, and she is at least better than someone else. This translation was a project that started in 1967, published in 1976. It has photographs specifically taken for the project, alongside the poems which are translated and include the original Russian cyrillic. Sadly, it seems the edition is out of print. It is a shame because one of the best parts of this edition is the last section of the book has the translator’s experiences visiting Pasternak in winter 1960, just months before his death. Their conversations made me appreciate both the translator and the poet even more.
I recommend this collection if you like poetry, and especially if you like Russian literature. If you find a copy of the translation, all the better for it is a gem.