Boris Pasternak and Marina Tsvetaeva: letters from a couple of poets

SLet’s be unfair and tell the story of the personal encounters between Boris Pasternak and Marina Tsvetaeva as follows: Between 1918 and 1922 they ran into each other a few times in Moscow. It wasn’t until thirteen years later, in 1935, that they met again in a café in Paris. In the meantime, after Tsvetaeva emigrated from Russia, they had written over two hundred letters in which Pasternak Tsvetaeva, among other things, affirmed his love and in which Tsvetaeva Pasternak confessed, among other things, that she would like a child with him. At the meeting in Paris, Pasternak finally says he’s going to get a cigarette, gets up, leaves the café and won’t return. What went wrong there?

The fact that that part of the correspondence between Pasternak and Tsvetaeva that has survived is now completely in German for the first time is a sensation, madness and luck. A sensation because we are dealing here with the two lonely (literally lonely) luminaries in Russian poetry of the 20th century. Madness, because it is amazing how the translator Marie-Luise Bott managed the work on the transmission of this rich, inexhaustible correspondence on her own. And luckily, because times when the political situation in Russia is becoming more and more repressive urgently need the living memory of a poet who has always retained their inner freedom and independence.

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One can, of course, read the correspondence between Pasternak and Tsvetaeva in purely biographical terms. Both are always so euphoric by the poems of their counterpart that they fall in love with their ideas of each other. After a while, their biographical parallels become clear to them: Both come from Moscow, both come from a family of professors, both speak fluent German, both are extremely familiar with German literature, and both mothers were pianists. Occasionally a third correspondent comes along, for example Tsvetaeva’s husband Sergei Efron or the literature professor Svyatopolk-Mirski.

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On a par with God

The editor’s decision not to accept the letters of another third correspondent, namely Rilke, is remarkable. Perhaps the reprint of Rilke’s letters would have burst the tape, as this epistolic triangular affair is too complex. For Pasternak, Rilke has been pretty much on a par with God for many years, so he is electrified when his father, the painter Leonid Pasternak, who lives in Berlin, tells him that Rilke was extremely appreciative of his ‘Boris’ poems voiced.

Boris Pasternak then wrote to Rilke – and this first letter was more about Marina Tsvetaeva than himself. Rilke immediately complied with Pasternak’s request to send Zwetajewa the “Duinese Elegies”. Zwetajewa immediately falls in love with Rilke, whom she will never get to know personally in her life and of whom she does not know that he is terminally ill (he suggests it to her, but she misunderstands).

Easily inflammable: the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941)

Easily inflammable: the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941)

Quelle: picture alliance / ITAR-TASS

After a while she wrote to him: “Rainer – don’t be angry with me, I want to sleep with you – fall asleep and sleep.” Again it is a dream that Tsvetaeva loves, but it is precisely these correspondences that are vital to her. This key passage can be found very early in one of her letters to Pasternak in November 1922: “My favorite way of dealing with things is an otherworldly one: the dream of seeing in a dream. And the second favorite – the correspondence. The letter as a kind of otherworldly intercourse, less perfect than the dream, but the laws are the same. ”

Erratic and unstable

The Pasternak-Tsvetaeva correspondence can also be read psychologically. The moodiness often attributed to Tsvetaeva is much more a trait of Pasternak’s character. His letters are often written out of the mood of the moment, full of surprises and unexpected twists, and occasionally confused and incomprehensible. His style is erratic, unstable, but always musical. Tsvetaeva, on the other hand, carefully prepares her letters (this volume also includes her drafts for the letters from her workbooks); her letters are full of lightning-fast, striking insights into the nature of her relationship with Pasternak. She often expresses herself enthusiastically to Pasternak, sometimes harshly, but always respectfully. Her basic mood is always stable, her style always poetic.

Another reading that can be applied to this correspondence is the poetological one – one could hold a separate literary studies seminar on almost every single one of these letters – or the work biographical one: Pasternak and Tsvetaeva leave each other their poems (or drafts of their works ), exercise constructive criticism and allow themselves to be inspired, take up criticism again and again.

But over time the tone of the letters becomes more sober. There are several reasons for this: Both have to admit, perhaps to different degrees, that the image they have made of each other is a chimera. Pasternak separates from his first wife Yevgenia Lourié when he meets Sinaida Neuhaus. And: In view of the increasing Stalinist repression, the extent of which the Tsvetaeva living in emigration is not aware of, he is becoming more cautious and cautious.

Nah am Original

A short word about translation. Basically, all translation schools can be reduced to two directions. Some say: You should notice that it is a translation. The translation should be as literal as possible. It is intended that certain expressions sound strange in the target language, because the thought shimmers through from the source language like a watermark. – The others say: You shouldn’t notice that it’s a translation. The translation should be as fluent as possible.

Monument to Marina Tsvetaeva in Moscow

Monument to Marina Tsvetaeva in Moscow

Quelle: picture-alliance/ dpa

The advantage of this second motto is obvious: fluent translations are easy to read. The disadvantage of the first motto is also obvious: literal translations are always bumpy. At least that’s the rule. Pasternak is the memorable exception. It is perhaps the only case in Russian literature in which a German translation that is very close to the wording of the original sounds better than a relatively free, analogous one. The translator of this correspondence has decided to always stay close to the original, and thus sets herself apart from some of her predecessors.

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We should therefore primarily thank the editor and translator Marie-Luise Bott, but also Wallstein Verlag for the great publishing feat of having published this unique correspondence. Irina Prokhorova, the great intellectual voice of the unfortunately ever smaller liberal public in Russia, was also involved in the creation of this edition. Interestingly, the editor writes at the end of the volume: “The fact that this correspondence finally found a publisher after a lengthy search is thanks to the emphatic commitment of Daniel Kehlmann.” Anyone who has the desire and time to believe in coincidences can ultimately also have a deeper meaning find in it why this book was only published in 2021 – there will soon be a worthy occasion: August 31, 2021 is Tsvetaeva’s 80th anniversary of death.

Boris Pasternak – Marina Tsvetaeva: “Correspondence 1922 – 1936”. Edited and translated by Marie-Luise Bott. Wallstein. 802 S., 39,90 €.


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