Douglas Murray

Boris Pasternak Sonnet

Douglas Murray, one of my favorite current writers and historian, is posting over the next year a column on Free Press with Bari Weiss. Murray did an excellent video series called Uncancelled. This current column started off well. He focused on Boris Pasternak, an excellent Russian author, who lived in Stalinist times and survived.

Here is the story of his reply of one number, 30, and how it likely saved his life and energized other Russians who understood the meaning. There is more to his article and story of this Shakespeare sonnet…

Two foundational stories stick in my own mind. I will tell the second one next week, but I will start with an event that took place in Moscow in 1937.
That year’s annual Soviet writers’ congress took place in the worst time of the purges. At the major show trials in Moscow, people were confessing to things they could not possibly have done. Both the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge and the author Fitzroy Maclean, who observed these events, were credited with the line “I can believe everything except the facts.”
The people who got public show trials were comparatively lucky: at least the absurdity of the excuse for their murder was made public. Other people disappeared all the time with nothing heard of them again.
It was a dangerous time to be a private citizen, but an even worse time to be a public one. So the writers’ congress that year included a lot of very dull, regime-prescribed speeches praising the virtues of Leninist–Stalinism, Stalinist–Leninism, and so on. It was the sort of occasion to which all artists were subjected through that era: a ritual of forced humiliation. A way of getting everyone to collude in the world of lies. 
Boris Pasternak was one of the most famous writers in the country. Though he had not yet completed Doctor Zhivago—the novel that would make him internationally famous—in that hall, that year, everybody knew him. And Pasternak faced a challenge. He could not speak, and he couldn’t not speak. Stalin’s secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria and his men were literally standing by the side of the stage. If Pasternak spoke, he could be disappeared. If he didn’t speak, he could be disappeared. So he stayed silent. It was on the third and final day of the conference that the writer’s friends persuaded him that the silence was madness. He had to speak. So finally, Pasternak got up to the lectern.
Everybody knew who he was, of course. He was tall, and strikingly handsome. As he pulled himself up to his full height he said not a word but a number. The number was “30.” As he said it, all two thousand writers in the hall got to their feet, and—with Pasternak—began to recite.
Thirty is the number of the Shakespeare sonnet beginning, “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought I summon up remembrance of things past.” Today the line may be best known for giving C. K. Scott Moncrieff the title for his English translation of Proust’s masterpiece about lost time. But the Russian writers in that hall all knew Pasternak had himself done a translation of the sonnet into Russian. It was already a classic. Those who know his translation say it is as beautiful as the original.

RapidWeaver Icon

Made in RapidWeaver