25 July 2004

Pasternak in Georgia, 1930s

During the decades since the publication of Safe Conduct, I often thought that if I were to republish it I would add a chapter on the Caucasus and two Georgian poets. Time passed and the need for other additions did not arise. The only gap that remained was this missing chapter. I am going to write it now.

About 1930, in winter, Paolo Yashvili and his wife paid me a visit in Moscow. Yashvili was a brilliant man of the world, a cultured and entertaining conversationalist, a "European," a tall and handsome man.

Soon after their visit all sorts of upheavals, complications, and changes took place in two families, that of a friend of mine and my own. They were very painful to those implicated in them. For some time my companion, who was afterwards to become my second wife, and I had no roof over our heads. Yashvili offered us a place of refuge at his house in Tiflis.

At that time the Caucasus, Georgia, the life of the Georgian people and some of its individual representatives were a complete revelation to me. Everything was new, everything was surprising. Dark bulks of overhanging mountains towered at the end of all the street vistas of Tiflis. The life of the city's poorest inhabitants, brought out from the yards into the streets, was bolder and less concealed than in the North. It was brighter and more candid. It was full of mysticism and the messianic symbolism of folk legends which are so favorable to the life of the imagination and which, as in Catholic Poland, turn every man into a poet. The more advanced section of the population showed a high level of cultural and intellectual life that was seldom to be met with in those days. The fine buildings of certain parts of Tiflis reminded me of Petersburg; some had railings outside the first-floor windows which were bent in the shape of baskets or lyres. The city also abounded in picturesque back lanes. Big tambourines beating to the rhythm of the lezginka followed you about everywhere and always seemed to catch up with you. In addition, there were the goatlike bleatings of the bagpipes and some other musical instruments. Nightfall in a Southern town was full of stars and the scent of flowers from the gardens mingled with the smells from coffeehouses and confectioners' shops....

If Yashvili was turned outwards, all in a centrifugal direction, Titian Tabidze was turned inwards and every line he wrote and every step he took called you into the depths of his rich soul, so full of intuitions and forebodings....

His house in Kodzhary stands at the bend of the road. The road rises along the front and then, bending round the house, goes past its back wall. From that house one can see those who walk and those who drive past it twice.

It was at the height of the period when, according to Bely's witty definition, the triumph of materialism had abolished matter. There was nothing to eat; there was nothing to wear. There was nothing tangible around, only ideas. If we kept alive, it was thanks to our Tiflis friends, miracle workers who all the time managed to get something and bring something and provide us with advances from publishing houses for something we had no idea of.

We met, exchanged news, dined, read something to each other. The light, cool breezes played, as though with fingers, with the poplar's silvery foliage, velvety and white on the underside. The air, as with rumors, was full of the heavy scents of the South. Like the front of a cart on its coupling-pole, the night on high slowly turned the whole body of its starry chariot. And on the road bullock-carts and automobiles drove and moved along and every one of them could be seen from the house twice.

Or we were on the Georgian military road, or in Borzhom, or in Abastuman. Or after trips into the countryside, to beauty spots, adventures, and libations, we, each one of us with something or other, and I with a black eye from a fall, stopped in Bakuriany at the house of Leonidze, a most original poet, more than anyone else closely bound up with the mysteries of the language in which he wrote, and for that reason least of all amenable to translation.

A midnight feast on the grass in a wood, a beautiful hostess, two charming little daughters. Next day the unexpected arrival of a mestvir, a wandering minstrel with a bagpipe, and an impromptu glorification of everyone at the table in turn, with an appropriate text and an ability to seize on any excuse, like my black eye, for instance, for a toast.

Or we went to the seaside in Kabuleti. Rains and storms. In the same hotel Simon Chikovani, the future master of bright, picturesque verse, at the time still a member of the Communist Youth League. And above the line of all the mountains and horizons, the head of the smiling poet walking beside me, and the bright, luminous signs of his prodigious talent, and the shadow of sadness and destiny in his smile. And once more I bid farewell to him now on these pages. Let me, in his person, bid a farewell to all my other memories.
SOURCE: I Remember: Sketch for an Autobiography, by Boris Pasternak (Harvard U. Press, 1983, now out of print), pp. 111-118

UPDATE: Reader Vernaculo in the comments provides instructions on how to access the Library of Congress photos from the 1910s of the region Pasternak visited during the 1930s. Access the search engine for the Prokudin-Gorskii Collection at http://lcweb2.loc.gov/pp/prokquery.html, then type in "Borzhom" and hit Search, then Preview Images.

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