Thursday, May 20, 2010

‘Each of our letters – is the last’: a review of 'Letters, Summer 1926', by Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetayeva, and Rainer Maria Rilke

Edited by Yevgeny Pasternak, Yelena Pasternak, and Konstantin M. Azadovsky, translated by Margaret Wettlin, Walter Arndt, and Jamey Gambrell (New York: The New York Review of Books, 2001)

I reviewed Letters, Summer 1926 as part of the Spotlight Series Tour of the New York Review of Books Classics series that runs from 16-22 May (see previous post). Click here to find out more about the tour and discover more reviews of the wide range of books in the NYRB series.

I saw a summer on this earth that seemed not to recognize itself, a summer as pristinely natural as a revelation. 

- Boris Pasternak, a letter to Rainer Maria Rilke written after Rilke’s death and included at the end of the manuscript to Safe Conduct. Quoted in Letters, Summer 1926, p.308.

When Boris Pasternak’s father, Leonid, a well-known painter, wrote to his old friend Rainer Maria Rilke in December 1925 to congratulate him on his fiftieth birthday, he inadvertently began one of the most startling exchanges of correspondence in modern poetry. Rilke had always had a connection with Russia: the essential introduction to this volume explains how, after his two trips to the country in 1899 and 1900, during which he met Leo Tolstoy, he had described Russia as ‘my native land’ (p.8). And Rilke had been a tremendous influence on two of the most prominent members of the younger generation, Boris Pasternak and Marina Tsevtayeva. When finally – after frustrating delays – Pasternak finally read Rilke’s reply to his father, he was moved to put Rilke in touch with Tsvetayeva. Remarkably, Pasternak himself was to write only one letter to Rilke before the latter’s death in December 1926, but his relationship with the man he idolised grew vicariously through Tsvetayeva’s correspondence with Rilke. In a letter written after Rilke’s death and published in Pasternak’s 1931 book Safe Conduct, he explained that whilst he did not write to Rilke, ‘I comforted myself with the knowledge that Tsvetayeva was writing to you, and while I could not be a substitute for Tsvetayeva, she could be a substitute for me.’ (p.305)

The core of this skilfully edited collection, originally published in German in 1983, in English in 1985, and reissued here in a 2001 second edition, is the exchange of letters between Tsvetayeva and Pasternak – there are actually only eight letters written by Rilke here – but Rilke’s influence pervades the correspondence from the first letter to the last – and then beyond, for the editors also include two essays about Rilke by Tsvetayeva, translated by Jamey Gambrell. Rilke is monumental in the lives of Pasternak and Tsevtayeva. This collection is, as Susan Sontag says in her engaging preface, ‘a portrait of the sacred delirium of art. There are three participants: a god and two worshipers, who are also worshipers of each other (and who we, the readers of their letters, know to be future gods).’ (p.x) It seems at times as if the relationship between the two Russian writers is in fact sustained by the cherished hope that they might visit Rilke in Switzerland, where he was staying in a sanatorium, struggling with the leukemia which would eventually overpower him. ‘When I used to ask you what we would do if we were together,’ Tsvetayeva wrote, ‘you once answered, “We would go to Rilke.”’ (Tsvetayeva to Rilke, June 3, 1926, quoting her own letter to Pasternak, p.161.) Pasternak and Tsvetayeva had been correspondents for several years, but their growing mutual connection to Rilke seems to reinforce their appreciation of each other and finally even transcend it. The idea that Pasternak might correspond with Rilke, to whom, he said, he was ‘indebted […] for the fundamental cast of my character, the nature of my intellectual being’ (‘Pasternak to Rilke, April 12, 1926’, p.64)  was almost too much for the thirty-six-year-old Pasternak to bear. The news that his father had received a letter from Rilke but that it would be sent along to him in due course, caused Pasternak to burst into tears and be unable to sleep for three nights. (pp.59-60) And, in a correspondence is so heavily influenced by time, Pasternak’s reaction was made the more intense by the fact that he had just read Tsvetayeva’s ‘Poem of the End’. These two events conspired to leave Pasternak in a fragile yet ecstatic state: ‘It’s as if my shirt were split down the front by the expansion of my heart. I’m punchdrunk. Nothing but splinters all about me: there are kindred souls in this world – and how extraordinary they are!’ (‘Pasternak to Josephine Pasternak, March 28, 1926’, p.61) 

It was after reading this poem, the editors say, that Pasternak began his correspondence with Tsvetayeva in earnest and started writing to her using the informal ‘ty’ form of address in Russian. The collection repeatedly shows how both Pasternak and Tsvetayeva believed they shared an indissoluble, even mystical bond – as poets and, at times, as lovers, though they were not to physically meet again until 1935, a brief event that Tsvetayeva later described as a ‘non-meeting’. All three writers use these letters to comment and criticise the others’ work, but the very nature of the letter form is for them also both a space of intimacy and confession. ‘Basically you and I think alike’, writes Pasternak (‘Pasternak to Tsevtayeva, July 1, 1926’, p.206), whilst in an earlier letter Tsvetayeva had told him that they could not live together, ‘[n]ot because of you, and not because of me [..] but because both you and I are beyond life, have grown out of it. We can only meet.’ (‘Tsvetayeva to Pasternak, May 26, 1925’, p.228) 

The book charts the ebb and flow of their relationship effectively, with editorial interventions that fill in where letters have gone missing or the context is not clear. Perhaps because of the problems with the postal service (there were no diplomatic or postal relations between the USSR and Switzerland, for instance), because of intensity of the correspondence, the need to reply almost instantly and continue this epistolary dialogue – because of all these things, misunderstandings occur. Tsvetayeva misunderstands Rilke at one stage, thinking that her letters overburden him; Pasternak’s ardour for Tsvetayeva (‘you are my only legitimate heaven and wife’ (‘Pasternak to Tsvetayeva, May 5, 1926’, p.86)) led Tsvetayeva to cool him, telling him not to come and visit her in France because of his obligations in Moscow. Most astonishing is Tsvetayeva’s decision – in a July letter sadly since lost – to break off all correspondence with Pasternak, a decision that Pasternak believed was a result of his telling Tsvetayeva about his deep love for his wife. Included here is an enigmatic letter that seems to have been written to assuage guilt, in which Pasternak told his wife, Yevgenia, that ‘I did not betray you, nor did I give you any case for jealousy.’ (‘Pasternak to Yevgenia Pasternak, July 29, 1926’, p.246) And yet at the end of 1926, in the coda to the correspondence included in this volume, Tsvetayeva took up her pen again to give Pasternak news of Rilke’s death as if it were her duty. In a powerful phrase, Pasternak asked Tsvetayeva: ‘[c]an you imagine our orphaning in all of its brutality?’ (‘Pasternak to Tsvetayeva, February 3, 1927’, p.274) And Tsvetayeva insisted that she and Pasternak should meet again, arguing that Rilke’s death ‘authorizes my right to be with you – more than a right, a command signed by his own hand.’ (‘Tsvetayeva to Pasternak, February 8-9, 1927’, p.275)

Pasternak’s description of he and Tsvetayeva as children now suddenly bereft of a parent merely complicates the three poets’ relationship. Tsvetayeva tells Pasternak that he had ‘so completely become Rilke’s younger brother’ (‘Tsvetayeva to Pasternak, May 11, 1927’, p.296), whilst Rilke admonishes Tsvetayeva for cutting off correspondence with Pasternak, accusing her of being ‘stern, almost harsh toward him’ (‘Rilke to Tsvetayeva, August 19, 1926’, p.256) And yet because Rilke meant everything to them, both poets constructed relationships with Rilke (Tsvetayeva in letter form, Pasternak in his mind) that went beyond the familial. Tsvetayeva’s letters to Rilke are instantly intimate, but she also thrived on cultivating a secret force of such extreme closeness that it went beyond sexual desire: ‘you might take me for generally passionate (passion-bondage). “I love you and want to sleep with you” – friendship is begrudged this sort of brevity. But I say it in a different voice, almost asleep, fast asleep. I sound quite different from passion.’ (‘Tsvetayeva to Rilke, August 2, 1926, p.252)

And it is Tsvetayeva’s voice that comes through most clearly in this collection – her voracious hungers and desires for literature, for love, for intimacy. She is unafraid to challenge her correspondents, demanding from Rilke ‘a big letter, quick, for me alone’ (‘Tsvetayeva to Rilke, July 6, 1926’, p.224), and telling him that in his latest work ‘you sound briefer, each line an abridged Rilke, something like an abstract.’ (Ibid., pp.221-222) Her letters in particular – but Pasternak’s too – seem to be written in a great rush, sometimes even contradicting themselves, as if grasping towards experience that is just out of reach. For what Tsvetayeva really wants does not appear to be in life: ‘Darkness, light, transfiguration.’ (‘Tsvetayeva to Pasternak, Saturday July 10, 1926’, p.231) It is rather to be found in mythical experience, an assertion that only deepened with Rilke’s death. Her dreams were filled by him; her poem ‘Attempt at a Room’, begun with Pasternak in mind, became a poem about Tsvetayeva and Rilke; and as the editors suggest, ‘Tsvetayeva adopted a spiritual outlook apparently based on the anthroposophical conception of the reincarnation of the soul. This gave her the hope of yet meeting Rilke.’ (p.282) Such a position was a logical extension of the statement in her initial letter to him: ‘You are an impossible task for future poets. The poet who comes after you must be you, i.e., you must be born again.’ (‘Tsvetayeva to Rilke, May 9, 1926’, p.106) 

The editors note poignantly that after Rilke’s death, Tsvetayeva’s poetic output declined. Some of the explanation for this no doubt lies in her need to produce prose articles to support her increasingly impoverished family, but subsequent tumultuous personal and political events in Russia where she returned in 1939 resulted in a time, the editors describe, in which ‘lyric poetry […] withered under the Terror and the threat of World War II.’ (p.315) These future events make the content of Letters, Summer 1926 all the more extraordinary and valuable as a way of writing and living that was soon to disappear forever.

Further reading


- A selection of Pasternak’s poems in English and Russian
- Andrei Navrozov (trans.), Second Nature: Poems by Boris Pasternak, 2nd edn. (London: Peter Owen Publishers, 2003)
- Boris Pasternak, An Essay in Autobiography, trans. Manya Harari (London: Collins and Harvill Press, 1959)
- Lydia Pasternak Slater (trans.), Boris Pasternak, Fifty Poems (London: George Allen and Unwin, Ltd., 1963)


- Joseph Brodsky, Less than One: Selected Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1986) [Contains Brodsky’s essay ‘Footnote to a Poem’, his famous commentary on Tsvetayeva’s elegy for Rilke.]
- Elaine Feinstein (trans.), Selected Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva, 5th edn. (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1999)
- Elaine Feinstein (trans.), Marina Tsvetaeva, Bride of Ice: New Selected Poems, 6th edn. (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2009)
- Elaine Feinstein, A Captive Lion: The Life of Marina Tsvetaeva (London: Hutchinson, 1987)
- Angela Livingstone (trans.), Art in the Light of Conscience: Eight Essays on Poetry by Marina Tsvetaeva (Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 2010)
- David McDuff (trans.), Marina Tsvetaeva, Selected Poems (Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 1987)


- Stephen Mitchell (trans.) The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke (New York: Vintage International, 1989)
- Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus, bilingual edition (New York: Vintage Books, 2009)
- Reginald Snell (trans.), Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet (B.N. Publishing, 2008)


  1. Thanks so much for participating in the series! I'm glad you enjoyed your selection so much. I often feel somewhat wistful when I read literature or letters or anything, really, from just before the start of WWI or WWII. I always wonder how the person doing the writing came out afterward.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Aarti - and many thanks indeed for setting up the series. It's been fascinating, and a great way to discover new titles.

    I'm afraid in the case of Tsvetayeva and Pasternak, things ended in the worst possible way. There is some debate about how guilty Pasternak was in 1935, when he visited Paris, saw Tsvetayeva, and didn't warn her not to return to Russia. When she did go back with her son in 1939, it was to find that a number of her relatives and friends had been arrested. But then her daughter was arrested, followed by her husband, and she took her son and left Moscow when Germany invaded. Tsvetayeva committed suicide in August, 1941.

  3. Wow! Thanks so much for bringing this book to my attention. I'm not much for reading letters, but I have read, and loved, Rilke's correspondance with Lou Andreas-Salomé. I can imagine the ideas and passion he might inspire in the letters of poets. Must get my hands on this book.

  4. Thank you very much for your comment, Isabella. I don't know Rilke's letters to Andreas-Salomé, but she sounds like a remarkable character from what I can glean from a quick internet search. I have been reading Rilke's 'Letters to a Young Poet' which, if you haven't read them, are very much worth discovering. Be prepared for only a small amount of Rilke in 'Letters, Summer 1926' though - he is, as I suggested in the review, a constant presence, even if only a few of the letters are actually from him. The way his relationship develops with Tsvetayeva in such a small space of time is fascinating.