Friday, April 11, 2014

Zhenia Luvers

Evgenia, Evgeni and Boris Pasternak
Zhenia Luvers, the protagonist of The Childhood of Luvers, by Boris Pasternak (1918) grows up in a house full of “mournful confusion.” Her parents are well-off, but generally either absent or unhappy. She and her brother are bewildered. Zhenia wants only to understand the names of things, such as the factory her father directs, which looks so strange at night on the bank across the river. His clients give the family bearskins as presents. A white bearskin is purchased for Zhenia. One day she sees spots of blood on the white fur. It is her own. She takes the powder which belongs to the French governess and tries to whiten the stains, but the French governess slaps her. Just at that moment, her mother returns, and amid tears learns the truth. Zhenia is growing up.

Spring comes, and inexplicably, the parents are happy. The father brings jewels as presents, some “resembled drops of almond milk, others splashes of blue water colour … others sparked gaily with the sparkle of the frozen juice of blood oranges.” The family boards a train in the evening and Zhenia sleeps. When she wakens in an upper bunk, she cannot take her eyes off the mountainous panorama that rolls past the window. The man who shares their compartment explains that a signpost with the word “Asia” on it will soon appear. Her brother tells Zhenia that the Ural Mountains are the natural border between Europe and Asia. She is terribly excited that they will cross this frontier. All heads on the train pop out the windows as the signpost appears and they leave “dust-laden, wearisome Europe.”

In the new house, everything is different. The milk is brought by Ulyasha in two pails. In the kitchen there is “less crockery, but there was the wonderful iced butter on the damp maple-leaves.” Once they are settled and summer is over, Zhenia is sent to school. “Life ceased to be a poetical caprice; it fermented around her like a harsh and evil-coloured fable – in so far as it became prose and was transformed into fact.”

Her parents go to the theatre in the sleigh in a snowstorm, while Zhenia withdraws to her room with a book of fairy tales. The snow outside is so bright, she hardly needs light to read by. She goes to bed at midnight, and wakes to shouts, banging and a woman screaming. It is her mother. Zhenia and her brother are sent away to friends.

Zhenia is miserable and wants to go home, but she tries to be a good guest. Alone, she breaks down. She realizes that she is like her mother, that her mother is in her. She asks the friend whose home she is in, “Could you have a child?” “Of course, like every other girl,” is the reply. When she goes home a few weeks later, the doctor tells her what happened. The family horse trampled a man as her parents came home from the theatre and her mother gave birth to a little dead boy. Speaking to her tutor later, she finds the dead man is his friend, a man she has seen. For the first time she is truly aware of people outside her family. The tutor sees that she has changed completely. She had been a child, but now she is a woman.

Pasternak chose to tell this story of a young girl awakening in her perceptions. The story is of one piece with his method, which compresses so many details, so much of the real that it is difficult to read. As we go, we perceive things as a confused young girl might, only slowly piecing them together. She doesn’t understand much of what she is aware of, and the reader doesn’t either.

I’ve read this story many times. I am hampered, of course, by my lack of Russian, but also the vivid details crowd each other, every sentence rich with possible meanings. For me, Pasternak is one of the great writers, showing us that the small, reasonable world we inhabit is actually full of wonders. “So that there shall be no dead branches in the soul, so that its growth shall not be retarded, so that man shall be incapable of mingling his narrow mind with the creation of his immortal essence, there exists a number of things to turn his vulgar curiosity away from life, which does not wish to work in his presence and in every way avoids him … Hence all respectable religions, all generalizations, all prejudices and the most amusing and brilliant of them all – psychology.”

Note to Readers: In English, The Childhood of Luvers is contained in Safe Conduct, An Autobiography and Other Writings, by Boris Pasternak, published by New Directions Paperbook, copyright 1949.

Before I was thirty I had set up a canon of “five books” which were to be my education. The women in each of the books excited me as much as the intellectual adventures detailed in them. One of the five books was The Childhood of Luvers by Boris Pasternak. After meditating on these books for almost fifteen years, I wrote an essay called “Stone Books: An Education,” 1990. In it, it is easy to see the preoccupations of the five books reflecting off one another. Since it is too long to post in a blog (nine pages), I offer it to anyone who requests it (in a .pdf format) from lightlyheldbooks at gmail dot com.