Memoirs of a vanished Russia

A Vanished Present: The Memoirs of Alexander Pasternak, edited and translated by Ann Pasternak Slater. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 214 pp. $17.95. The author of this curious and charming book was born in 1893 into a cultivated Russian family for whom artistic achievement was commonplace. His father was the eminent painter Leonid Pasternak, his mother the talented concert pianist Rosa Koffmann; his older brother Boris would become the Nobel Prize-winning poet (and author of ``Doctor Zhivago''). Alexander Pasternak himself became a distinguished architect and teacher, and lived until 1982. What he has left is a highly personal and impressionistic description of his family's life in Moscow in the years before revolutionary change swept all before it: It's the story of an enchantment, a crystalline idyll cracked open by the 1905 December Revolution, then shattered altogether by the greater torment of 1917.

``A Vanished Present'' is a series of separate memoir-chapters, unified by Pasternak's slowly developing awareness of surrounding social protest and by his interested observation of his parents' and brother's artistic careers. He begins by sketching in his parents' backgrounds and early married life, then records the experiences of an ``Early Childhood'' spent in a ``cheerful, Bohemian confusion of frequent gatherings,'' whose members included the composers Scriabin and Rachmaninoff and other luminaries from Moscow's musical and artistic worlds.

The architect in Alexander looks back lovingly at the contours and structures of places where his family lived, or spent their summers, of landmarks that have long since disappeared. There are vivid picturings of Moscow's fire brigades in action, a lavish outdoor agricultural market, an appreciative rendering of seasonal changes (``the city's great transfiguration''), as well as emotional accounts of watching an airplane flight and a dance recital given by Isadora Duncan. Perhaps the most striking passage is Pasternak's remembrance of his brief schoolboy acquaintance with the radical poet Vladimir Mayakovsky (whose indignant ``sense of justice'' was evident even in his youth).

Alexander writes feelingly of his brother Boris's intellectual determination and discipline, and also of his contrary ``passion to accomplish things patently beyond his powers, ludicrously inappropriate to his character and cast of mind.'' He includes an interesting account of Boris's early pursuit of a musical career and offers the interesting suggestion that ``my brother never invented anything he wrote about . . . , he merely reproduced the thing seen, reverently transferring its essence in his packed, concise metaphors.''

Alexander's realization that the originals of his brother's poems and stories have passed away is part of a pattern of subtle foreshadowings. ``Little,'' barely registered shocks and losses (the fires those brigades race to, a major painting their father never finished, the 1904 Russo-Japanese War), prefigure the violence and destruction that would eventually drive the elder Pasternaks from Russia and end the family's romance with its own ordered and satisfying life.

Besides its pictures of Russia edging toward turmoil and of Boris Pasternak's youth, the book is valuable for its virtuosic imagemaking quality. Alexander shows us how the child absorbs first impressions in a vivid, funny manner. He remembers a visiting Czech violinist in a swallowtail coat as a ``wonderful apparition'' with a ``forked tail like a beetle's. . . .'' The book abounds with wonderfully detailed descriptions of the bygone world.

Alexander's reminiscences are complemented by footnoted excerpts from Boris's autobiographical writings. The book is beautifully illustrated with family photographs and Leonid Pasternak's drawings and sketches. The translator (Alexander Pasternak's niece) has perfectly captured an enthusiastic, breathless, slightly eccentric voice, the accents of a survivor eager to capture in words a forgotten time and place he means to retrieve from oblivion.

Bruce Allen is a regular reviewer for the Monitor.

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