Zhenia Luvers' Childhood (Detstvo Liuvers) by Boris Pasternak, 1922

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by Boris Pasternak, 1922

Written in 1918 during the Russian civil war, the story "Zhenia Luvers' Childhood" ("Detstvo Liuvers") bears no sign of the historical upheavals attending its composition. In fact, for some early Soviet critics Boris Pasternak's seeming withdrawal to the story's stable, prerevolutionary, bourgeois provincial setting signaled an almost defiant lack of concern with modern reality. In its affirmation of personality and in its statement of concern for one's neighbor as an essential ingredient of healthy human growth, however, the work indirectly comments on an age in which revolutionary violence had upstaged moral and spiritual considerations.

The story was published to enthusiastic acclaim in 1922. Along with works by Aksakov, Tolstoi, and Gor'kii, it is one of the most moving and finely wrought accounts of childhood in Russian literature. In its organic fusion of subject matter and exuberant yet sensitive impressionistic observation, it is also arguably Pasternak's best piece of prose writing.

Unusual for Pasternak's short fiction, the central character is not a poet or artist. But the young girl Zhenia is identifiable as an authorial alter ego. The heroine's contemplative character and her "innocent vision" have much in common with Pasternak the poet. We are aware of this identification not through stated authorial sympathy or interior monologue. Instead, Pasternak gets inside the child's mind by describing the outside world in precisely the naive or fanciful way in which she perceives it.

From the outset the narrator subverts the normal patterns and procedures of biographic writing: "Zhenia Luvers was born and brought up in Perm. Just as once her little boats and dolls, so later on her memories sank deep into the shaggy bearskins of which there were many in their house. Her father managed the affairs of the Lunyev mines and had a large clientele among the factory owners on the Chusovaya. The bearskins were gifts, deep brown and sumptuous."

"Zhenia Luvers' Childhood" divides into two main episodes that span the period from Zhenia's infancy to puberty. It first describes the dawning of linguistic and sensory awareness and later a more adult moral epiphany. Early on, Pasternak evokes Zhenia's scary vision of the Motovilikha iron foundry and her realization that the adult world cannot find adequate language to capture this revelation. The world of grown-ups is one of prohibitions, locked doors, suppressed emotions, copybook morality, rules and regulations—the antithesis, in fact, of all that is perfect and wonderful to a child's, or a poet's, questing personality. By the same token adult psychoanalytic probing is also denied to the observer of Zhenia's childhood. Pasternak tells us that psychology is there only as a resplendent delusion "to guard against dead branches in the soul—to prevent man from involving his own stupidity in the formation of his immortal essence."

The plot of the first part, which is titled "The Long Days," includes an account of Zhenia's initially guilty discovery of the beginning of menstruation—a first account of the subject in Russian literature—and the story of her family's transfer from Perm to the Urals town of Ekaterinburg. External events are less important, however, than the evocation of Zhenia's inner world and her discovery that labels such as Belgians, Asia, and Urals obfuscate rather than reveal the richness of an apprehended experience. For Zhenia it seems that the name can finally burst forth only from the phenomenon itself, whereas her young brother Serezha, who is a pragmatic and active masculine doer rather than a contemplator, misses out on life's wonders. The story's many passages of poetic description are among the great splendors of modern Russian prose. This evocation of the onset of a snowstorm is typical:

The clouds were shabby and dirty like a balding sleigh rug. The day thrust its snout up against the pane like a calf in its steamy stall. It might easily have been spring. But sincelunch the air was gripped by a hoop of livid grey frost….The gun muzzles of far northern lands loomed black againstthe houses; loaded with a vast November, they were aimedat their courtyard…. Separate snowflakes ceased to be, anda solid fused coagulum came heaving down…. Night fellimmediately, and the maddened town began to twitch itscountless thousands of thick and whitened lips.

The second part of the story, entitled "The Stranger," centerson the growth of human kinships and on ethical discovery, aparallel with the sensory revelations in the first part. Zhenia nowexplores and learns the significance of motherhood and the poignancy of her own mother's personality and predicament. She alsofinds herself at every step encountering, or thinking that she hasencountered, the figure of Tsvetkov, a man hardly known to her butone who after his accidental death comes to represent the neighborthe Ten Commandments require us to love. Thus, the stranger ofthe title becomes the image of a kinsman.

A complete unit in themselves, the two chapters of "ZheniaLuvers' Childhood" were, in fact, episodes of a more extensivenovel-length manuscript that Pasternak destroyed in the early1930s. A later adult hypostasis of Zhenia emerged in novelfragments of the 1930s in the character of Evgeniia Istomina, andelements of her life and personality also figured in Lara in Doktor Zhivago. For Pasternak, who detected "a thousand female elements" in his own makeup, the character of Zhenia Luvers clearlyremained a kindred, though fictional, shadow figure throughout hiscareer.

—Christopher Barnes