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Letters Summer 1926 : PASTERNAK, TSVETAYEVA, RILKE, edited by Yevgeny Pasternak, Yelena Pasternak and Konstantin M. Azadovsky; translated by Margaret Wettlin and Walter Arndt (A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $24.95; 251 pp., illustrated)

October 13, 1985|Ursula Hegi | Hegi grew up in Germany where she studied Rilke's work. She is the author of "Intrusions" (Viking) and teaches creative writing at Eastern Washington University. and

This superb translation, "Letters Summer 1926: Pasternak, Tsvetayeva, Rilke," traces the brilliant and passionate exchange of letters between Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), one of Germany's major writers, and two younger Russian poets who worshiped his work, Marina Tsvetayeva (1892-1941) and Boris Pasternak (1890-1960), the author of "Doctor Zhivago."

Rilke, who visited Russia twice, loved and admired everything about the country he considered "the basis of my perceptions and experience." His fascination with Russia surfaces in much of his writing, especially in his novel "The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge" and in his poems "Night Ride," "The Czars" and "Sonnets to Orpheus."

Interestingly, both Tsvetayeva and Pasternak experienced a similar attachment to Germany. For Tsvetayeva, Germany was "my passion, my native land, the cradle of my soul."

Though Rilke was quite ill by the time Boris Pasternak contacted him, he was drawn to the young poet whose work he already admired and to Marina Tsvetayeva who, at first, served as the link between Rilke and Pasternak since letters bearing Swiss postage were not delivered to Soviet citizens.

"I am so shaken by the fullness and power of his (Pasternak's) message to me that I cannot say more today . . . " Rilke wrote to Tsvetayeva and, fulfilling Pasternak's wish, sent her a copy of his "Duino Elegies" which he inscribed with:

We touch each other. How? With wings that beat

with very distance touch each other's ken.

One poet only lives, and now and then

who bore him, and who bears him now, will meet.

"What do I want from you, Rainer?" Tsvetayeva replied. "Nothing. Everything. That you should allow me to spend every moment of my life looking up at you . . . ." His answer arrived by return mail. "Today, Marina, I received you in my soul . . . ." Many of the letters are filled with sexual tension which grew out of Tsvetayeva's belief that genuine love could only mean a merging of the souls. "When you love a person, you want him to leave you so that you can dream of him." The perfect lover had to be unattainable. Distance gave her the freedom to send embraces and kisses, to write about her love. "Rainer, dusk is falling, I love you. A train is howling. Trains are wolves, wolves are Russia . . . tonight I'm sleeping with you."

The same ambivalence complicated her relationship with Pasternak: She frequently wrote to him about her love; yet, when he wanted to visit her, she drew back.

Many of Pasternak's letters are highly emotional, changing from joy to despair, from anxiety to hope. "I do not remember ever in my life having suffered the despair that engulfed me yesterday," he wrote to Tsvetayeva.

In June of 1926, Rilke wrote the famous "Elegy for Marina" and sent it to Marina Tsvetayeva. "I wrote you today a whole poem between the vineyard hills. . . ." That same month Pasternak and Tsvetayeva exchanged long manuscripts for critical response: He sent her his "Lieutenant Schmidt," and she sent him her "Pied Piper."

Although "Letters Summer 1926" contains very few of Rilke's letters, the focus of Tsvetayeva's and Pasternak's correspondence often is Rilke. "What would you and I do if we were together? We would go and see Rilke . . . he doesn't need anything or anyone . . . Rilke is a recluse."

Since he initiated the correspondence between Rilke and Tsvetayeva, Pasternak felt disappointed that their relationship seemed closer than his connection to Rilke. He was tortured by Tsvetayeva's secrecy.

When Rilke died on Dec. 30, 1926, and Pasternak received the news from Tsvetayeva, he felt his world was shattered. "I cannot treat your endurances lightly," he wrote her, finding it impossible to forgive her the offhand way in which she had written him about the death.

Yet, their correspondence continued until 1935, fed by their genuine admiration for each other's work.

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