Everybody kept telling me, “it’s on the Crescent, but I don’t know exactly where.” That wasn’t doing me any good. I had no idea what a crescent was, at least in the local lexicon. It obviously meant something very specific. I only had two days to find it – and, in fact, I didn’t even have close to two days. I had a few hours spread out over a few days. I was busy at a conference that was running pretty much all the time I was in Oxford. I could only get away in the morning and, briefly, at meal breaks. But I wasn’t having any luck. I had a host of friends and colleagues telling me, “Oh, yeah, it’s right around here somewhere. You’ve been walking by it on your way to Wolfson. You’ve seen the Park Town sign?” Yes, I had seen the Park Town sign. I just saw it 20 minutes ago. “Well, it’s right there somewhere.”
“Somewhere” wasn’t good enough for me. I needed a photo. I needed a couple. I needed them to be specific and right. You can’t post a photo of just any old thing and say, “this is somewhere near what I’m talking about.” You need to know. And time was running out. In less than 24 hours I had a flight back to Moscow. In five minutes the next conference session would begin and then I’d be busy well into the dark night and my quest would be in vain. But sometimes little miracles happen.
What I am talking about is the apartment at 20 Park Town in Oxford where Leonid Pasternak lived for years and died in 1945. Leonid was Boris’s father. Everybody knows Boris because of Doctor Zhivago, in the English-speaking world anyway. They should probably know him for his poetry, because he was a great poet long before he wrote a novel that would win him the Nobel Prize. But that’s being rather picky. Especially when poetry translates about as well as a mud pie. This, by the way, is a word of warning to all you ambitious poets out there – write a novel, too, before you’re done. It’ll make it easier for people to find your poems.
But I was in search of Leonid, not Boris. Leonid was a marvelous painter, impressionistic in his often slightly blurred, dimly-colored images. But his drawings, I suspect, are what really set him apart as a major artist of his time. In his drawings he somehow maintains his impressionistic gaze while also bringing a paradoxical clarity to whatever his subject may be. Moreover, his drawings, especially, preserve for us a living glance at some of the great figures of his time – he drew portraits of Leo Tolstoy, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Alexander Scriabin, Albert Einstein, Rainer Maria Rilke and many others. That is to say nothing of the enormous series of portraits and paintings he did of Boris from his childhood into his adult years. Many of these works, incidentally, are still held, and occasionally exhibited, at the Pasternak residence in Park Town.
I was not giving up, although there was every reason to do so. I simply had no time left, and there was no reason to think that, in 25 minutes’ time, I would be running around outside Pasternak’s apartment, photographing it from various angles. But, again, it was my friend, the translator Oliver Ready, who tossed out some last-minute information that gave me flickering hope that I might yet solve this self-imposed riddle. Now I needed the internet to check it, and, sure enough, sitting right in my line of sight was Maria Kozlovskaya Wiltshire, a translator of Olga Mukhina’s play Tanya-Tanya, whom I had just met. She was sitting with her computer open, dabbling around online. I raced to her, we plugged the new information in and – voila! – up came the address, 20 Park Town, Leonid Pasternak. I grabbed my coat and away I ran. I hated to miss the beginning of a panel devoted to Noah Birksted-Breen’s production of a documentary play called Grandchildren: The Second Act by Mikhail Kaluzhsky and Alexandra Polivanova, but there was no stopping me now. I trotted through the drizzling rain back to Park Town and took a couple of shots of the street sign. That was just in case I still couldn’t find the place I was looking for. I peered in at every address on every house, waiting to see that number 20 I was looking for. I was still a long way off. And then the street took a brief jog to the left and, once again – voila! – there it was! Now I knew what they all meant by “the crescent.” There stood a handsome pair of two long buildings that wrap in a curve around a small park between them. The addresses on one side are all odd numbers, the addresses on the opposite side are all even – and there was number 20, not quite in the middle of the building on my right. I had to play hooky to find it, but as anybody, anywhere knows, that only made my success all the sweeter.
Leonid Pasternak (1862-1945) was born Yitzhok-Leib Pasternak in Odessa. In that kind of thrashing way that seems to suit artists, he studied medicine and then law before dropping both of them in favor of art. His first exhibited painting was purchased by none other than the great collector Pavel Tretyakov (whose collection would become the Tretyakov Gallery) and he was quickly accepted into a prestigious circle of major painters, including Valentin Serov, Isaac Levitan, Mikhail Nesterov and others. He married the promising pianist Rosa Kaufman in 1889 and the young couple welcomed their first child Boris the following year. (See my blogs on the Tretyakov Gallery and on Boris Pasternak’s birthplace on this blogsite.) Pasternak went to Germany in 1921 for an eye operation but chose not to return to Russia. Anticipating danger in Berlin, Pasternak traveled to England in 1938, ending up at this address of 20 Park Town that I had to scramble so to find in such a short period of time.