Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 7, 2018

The Last Summer (1934), by Boris Pasternak, translated by George Reavey

The Last Summer is only 90-odd pages long in my Penguin Modern Classics edition of 1960, but it’s more than a short story.  Titled Povest (A Tale) when first published in 1934, it’s not listed among Boris Pasternak’s works in the Russian edition of Wikipedia, suggesting that perhaps the original was never published in the USSR as a separate title. (As far as I can tell, that is, using Google Translate’s word сказка meaning fairy tale, fable or story).  Maybe Povest was published in a journal or a collection, and only published separately as a book when it was translated in 1959 by George Reavey and published by Peter Owen in the afterglow of Pasternak’s Nobel Prize in 1959.

The first thing to say about the introduction by Pasternak’s sister Lydia Slater is that it’s more about legacy-building than about clarifying the story.  There are a great many superlatives, and she quotes V.S. Pritchett as saying it is a concerto in prose. She says its central theme is poetry, the essence of which is the suffering woman.

Well, maybe it is.  She was at Oxford in 1960, which was the year of Pasternak’s death, though I do not know whether when the book went to print he had already died (of lung cancer, see the cigar in his hand in his father’s sketch on the book’s cover?)  People who read Russian may well agree with her comparison of his work with Tolstoy’s. But those of us reading the book now, knowing all the weight of Soviet history and the constraints under which he wrote, and making do with the English translation, may beg to differ. Because to me, The Last Summer seems to be—thematically—more than about poetry.

Slater’s florid assertions to protect Pasternak’s status as a great poet may be because she would have been well aware of Soviet outrage about Doctor Zhivago and the CIA’s machinations to ensure that Pasternak got the Nobel Prize.  She would have known that Pasternak’s wife and daughter were vulnerable to retaliation for Dr Zhivago reaching the west (see Wikipedia re their prompt despatch to the Gulags after his death).  Even from the safety of Oxford, it would have been imprudent for Slater to point out any veiled anti-Soviet allusions in The Last Summer. 

And they are there, though it takes close reading to find them, in a book difficult to comprehend because it is so clouded by reminiscences loosely interwoven, cutting into each other, brilliant descriptions of people, situations, thunderstorms, and thoughts. I started it three times before I took out my journal and began making copious notes and slowly got the drift of it.  By the look of the two- and three-star reviews at Goodreads, most readers struggle with it too.

The Last Summer is bookended by Serezha’s return from Moscow to his sister Natasha’s house in Ousolie in 1916, a heavily polluted salt-mining place not even granted town status until 1925.  This date is significant, because it’s (prudently) before the October Revolution in 1917, but after the failed one of 1905.  Natasha is depicted as having believed in the aims of the 1905 revolution and as far as she is concerned the revolution has only been postponed. Here she is:

Like all of them, Natasha believed that the most demanding cause of her youth had merely been postponed and that, when the hour struck, it would not pass her by.  This belief explained all the faults of Natasha’s character.  It explained her self-assurance, which was softened only by her complete ignorance of her defect.  It also explained those traits of Natasha’s aimless righteousness and all-forgiving understanding, which inwardly illuminated her with an inexhaustible light and which yet did not correspond with anything in particular.  (p.32)

Natasha, in other words, has no idea what she is in for.  (Pasternak, writing in 1934, had by this time, seen Lenin come and go, and had time to see the Soviet state in action.  Russia was becoming industrialised, the consequent crisis of agricultural distribution had failed to be ameliorated by collectivisation, and he had witnessed the acquisition of private homes and subsequent overcrowding that he writes about so well in Doctor Zhivago).

Serezha is exhausted by his journey from Moscow and slopes off to bed.  But he cannot sleep due to the tumult of his thoughts.  The narrator intrudes here to explain why the story absents itself from Ousolie:

…sleep still declined to visit him.  It so happened that it was the summer of 1914 which had crept up, and this upset all his calculations.  It was impossible to gaze upon that summer, sucking in its soporific clarity through clouded eyes: instead it made him think, and pass from one remembrance to another. For this reason, we too shall absent ourselves for a long time from this flat in Ousolie. (p.29)

In other words, reflecting on that summer makes one think. The implication is that it’s good to escape the both the present of the novella (1916) and the present (1934) when Pasternak is writing it.  The reader is invited to indulge nostalgic thoughts about 1914, and not just about Serezha’s adventures in Moscow with women.  Anyone in Russia reading this would connect the summer of 1914 as an idyll before the launch of the first offensive against Germany in August (under Tsar Nicholas) and its disastrous consequences.  By 1916 (as elsewhere in the world) enthusiasm for the stalemated war had waned, and no wonder.  We hear very little about WW1 losses in Russia, though they were allies against Germany in both world wars.

The losses Russia suffered in the world war were catastrophic. Between 900,000 and 2,500,000 Russians were killed. At least 1,500,000 Russians and possibly up to more than 5 million Russians were wounded. Nearly 4,000,000 Russian soldiers were held as POWs (Britain, France and Germany had 1.3 million POWs combined).

Economically Russia was devastated. 8,000,000,000 rubles in war debts were outstanding, strangling the national economy of its breath. Inflation soared; the gold reserves (then backing the currency) were nearly empty, revenues were exceedingly low while reconstruction costs were huge. Russia was on the verge of complete collapse.  (Glossary of Events WW1-Russia, viewed 7/11/18)

By the coming of winter 1916 when Serezha is back home with Natasha, he has had to do the national service that he had preferred not to think about—and has been discharged wounded.  He is lucky his leg has healed well.  Pasternak makes no mention of the fact that in 1916 there was unrest all over Russia as workers, peasants and soldiers, remained in unwavering support of ending the war. Thousands were arrested. He didn’t need to.  He and his Soviet readers would have known that it was in the wake of this unrest that the Soviets took power in the October Revolution which led to the Soviet decree of peace in October 1917.  An entente not recognised, as we all know, by the Western powers who fought on till November 1918. (Glossary of Events WW1-Russia, viewed 7/11/18).

How do we know that Serezha was dreading his national service?  It’s easy to miss: Serezha is reminiscing about his joyful release from study when his exams are done.  He sallies into the street with a leaping smile and all too easily gets a congenial position as a tutor in a wealthy family.  On his first walk on a sunny day in the Smotekh district he encounters two men: one is Kovalenko, and the reader’s antennae are alert because he is a newspaper editor and there is discussion about a story which Serezha claims to be writing (but hasn’t actually done so, creating his imaginary story in his head as he walks on).  Ah, autobiographical elements, thinks the reader, perhaps overlooking the other meeting.  But the other man Serezha sees on this walk is one of two brothers he had recently met, the younger one who had told him that on finishing the Commercial school, he must do his army service, but he was not sure whether to volunteer or wait for his call-up. Serezha sees now that this brother is wearing the uniform of a volunteer, and in embarrassment (only partly because he doesn’t know the man’s family name), he only nods to him across the street.  Serezha does not want even to think about doing his national service, and the narrative scampers on. But this non-meeting turns out to be important to the culmination of the story…

Boris Pasternak in youth (Wikipedia, Russian edition, photo credit*)

Serezha reminisces about his work as a tutor in Moscow, and ponders his dreams of having so much money that he can indulge his philanthropic ambitions to improve the lot of women.  He intends that the women to whom he gives these mythical millions will Do The Right Thing and pass it on to others, continuing the good work of redistribution.  Is this a sly criticism that the Soviet recipients of redistribution of wealth and property did not always pass it on but hung on to it for themselves?

Pasternak as you can see from his photo was a bit of a dish, and it seems that his character Serezha was too.  Noble as his ambitions towards women are, Serezha also explores the professional bed of at least one prostitute, and has a dalliance with his employer’s companion which leads to her dismissal but not his.  The Last Summer is full of sharp social observations like this.

Most bizarre is the story that Serezha finally writes. Desperately short of money and wary of borrowing even small sums even from an honest source because of the example of Raskolnikov, he decides to chase up the editor Kovalenko and begins outlining his plot in the letter.  He becomes so absorbed in the writing that he forgets a vital assignation with his lady love, and pours out his story, switching from letter paper to quarto, thus symbolising his transition to real writing…

The story is about a young man in need of money and so auctions himself off as a slave.  The people of his town think it’s a joke and spurn it publicly but they all turn up to the auction anyway.  The man’s name is irrelevant since he is about to hand over the power of life and death to his owner, but he is given the name Mr Y by Serezha.  The auctioneer is a loyal friend who doesn’t really believe any of this is serious. Mr Y plays astonishingly well on the piano, and he mesmerises the room with his readings of blank verse.  He then rises and tells them that they do not love him enough and that he must go through with the auction and make himself a commodity of exchange.  He falls to the bid of a philanthropist but it is not at once that this man allows him his freedom…

Am I drawing a long bow when I interpret this as suggesting that the Soviets did not love their artists, writers and musicians enough to protect them from slavery in the Gulags?

This book, as I said at the outset, is less than 100 pages long.  I reckon there’s a PhD in unpacking all the fascinating snippets in it.

Oh, and Pasternak does write stunning metaphors.  Mrs Fresteln’s companion always smiles at Serezha like an accomplice.  A stifling summer day is a week in-week out stagnating day which had not been hauled away to the police station. A file of empty cabs ascended toward the evening sky like the backbone of some fabled and only just flayed vertebrate and previous tenants in Mrs Fresteln’s mansion were welcomed back for the summer like dear corpses miraculously restored to the bosom of the family.  

Author: Boris Pasternak
Title: The Last Summer
Translated from the Russian by George Reavey
Introduction by Lydia Slater
Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics, 1960, (1967 reprint), first published in the USSR as Povest (A Tale) in 1934
Source: personal library, OpShopFind.

Available from Fishpond: The Last Summer (Twentieth Century Classics S.)

Photo credit*: Автор: anonimous –, Общественное достояние,


  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  2. Really interesting review Lisa. I’ve owned a copy of this for decades, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually read it. The thing is, with writing from the Soviet era you always tend to be looking for the subtext (well at least I do), and of course Pasternak lived through much of that era. And I think the young man in need of money and selling himself is definitely a reflection on Pasternak’s feelings about having to compromise to survive in Russia. Yes, I think there’s definitely going to be enough for a PhD in there…


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: