Susana Soca and Boris Pasternak

At the end of October 1956, Pasternak received a letter from a stranger. The writer was Susana Soca (1906-1959), a Uruguayan poetess. She told Pasternak that she had tried to phone him from Moscow but that she had failed to reach him.

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Susana Soca (1906-1959)

Between 1947 and 1948 Soca edited Les Cahiers de la Licorne in Paris and then from 1953 to 1959 the Entregas de la Licorne in Montevideo. Soca is a fascinating personality and it is not surprising that several biographical studies (by Loustaunau, Litvan, and others) and two book length biographies of Soca have been published (Alvarez 2001, 2007, and Amengual 2012). Both biographies devote much attention to the connection Soca-Pasternak.

I have recently found new documents that add to our knowledge of Soca’s connection to Pasternak and his family and I would like to present these new documents in this post.

My attention to Soca is also instrumental in clarifying the relationship between Pasternak, Hélène Peltier, and the French publishing world. This is a topic that has consequences for claims made about Soca’s involvement, or lack thereof, with Doctor Zhivago but

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Juan Álvarez Márquez, Más allá del ruego: vida de Susana Soca (2007)

I will not discuss that part of the story in this post. The letter from Susana Soca to Pasternak has been partially translated into Spanish (Amengual 2012, p. 353, with photograph of the original letter in the appendix; however, the name of Robin was not correctly identified) but has not been published in its original French or in English translation. From the letterhead it can be inferred that the letter was written at the National Hotel in Moscow (The letterhead also displays the Intourist logo). The letter is dated Sunday 21 [October 1956].

Sunday, the 21st

Pasternak.

I am leaving this instant for Vienna after calling you without success at the number that the young Spanish language specialist at the Russian writers association – it is my native tongue, (I am from Uruguay, in South America) – gave me. She incidentally told me that you would not be here until tonight.

I am quite struck at the thought of having nearly met you. You were the only person I wished to see in Moscow, where I came too fast as I am now going back to Montevideo. I write as well and your poetry is so important to me, at a time when poetry counts for so little in the world that it can and must be of importance to those who live by its side only when it is admirable.

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Claudia Amengual, Rara Avis. Vida y obra de Susana Soca (2012)

Robin [Armand Robin], your translator had told me a lot about you. And what I would like to ask from you is 2 or 3 poems, untranslated if possible, for the journal I am editing. I am not familiar enough with Russian to dare doing it myself, without a poet of your language. Could you let me know what needs to be done? I was not able to find your poems.

Susana Soca

The young lady at the writers’ association has my address and I am sending her the journal for you. (Courtesy of Elena Vladimirovna Pasternak and Petr Pasternak, Moscow; original in French)

Although the letter was written on October 21, Soca probably entrusted it to someone else

(given that she was leaving the morning after) and the letter was sent after a few days, for the envelope is stamped October 25 on the recto side and October 26 on the verso side. Upon receiving this letter, Pasternak did not even know the name of the journal that Soca edited but by November 23 (when he wrote to his sister Lydia, see below) he was familiar with it, most probably because Soca had sent him the promised copy and it had reached him. As we shall see, Pasternak was quite flattered by Soca’s letter.

The first mention of Soca to his sister Lydia is contained in a letter in English written by Pasternak on November 20, 1956:

Now the reason of the letter is the attempt to send you a typewritten copy (to say the truth, a very dim, faintly legible one) of the recent verses. [….] Perhaps I shall beg you to transmit the parcel (in the future) to Mrs. Peltier, perhaps to Mrs. Soca, perhaps to anyone else. (Pasternak 2004, p. 798)

A few days later he wrote again to his sister Lydia (November 23, 1956):

Although I will write about this to professor Berlin in English for practice, but you should know about my request as well. When I am asked for anything for magazines beyond the border, I think the most important thing is that same introduction [Autobiography, aka Autobiographical sketch] which you’ve read. Berlin took it of his own good will, I believe he had the desire to translate the essay and place it somewhere. I repeated many times that that was possible and desirable. But perhaps, B. and his friends don’t have time, or have lost the desire, or they have come across another obstacle. That is another issue. In any case, the request is the following: In Moscow, a publisher of an art magazine, the “Unicorn” from South America, sought to meet me, but due to the brevity of her stay (she left quickly), was unable to achieve this. Her letter is so fervent and brash, that I would like to send her this essay for the magazine. She does not know Russian. If the English or French translation of this essay (the autobiographical essay) is ready or is reaching its completion, I will ask B.[erlin] or GM [Katkov] to send a copy of the translation to her address: Señora Susana Soca, 824 San José, Montevideo, Uruguay. At the worst, also send her the original manuscript, if it is not being translated – it is more likely to arrive from you. (Pasternak 2004, p. 790; original in Russian)

(Incidentally, the sentence ‘Она не знает по русски’, ‘she does not know Russian’, was dropped by mistake from the transcription of the letter in the Russian editions of Pasternak’s family letters. I checked the original which is in the Pasternak Family Papers at Hoover Institution Library and Archives at Stanford.)

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Logo of Entregas de la Licorne

By then, Pasternak had received a copy of Entregas de la Licorne, the literary journal edited by Susana Soca.

The day after he wrote to Berlin instructing him to send Soca the original of the autobiographical essay:

Now would you not give away half a kingdom, should a foreign lady write you. Vous étiez la seule personne que je désirais voir à Moscou … Votre poésie est pour moi tellement importante à un moment où la poésie ne peut et ne doit compter dans le monde que quand elle est admirable … etc, etc ….

Take the manuscript of my autobiographical preface (it lies at Oxford useless to you) and send it to:

Senora Susana Soca

824 San José Montevideo Uruguay

Do it, I pray you. (Pasternak to Berlin November 24, 1956; The Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust)

While it is hard to know when exactly Pasternak replied to Soca, I conjecture that he had already done so by November 4 and without any doubt before November 14. Indeed, in a letter to his sisters written on November 4, Pasternak said:

There have been delegations here from the West, and some of them suggested that the autobiographical sketch should be suitable for a journal such as Encounter, or some French equivalent. Why hasn’t that happened? Has the material been rejected as insufficiently interesting? If the autobiographical sketch, or selected extracts from it, were to be published in the West, that would greatly assist the projects I’ve just described, which I’ve been intentionally holding up until the editors have seen the autobiography. G.M. [Katkov] and his friend mustn’t be surprised if they get requests for copies of it from unexpected parts of the world such as Bulgaria or Uruguay or Argentina. (Pasternak 2010, p. 385)

The mention of Uruguay is surely not accidental. Katkov’s friend is obviously Isaiah Berlin. Already on November 15, Soca wrote a telegram to Pasternak from Paris saying “Reçu textes Ecrirai de Montevideo Merci pour tout Susana Soca”. It is obvious that Pasternak had replied to her and in all likelihood had sent the two poems that she ended up publishing (“Without title” and “In the hospital”) in the August 1957 issue of Entregas de la Licorne. Indeed, as it transpires from the correspondence between Lydia Pasternak and Susana Soca (see below), Pasternak seems to have sent to Soca several poems, perhaps as many as ten. I exclude he had sent at this stage the first part of the Autobiography which was also published in the same issue of Entregas de la Licorne. If he had done so there would have been no need to ask Lydia and Berlin, as late as November 23, to send the Autobiography to Soca. The issue was certainly discussed in Oxford where the debate about whether to publish anything by Boris (including the Autobiography) at the moment was occupying Maurice Bowra, George Katkov, Lydia and Josephine Pasternak, and Isaiah Berlin. Berlin was adamant that it was better to wait. A passage from Lydia’s diary from December 7, 1956, informs us that Berlin was also against publication in Uruguay:

Berlin called – talked for a long time, he’s even against printing in Uruguay. (Lydia Pasternak’s diary, December 7, 1956; Pasternak Family Papers, Hoover Institution Library and Archives, Stanford)

Since the only address Soca had given Pasternak was a Montevideo address, it appears that Pasternak sent the letter to Montevideo. That Pasternak’s letter was sent to Montevideo is also confirmed by a footnote added to the third and last installment (the first had appeared in August 1957, issues 9-10, pp. 19-30  and the second in 1958, issue 11, pp. 75-80) of Pasternak’s excerpts from the Autobiography, which were published in Entregas de La Licorne, 12, 1959 (Boris Pasternak: Memorias. Los años del novecientos, pp. 9-16).

Regrettably, Pasternak’s first (and perhaps only) letter to Soca can no longer be located. However, Susana Soca gave a rather lengthy excerpt of the letter in a piece she published in August 1957 in Entregas de la Licorne.

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Susana Soca. Photo by Gisèle Freund

The relevant passage is the following:

But this is nothing at all. They are no more than trifles. I have the feeling that, just in front of our eyes, a completely new era is being born and that it will develop every day without our noticing it. It is new for the tasks it will have to face as well as for the requirements of the heart and of human dignity; it develops silently and without doubt it will never be officially inaugurated. Some unrelated poems and of a specific character are an insufficient measure for meditation on such vast, such complex and novel things. Only prose and philosophy legitimate an attempt in this direction. It is for this reason that the best I have accomplished in my life, up to this point, is the novel Doctor Zhivago… I blush when I realize that, on account of a rather sad set of events, I have gained a truly excessive reputation, based on my early writings, while my most recent work, whose significance is altogether different, are ignored (especially in the area of the novel). (Excerpt from a letter from Pasternak to Sosa, first published in Spanish in Entregas de la Licorne 1957, p. 9; and then in original French in Marcha, 1959, p. 20)

In a footnote Soca explicitly says that the above passage is from Pasternak’s reply to her first letter. It is quite obvious that Pasternak’s letter contained more and in my forthcoming book (see acknowledgements) I reconstruct the other parts of the letter which, as I have mentioned, regarded Peltier’s role in negotiations between the French publishers and Pasternak. I will not pursue this here.

Part of the correspondence between Lydia Pasternak Slater and Susana Soca is preserved in the Pasternak Family Papers at Hoover Institution Library and Archives. The early part of the correspondence between Lydia Pasternak and Susana Soca (and her secretary and Russian teacher Nadia Verbina) and further correspondence between Verbina and Pasternak was not available to Álvarez Márquez and Amengual when they wrote their biographies of Soca. For this reason, I will add here some new information and provide translations of the relevant documents.

The first contact between Lydia Pasternak and Susana Soca seems to have been established by Lydia who, not knowing which languages Soca mastered and having been told by Boris that Soca did not know Russian (see letter from Boris to Lydia cited above), wrote in French in late December 1956.

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Susana Soca and her portrait by Pablo Picasso (Photo by André Ostier, Paris 1943)

She told Soca that she and her sister Josephine differed from her brother’s opinion about the advisability of publishing something in translation that had not yet been published in Russian. She also tried to put Soca in contact with her long time friend, Anatol (Tolya) Saderman, who had previously lived in Montevideo and was now a renowned photographer in Buenos Aires. Lydia’s idea was that Saderman could perhaps assist with the translation of her brother’s texts into Spanish. Here is the draft of Lydia Pasternak’ s letter to Susana Soca sent soon after Christmas 1956 and before the new year:

Dear Madam,

Merry Christmas (too late!) and happy new year!

Please forgive me for my horrible French – I use it only because I know that you don’t understand Russian and I don’t know if you know English. My brother has asked me to send you his article ?; I will do so in a few days when I hope to receive the copies but they are in Russian. Would it be possible for you to have them translated or would you prefer that I arrange for them to be translated first? I have a very good Russian friend, a bit of an amateur poet, who has lived for many years in Montevideo (perhaps you know him? his name is Anatole Saderman, a photographer-artist) and for this reason he could probably translate the article without problem (if he has time!) I will send him a copy and ask him if he wants to do it. Perhaps you would be able to communicate with him directly? His address now is A. Saderman Lavalle Buenos Aires, Argentina

My brother is of a different opinion but my sister and I we are very worried not to have published it before it has appeared in Russia prefer that this article is not published abroad before it is published in Russia, this could be dangerous.

All the very best

I wish you, dear madam, a happy new year, joyful and peaceful. Lydia Pasternak Slater (Pasternak Family Papers, Hoover Institution Library and Archives, Stanford, Box 100, folder “Soca”; original in French)

A reply written in Russian by Susana Soca’s secretary, Nadia Verbina, on January 14, 1957 reads:

Montevideo 14. I-1957.

Dearest Madame Slater!

I am responding upon Miss Soca’s request. Miss Soca asks to tell you that she perfectly understands, reads, and speaks Russian, but writes with difficulty, therefore I am the one responding. She also perfectly knows English, German, and French, so that in the future you could write to her in whichever of these 4 or 5 languages. Right now Miss Soca with my help is translating your brother’s poems and will try to print them in the next issue of her magazine. When you send your brother’s other books, Miss Soca will immediately try to translate and print all that will be possible.

Greetings, Nadezhda Verbina.

The letter clarifies some uncertainty in the literature as to whether Verbina’s connection to Lydia Pasternak Slater predates the contact between Pasternak and Soca. It is obvious from the above exchange that Verbina had no contact with Lydia before this exchange. As it transpires from Lydia’s diary, the first half of the Autobiography was sent by Lydia to Soca on February 27, 1957:

“looked through Borya’s photocopy, sorted the first part, ending with Tolstoy’s death, gathered all the business papers, went […] to the bank […] put Borya’s [[documents]] in the big purchased envelope […] went finally (intended since the morning) to the post office, sent Soca half of Borya’s manuscript (regist, airmail), and also a pink slip so as to know.” (Pasternak Family Papers, Hoover Institution Library and Archives, Stanford).

Replies by Soca (in French) and Verbina (in Russian) followed on 24 and 25 April 1957 announcing that the translator for the Autobiography had been found (the translator’s name is not mentioned but his name was Gregorio Hintz). Here is the letter by Soca:

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Armand Robin (1912-1961), translator of Pasternak (Poèmes de Boris Pasternak, 1946)

Dear Madam,

I received with joy your brother’s admirable essay [récit, as in Autobiographical Essay]. We are trying to have it translated here at the moment and Mme Verbina and I are working on the translation. A part of the poems is here. But I was counting on Armand Robin, translator of your brother’s poems into French, for a more elegant job. Robin has a lot of talent but he is very pessimistic and rather bizarre. He claims, against all evidence, that I have not left with him the six poems that he had chosen in Paris. I am rather intrigued by this attitude. I attribute it to a political reason. At this moment he his an anarchist and furiously anti-soviet. I wonder whether this is not better for your brother in a certain sense. But we must recover the poems. I beg you to write personally to Mr. Robin. As I do not have the address I give you the address of an Uruguayan writer who his the middle man in my relation to Robin, a young poet in the style of the poet Jules Supervielle and who admires your brother very much. I hope to meet you during my next trip and I look forward to your opinion on the matter of Robin’s attitude once you have received his response.

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Ricardo Paseyro (1925-2009)

With very best wishes, Susana Soca

P.S. The address is Mr Ricardo Paseyro. Pour Mr Armand Robin 12 rue Massenet XVI Paris (Pasternak Family Papers, Hoover Institution Library and Archives, Stanford, box 100, folder 5; original in French).

Ricardo Paseyro is often mentioned in Alvarez 2001, 2007 and Amengual 2012. He was a poet and a diplomat and had married the daughter of Jules Supervielle (see Paseyro 2007 for his memoirs). It is regrettable that we don’t have Lydia’s letter which accompanied the sending of the Autobiography, for it would have clarified the issue concerning Robin and the poems (incidentally, there is also no extant correspondence between Lydia Pasternak and Robin or Paseyro among Lydia’s papers and correspondence). Nadia Verbina also added a letter:

Montevideo 24. IV 1957

Dearest Miss Slater. I am adding a few lines to Madame Soca’s letter. All this time we attempted to find a translator (who knows Russian and Spanish perfectly), but we still haven’t been able to come across anyone appropriate. We are translating, when possible, (excerpts) from the your brother’s autobiography. Madame Soca is hoping to publish at least excerpts in her magazine.

Regarding the poems, we still haven’t received anything from Paris. When you will be writing to Armand Robin, (he has the 5 best poems), also write to Mr. Paseyro (he really loves your brother’s poems), and we hope that he will be able to find out everything that interests us from Mr. Robin.

My most sincere and heartfelt greetings, N. Verbina [[signature]] (Pasternak Family Papers, Hoover Institution Library and Archives, Stanford, box 100, folder 5; original in Russian).

Verbina also wrote a follow up letter on the following day:

 Montevideo 25. IV 57

Dearest Madame Slater!

Yesterday we sent your letter and also found a translator. Madame Soca asks me to tell you that she is sincerely happy and hopes to soon print your brother’s novel.

Greetings, N. Verbina [[signature]] (Pasternak Family Papers, Hoover Institution Library and Archives, Stanford, box 100, folder 5; original in Russian).

By “novel” here Verbina meant the Autobiographical Essay, as it is clear from the previous letter.

We know from her diary that Lydia replied on May 24, 1957 but this letter is not extant (Soca’s Nachlaß vanished after her untimely death in January 1959).

Let me conclude with a few more documents. On August 7, 1957, Pasternak mentions Soca to Lydia again:

“Are you familiar with Soca personally, that is, have you seen her? She was here at some point, wanted to meet me, but didn’t have time, and wrote to me while leaving. She really interests me.” (Pasternak 2004b, p. 794)

On the same day Boris also wrote to Soca:

Dear friend,

I still preserve a vivid remembrance of you, of your admirable considerations, and of the cramped characters in your letter, despite the fact that we did not manage to meet personally. How are you? Since the middle of March I have been ill, I have been terribly ill for four months and I did not think I would be able to be again the person I once was. But, thank God, since not long I am miraculously the same person I was.

During this time and earlier, in Winter, our literary situation changed. It is hopeless to think that my novel will appear (“Doctor Zhivago”) nor will my book of poems for which I had already written the preface.

For this reason I would prefer if no one concerned himself about what they do with me here and one should not postpone my publications abroad on account of a worry concerning me which is erroneous and undesirable. (…) Have you read in “Esprit” [March 1957] the lovely essay by Aucouturier and the poems he wonderfully translated in a surprisingly rhymed version? If I have the right to judge the perfection of this translation from my Russian point of view, I would say that it is the acme of poetical richness and sonority.

If you would like to make me happy please write me a few lines. As soon as I have confirmation that you received my letter, I will send you a few new texts.

Your unconditional admirer,

Boris Pasternak

The letter is translated into Spanish in Álvarez Márquez (2007, pp. 134-135) without indication of source. My translation into English is from the Spanish text published there. Álvarez Márquez could unfortunately no longer find a copy of the original letter. Petr and Elena Vladimirovna Pasternak have informed me that the original of this letter is kept at RGALI in Moscow. It was part of the Ivinskaya papers and it appears not to have been sent to Soca. Thus, it seems that there was altogether only one letter that Pasternak sent to Soca. Indeed, this also seems confirmed by the last document I would like to present, namely Verbina’s letter to Pasternak dated October 6, 1957:

Montevideo 6 10-1957.

Most esteemed Boris Leonidovich!

On September 25 [of this year], during the lecture read by Madame Susana Soca at the Soviet-Uruguay Institute, the Uruguayan public was acquainted with your biography, your quest, [and] poetry. The poems were translated by Susana Soca into Spanish. You can imagine the difficulty that the translation of poetry presents, but Susana Soca overcame this difficulty successfully. [[We]] Truly worked hard and with love.

Being in Moscow with Susana Soca, I was hoping to meet you, but fate decided otherwise. I am very, very sorry [[it didn’t work out]], but I do not lose hope in filling that blank during our next trip.

Susana Soca sent you via air mail the issue of “La Licorne” in which her lecture, poems translated by her, and your biography are printed. As soon as the second issue is released with the continuation, we will immediately send it to you.

<handwritten> The most heartfelt and sincere greetings and best wishes,

Nadezhda Verbina (S. Soca’s secretary) (Pasternak Papers, Moscow, Private archive owned by Elena Leonidovna Pasternak; original in Russian)

The lack of any acknowledgement of a letter written by Pasternak in August suggests that Pasternak never sent the second letter to Soca (or if he sent it, it had not arrived). Importantly, given that the topic of Soca’s knowledge of Russian has been discussed in the secondary literature,  we also obtain  confirmation that the poems were translated into Spanish by Soca (obviously with Verbina’s help; for the translated poems click here). The lecture in question must have been “Encuentro y desencuentro”Screen Capture entregas published as the first item in Entregas de la Licorne 9-10, 1957 (pp. 7-14). The continuation of the translation of the excerpt from the Autobiography was published in the 1958 and 1959 issues of Entregas de la Licorne. Verbina also mentions that she was with Soca in Moscow in October 1956 and that she regrets that they had been unable to meet. Nadia Verbina will come back on this issue also in a letter to Pasternak written in 1960.  In that letter she said  that although Pasternak does not know her, she was Susana Soca’s secretary and that they were together in Moscow when Susana Soca tried to get in touch with Pasternak “without managing to see him” (The 1960 letter is reproduced photographically in Amengual 2012).

There does not seem to have been much correspondence in 1958 involving Soca and the Pasternaks but on November 5, 1958, – that is immediately after the Nobel Prize Scandal in the USSR – Soca sent a telegram from Montevideo to Lydia Pasternak Slater:

Thinking anxiously about your brother and you stop wish to see you at end November stop will write = Susana Soca (Pasternak Family Papers, Hoover Institution Library and Archives, Stanford, box 100, folder 5; original in Russian).

Soca died in an airplane accident in Rio de Janeiro on January 8, 1959.

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Susana Soca in Montevideo (approximately 1936)

She had just visited Lydia for the first time. Lydia wrote to Boris: “Susana also died, in an aircrash, on her return from her first visit with us. I simply cannot get over it and fear that you too will be struck terribly by these news. (Don’t mention it if you will reply to me, since J.<osephine> doesn’t yet know anything about her death.)” (Postcard from Lydia to Boris, dated January 25, 1959; original in Russian, courtesy of Elena Vladimirovna Pasternak and Petr Pasternak).

After Soca’s death, there was further correspondence between Lydia Pasternak, Nadia Verbina, and Boris Pasternak but since it has been already cited in Alvarez 2001, 2007 and Amengual 2012 I will stop here.

Acknowledgements: I am very grateful to Juan Álvarez Márquez for many interesting email and Skype conversations on Susana Soca and for having sent me useful documents and pictures in his possession. I am also very grateful to Elena Vladimirovna Pasternak and Petr Pasternak (Moscow) for permission to quote the 1959 postcard from Lydia Pasternak Slater to Boris, the Pasternak Trust (Oxford) for permission to use Lydia’s letter to Soca and excerpts from Lydia’s diaries (for which they hold the copyright), to Elena Leonidovna Pasternak (Moscow) for permission to use Verbina’s letter to Pasternak from October 1957, to the Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust for permission to quote the letter from Pasternak to Berlin, and to the Hoover Institution Library and Archives at Stanford  for permission to use Lydia’s diaries and the correspondence between Susana Soca, Nadia Verbina, and Lydia Pasternak Slater. Finally, last but not least, many thanks to Hoover Institution archivist Lora Soroka, to Hoover Institution deputy archivist Linda Bernard, and to the associate director of Hoover Institution Eric Wakin. The documents in original language will be published in a forthcoming book of mine to be published by Hoover Press in 2016. Parts of this post are excerpted from the forthcoming book.

Bibliography

See the useful page on Susana Soca in “Autores del Uruguay” (click here)

Álvarez Márquez, J., Susana Soca, esa desconocida, Linardi y Risso, Montevideo, 2001.

Álvarez Márquez, J., Más allá del ruego: vida de Susana Soca, Linardi y Risso, Montevideo, 2007.

Amengual, C., Rara Avis. Vida y obra de Susana Soca, Taurus, Montevideo, 2012

Entregas de la Licorne, volumes 9-10, Montevideo, 1957 [this issue contains Soca’s lecture on Pasternak, Soca’s translation of two poems by Pasternak, and the first part of the excerpts from Pasternak’s Autobiography]

Entregas de la Licorne, volume 11, Montevideo, 1958 [this issue contains the translations of the second part of the excerpts from Pasternak’s Autobiography]

Entregas de la Licorne, volume 12, Montevideo, 1959 [this issue contains the translations of the third and last part of the excerpts from Pasternak’s Autobiography]

Entregas de la Licorne, volume 16, Montevideo, 1961 [this issue contains many articles with remembrances of Susana Soca]

Paseyro, R., Toutes les circonstances sont aggravantes, Rocher, Monaco, 2007

Pasternak, B., Pis’ma k roditeliam i sestram 1907-1960, Moscow, 2004

Pasternak, B., Boris Pasternak. Family Correspondence 1921-1960, Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, 2010