Pasternak, Costello and the New Zealand Connection

I am pleased to announce the publication of my essay “Pasternak and Costello: What We Know and What We (Still) Don’t” published in Yasha Klots (ed.): Tamizdat: Publishing Russian Literature Across Borders. Peter Lang Verlag, 2021 (in print). (= Wiener Slawistischer Almanach. Band 86), pp. 227-295.

The title page of the first part of the typescript of Doctor Zhivago sent by Pasternak to his sister in Oxford in December 1948 through Patrick Costello

The article details the relationship between Desmond Patrick Costello and Boris Pasternak. Costello was a diplomat who worked for the New Zealand Legation in Moscow from 1944 to 1950. During that period he befriended Boris Pasternak whose advice he solicited for the second edition of the Oxford Book of Russian Verse (first edition 1924; second edition 1948). In 1947, Pasternak asked Costello to translate the first version of Doctor Zhivago (an offer Costello declined) and in December 1948 he entrusted Costello (and his colleagues Doug and Ruth Lake at the New Zealand Legation in Moscow) with the typescript of the first four chapters of Doctor Zhivago for delivery to Pasternak’s sisters in Oxford. This was the first typescript of (the first four chapters of) Doctor Zhivago that left the USSR, the first step in the smuggling of several typescripts of the full version of Doctor Zhivago that followed in 1956-1957. Costello’s work in editing the Oxford Book of Russian Verse and in enabling the arrival of the first four chapters of Doctor Zhivago in Oxford in January 1949 is an important part of the history of tamizdat.

Desmond Patrick Costello

While referring to the article for more details, I would like to alert the reader that due to the complications arising from the closure of the OUP archives in Oxford on account of the COVID-19 crisis, it took until 24 August 2021 for me to receive a set of documents I had requested in August 2020. For my paper I had access to only a selection of the relevant documents that I had received from OUP in January 2020. Since it was too late to make changes to my paper, which had already gone through the proof stage, I will use this post to provide some additional information. Indeed, consultation of the full set of OUP files (OP702/4936 and OP2057/15512) allows me now to sharpen, and in some cases improve, some of the claims made in the paper. The information below should thus be seen as an addendum to the publication. I would like to thank Martin Maw, archivist at OUP, for his invaluable help in reproducing the documents.

The first additional information should be placed on p. 252 after the sentence “Towards the end of the year or at the very beginning of 1947, Costello sent the work to Davin.” The new documents allow me to add Pasternak’s reaction to Costello’s second edition of the Oxford Book of Russian Verse, whose final draft Costello had shown Pasternak in December 1946. In a letter to Dan Davin, his friend and editor at OUP, dated December 26, 1946, Costello wrote:

The second edition of The Oxford Book of Russian Verse

I have shown my selection of poems to Boris Pasternak and Nikolai Tikhonov. Tikhonov would have liked me to include more of the younger poets; but his reasons were, I feel more political than literary. Pasternak, whose opinion is worth vastly more, thinks my collection is a good one (he was kind enough, incidentally, to give me an improved version of one of his poems which I had already selected.) It does, I think, achieve its purpose of giving as good a representation as possible of the best Russian poetry, of whatever political tendency, that has been written since 1914. As for the traditional poetry which will occupy the first 32 pages, I am happy to say that both Tikhonov and Pasternak were delighted with it. (OP 702/4936)

The second change should be made in note 41 (p. 255) where it says:

The documents in the OUP archive (OP 702/4936) indicate that Davin had made a request for copies of these books. Whether they were sent and reached Pasternak is not known.

The new documents from OUP confirm that some of these books for Pasternak were actually sent to Costello but whether they reached Pasternak is still unclear.

The third change concerns note 62 on p. 269 where it says:

It remains unclear how Mary Holdsworth was connected to The Oxford Book of Russian Verse.

The new documents I received fully chronicle how Mary Holdsworth was involved in the production of the Oxford Book of Russian Verse. She was approached by Dan Davin, who was an old friend of hers, on February 21, 1947. Her role was to change the old Russian orthography used by the editor of the first edition (1924) of the Oxford Book of Russian Verse, Maurice Baring, to match the more modern one used by Costello in his supplement. In the process, Mary Holdsworth also raised with Davin a number of issues concerning Mandelstam, Bunin, Mirsky, Mayakovsky, and others that were discussed in the correspondence between Costello and Davin.

The most important change affects the following passage on p. 273, which concerns the alleged role by Costello in the delivery of a collection of Pasternak’s poems to Maurice Bowra. After discussing the available evidence I concluded:

It could still be claimed, lacking any alternative account of the delivery, that Costello was nonetheless instrumental in arranging the delivery some way or other. If this is what he did the envelope does not seem to have gone through Davin’s hands (Davin’s diary records no such event nor a meeting with Bowra for the period April 10–May 10, 1948). Perhaps Costello only had the envelope for Bowra already fully addressed sent to New Zealand
House (the New Zealand High Commission) in London via diplomatic pouch from where it could have been sent directly to Bowra in Oxford. But lacking any supporting evidence this hypothesis is just as good as any other plausible scenario. Anne Holdcroft could have done the same. Thus I think that the burden of proof here rests with those who want to attribute Costello a role in the delivery of poems to Bowra in April 1948. So far that burden has not been met.

I am delighted to report that the burden can finally be met with the documents from OUP I have recently received. The material did go through Davin’s hands. In a letter from Costello to Davin dated April 16, 1948, Costello wrote:

I wish to ask you please to fill in the address on the enclosed envelope and to drop it in a letter-box. It contains some recent poems which Pasternak has given me for transmission to Bowra – and I have gone and forgotten what college Bowra is Warden of.

In his reply dated April 20, 1948, Davin wrote:

I have sent on the envelope for Bowra as you ask.

This is a pleasing confirmation of Costello’s role as courier between Pasternak and his relatives and friends in Oxford.

Moving on now to p. 281, the following passage refers to Ruth Lake:

Whether Ruth was at the dinner is unclear, perhaps not, for their daughter, Sarah, was hospitalized in Paris with pneumonia and Ruth might have stayed in Paris to take care of her.

Indeed, a letter from Davin to Costello dated January 10, 1949 confirms that Ruth had not been at the dinner although she might have stayed in London with the baby (and no longer in Paris as I had conjectured). The text of the letter says:

Doug Lake came down for a day and we had some good talk. Unfortunately, Ruth could not come because the baby had taken ill in Paris and had not yet recovered. But Ruth had told Doug what he was to say about the book of Russian Short Stories and we managed to get fairly clear on that.

This completes the set of corrections.