My Sister Life, by Boris Pasternak, Limited Editions Club

Boris Pasternak (1890-1960) is one of the greatest Russian writers in history. His work titled My Sister Life, written in 1917 and first published in 1921, substantially revolutionized the course of Russian poetry, and remains one of the most influential Russian anthologies ever written.  Besides My Sister Life, Pasternak’s translation of the works of Shakespeare remains very popular in Russia and he is also known for translations of Goethe and Rainer Maria Rilke.  Of course, his most famous work outside of Russia is Doctor Zhivago.

Pasternak’s father was close friends with Tolstoy, even illustrating Tolstoy’s novels. After the communist revolution in October 1917, Pasternak stayed in Russia, despite many of his family and friends having fled. He quickly became disillusioned as food shortages became the norm and the brutal nature of the regime became obvious. As Stalin gained power, Pasternak softened his style somewhat in order to not diverge drastically with Socialist Realism (an oxymoron if there ever was one, but I digress), a style which the regime expected from writers.  He turned to doing translations to avoid having to follow a style he did not agree with.

In 1958, Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Behind the scenes, the British and American intelligence services had to complete a successful operation to make sure that Doctor Zhivago was correctly submitted to the Nobel committee.  To do so, they successfully got a hold of a manuscript, photographed it, and printed some books in the Russian Language (done without Pasternak’s or the committees knowledge).  When the Nobel committee selected Pasternak, the Soviet leadership and KGB threatened serious consequences if he accepted the prize, so Pasternak reluctantly wrote to the Nobel committee “In view of the meaning given the award by the society in which I live, I must renounce this undeserved distinction which has been conferred on me. Please do not take my voluntary renunciation amiss.”  Pasternak and his writing remained an official outcast in the eyes of the Soviet government until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Limited Editions Club (LEC) edition of My Sister Life is another of Ben Shiff’s outstanding productions, in my opinion within the top 5 of his time as head of the LEC.  The format is very large, allowing very generous spacing for the text, along with presenting the etchings of artist Yuri Kuper in their original size.  As with many of Shiff’s later productions, the paper is amazing in texture with a wonderful feel and a unique look with bits of Russian newspapers incorporated with rags and cotton pulp.

The illustrations by Kuper are interesting to me.  This is definitely one case in which I need to withhold much of any judgement on the illustrations until I have read the edition. A casual look at them tells me they are well executed and somewhat ominous, though by themselves they do not speak to me. I am guessing context with the text will make a big difference. Yuri Kuper is a modern artist, born in Russia, emigrated to Israel, and now lives in France. His work in in many collections throughout the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

This edition is translated by Mark Rudman who is a well respected and very accomplished poet in his own right.  In the original Russian the poems were strictly rhythmical and written mostly in classical meter.  Rudman has translated them into free verse, though paralleling Pasternak’s rhythm and retaining his stanzas.

{Ed. Note:  My understanding is that Limited Editions Club does have a few copies of My Sister Life still available to order. You can call Jeanne Shiff at 212-737-7600 or 800-701-8870 to inquire about price and to order, if interested. Alternatively, one can usually find a copy or two available on the secondary market (such as Abe’s).}

About this Edition

  • 16 1/2″ x 19 1/2″
  • Design by Michael Anikst, London
  • Six etchings by Yuri Kuper, who also signs
  • Etchings printed on Hannemule paper, done in Paris by Aldo Crommelynck
  • Translated by Mark Rudman
  • Text set in 18 point English Monotype Scotch Roman by Dan Carr and Julia Ferrari at Gollgonooza Letter Foundry
  • For the text, the H.M.P Mill in Connecticut made the letterpress paper by hand to resemble the sort of stock produced in 1920’s Russia, even incorporating bits of Russian newspapers with rags and cotton pulp
  • Binding designed and executed by John von Isakovis in Massachusetts recalling the unique text paper with a spine of grey Nigerian goatskin
  • Printed at Wild Carrot Letterpress
  • Limited to 250 copies

Pictures

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My Sister Life, LEC, Cover and Spine
My Sister Life, LEC, Cover Detail
My Sister Life, LEC, Title Page
My Sister Life, LEC, Sample Pages with Text and Illustration
My Sister Life, LEC, Sample Pages with Text
My Sister Life, LEC, Second Sample Pages with Text and Illustration
My Sister Life, LEC, Third Sample Pages with Text and Illustration
My Sister Life, LEC, Colophon

7 thoughts on “My Sister Life, by Boris Pasternak, Limited Editions Club

  1. Hello, Chris! i will share with you my subjective understanding of Kuper’s illustrations.
    There is a very famous verse of BP that every educated Russian knows, “Winter Night”. Here is a translation, one of quite a few that exist, of this verse.

    Winter Night

    It swept, it swept on all the earth,
    At every turning,
    A candle on the table flared,
    A candle, burning.

    Like swarms of midges to a flame
    In summer weather,
    Snowflakes flew up towards the pane
    In flocks together.

    Snow moulded arrows, rings and stars
    The pane adorning.
    A candle on the table shone
    A candle, burning.

    Entangled shadows spread across
    The flickering ceiling,
    Entangled arms, entangled legs,
    And doom, and feeling.

    And with a thud against the floor
    Two shoes came falling,
    And drops of molten candle wax
    Like tears were rolling.

    And all was lost in snowy mist,
    Grey-white and blurring.
    A candle on the table stood,
    A candle, burning.

    The flame was trembling in the draught;
    Heat of temptation,
    It lifted up two crossing wings
    As of an angel.

    All February the snow-storm swept,
    Each time returning.
    A candle on the table wept,
    A candle, burning.
    =======================
    A burning candle became a core of many BP poems. Ask any literate Russian (or maybe Very literate Russian ), what person could be associated with a burning Candle, and answer will be Boris Pasternak.
    Yuri Kuper made pictures that are related not exactly to My Sister Life set of poems, but to “the Winter Night”. And having this in mind, it is easy to imagine a background emotion that accompanies the poems.

    It is my vision and i do not insist on the explanation. Just sharing an emotion.
    Regards,
    Vladimir Cherkassky

  2. Here are a few tiny details. The pieces of newspaper are taken from the the OLD papers, issued in 20-es 0r 30-es/ I recognize the font used in old issues of “Pravda”.
    There is an analogy between the pieces of Russian words from old issues of communist newspapers and a story from Francois Rablais’ “Pantagruel”, when the traveling ship appeared in an area with frozen pieces of curses, cannons’ shots, shooting, etc., an evidence of some battle that had happened many years earlier and noise of the battle was “recorded” by a sudden frost, and melted at the time of Pantagruel’s expedition was passing by this place.

    The other detail: the artist’s name is not Kuyper, but Kuper, pronounced like Cooper. A Russian last name cannot be Kuyper, as it sounds quite unpleasant in the Russian language. If there is not too late to delete a “Y” from the name, please do it.

  3. To collect books this size, you would need a gymnasium to house them in.

    It’s nice to see these books, although I’ll never own any at the prices they command.

    I first read De. Zhivago in 1961 when an English version was available in the US. When it was published by the Easton Press, I read it again. I recently sold my Easton copy, but have retained my FS version.

    I was still in college on my first reading, but I took my time in the second reading, and Pasternack, with Zhivago, is now my second most liked Russian Author. Doystoesvky being the first.

    I have all the LEC Dostoevsky and have read them all. I do wish Dr Zhivago would have been published by the LEC. I would have preferred a nice edition of this novel to Pasternack’s poetry.

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