Iced rowan berries

A recent cold snap has brought to mind one of the many evocative passages in Doctor Zhivago. With his artist’s eye for nature and his poet’s ear for cadence, Boris Pasternak writes memorable descriptions of the Russian landscape. Here is a detail from Book Two, Part Twelve. 

Zhivago has been kidnapped by partisans and is living in the forest. One day, with the aim of discovering a way eventually to escape, he is wandering among the trees.

“At the way out of the camp and the forest, which was now autumnally bare and could be seen through, as if gates had been thrown open into its emptiness, there grew a solitary, beautiful, rusty-red-leafed rowan tree, the only one of all the trees to keep its foliage. It grew on a mound above a low, hummocky bog, and reached right up to the sky, into the dark lead of the prewinter inclemency, the flatly widening corymbs of its hard, brightly glowing berries. Small winter birds, bullfinches and tomtits, with plumage bright as frosty dawns, settled on the rowan tree, slowly and selectively pecked the larger berries, and, thrusting up their little heads and stretching their necks, swallowed them with effort.

Some living intimacy was established between the birds and the tree. As if the rowan saw it all, resisted for a long time, then surrendered, taking pity on the little birds, yielded, unbuttoned herself, and gave them the breast, like a nurse to a baby.”

The translation is that by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, which has figured in this blog previously. When, at last, Zhivago is able to make his escape, he encounters the rowan tree again.

“It was half covered with snow, half with frozen leaves and berries, and it stretched out two snowy branches to meet him. He remembered Lara’s big white arms, rounded, generous, and, taking hold of the branches, he pulled the tree towards him. As if in a conscious answering movement, the rowan showered him with snow from head to foot.”

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