A Story of a Life, Konstantin Paustovsky
: “… my generation was fated to experience enough wars, coups, trials, hopes, troubles and joys to last several generations of our forefathers. In the amount of time it takes Jupiter to orbit the sun, we had experienced so much that just thinking about it makes my heart ache.”
So writes Konstantin Paustovsky in his memoir The Story of a Life (1945,1946, 1955, 1957) (English Translation, Vintage Douglas Smith, 2022), a work which takes the reader from the author’s childhood in Ukraine at the turn of the 19th century, through to the formation of the Soviet system, Paustovsky is likely to be the most famous Russian author you have never heard of.
This is not one single book, but three books in one volume written across decades: Book One, The Faraway Years, Book Two, Restless Youth and Book Three, The Dawn of an Uncertain Age. There are three more books that have yet to be translated. I hope it happens quickly because I am queueing up to read them.
This six part-memoir was originally published in the Soviet Union between 1945 and 1963.
Konstantin Georgievich Paustovsky was born in Moscow in 1892, he died in 1968 at the age of 76. It is hard to exaggerate Paustovsky’s stature in the 1960s. There is a story told in the introduction to the book that Marlene Dietrich alighted from her plane in Moscow for a concert tour in June 1964. Mobbed by reporters, she said: tell me all you know about Konstantin Paustovsky. A few days later she gave a concert for a gathering of writers which – unknown to Dietrich – Paustovsky attended. At the end of the performance he slowly progressed to the stage to meet her. This was only a few years before his death and the author was very ill. Writing in her memoir, Dietrich recalled that she was so overcome with emotion she was unable to speak. All she could do to express her admiration was to fall at his feet and bow her head. There is a photograph of this online.
It’s hard to imagine any contemporary writer having that effect on anyone.
The first three volumes cover the author’s childhood which at first is happy but later disintegrates, leaving him alone to fend for himself from the age of 16. As a young student at the gymnasium in Kiev in the late 19th century be begins his story which ranges through the collapse of the Romanov dynasty to the Russian revolution and the First World war.
Paustovsky spent time serving as a medical orderly on Russia’s frontlines in WW1. Paustovsky did not describe anything which he did not personally witness so there is no general history of the revolution or the world wars. Not knowing who was whom in the revolution it could be hard to follow some parts of the writing, but that must have been what it was like to live through it.
On several occasions Paustovsky comes close to being shot for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. When he describes these events what is striking is how little importance he seems to attach to who doing the shooting! Perhaps at that stage it didn’t matter. Each battle, each war, each faction, each gang as bad as another.
Although he was not as famous a dissident as, say, Shalamov or Solzhenytsyn – unlike them Paustovsky managed to avoid the gulag. But this did not mean he remained silent. Time and again the writer spoke out for artistic and intellectual freedom. He helped to publish the works of other writers and poets who fell foul of Stalin such as Nadezhda Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetaeva and Anna Akhmatova. Three times his name was put forward for the Swedish Academy for the Nobel Prize for Literature and three times the Swedish Academy backed down having been warned that this would be viewed by the soviet system as ‘provocation’. Instead writers such as Boris Pasternak and Mikhail Sholokhov were seen as safer options.
The beauty of Paustovsky’s prose is startling. It is only April and yet I know I will not read anything more outstanding than The Story of a Life, this year or possibly any other. Thank you, thank you to the translator Douglas Smith without whose work I would never have been able to read this author. I eagerly await the translation of the second set of three books