When is a life worth telling? The Soviet writer Konstantin Paustovsky’s six-volume autobiography The Story of a Life combines high drama with heroic misadventure in a comico-lyrical amalgam of history and domestic detail that enchants from start to finish. Why Paustovsky is not better known outside his native Moscow is a mystery. In the mid-1960s he was nominated for the Nobel prize. (He was pipped to the post by Mikhail Sholokhov, the author of the obediently propagandist And Quiet Flows the Don.) Denounced as a ‘counter-revolutionary’ by the Soviet Writers’ Union, Paustovsky belonged to that select band of writers who inspire true fandom. Marlene Dietrich abased herself at Paustovsky’s feet in adoration when she encountered him in Moscow in 1964; the following year, having read him in French, she chose The Story of a Life as her book as a castaway on Desert Island Discs. Dietrich had good taste. On his death in 1968 at the age of 76, Paustovsky was hailed as ‘the Russian Proust’.
This excellent new translation by Douglas Smith of the first three volumes of The Story of a Life (parts four to six are due out in the near future) ought to return Paustovsky to our attention. Previous English language translations had been awkward, flat and inaccurate, but Smith ably captures the unaffected simplicity and Tristram Shandy-like discursiveness of Paustovsky’s prose. Published in Moscow between 1945 and 1963, the book is brimful of vivid character sketches, racy incident and sharp-focused vignettes. Passages of striking lyric beauty (‘the crimson of the dying autumn sunsets’) combine with pungent descriptions of teachers, artists and writers, anonymous train passengers, peasants, fishermen, soldiers and priests to create a teeming portrait of early 20th-century Russia.
Volume One, ‘The Faraway Years’, unfolds mostly in early 1900s Kiev and other parts of Ukraine where Paustovsky grew up. Among his schoolmates at the Kiev classical gymnasium was Mikhail Bulgakov, a Ukrainian wild child who used his metal belt buckle as a ‘knuckle duster’. (The school, visited by the Ruritanian eminence of King Peter I of Serbia, was reckoned to be among the best in Kiev.) Rejected by the Tsarist imperial army during the first world war because of his myopia, Paustovsky served as a tramcar conductor and a hospital train orderly. In emotionally charged prose he conjures the horrors of the Eastern Front. ‘Near a shell hole lay a dead horse, its bones picked clean by carrion crows, its long yellow teeth exposed as if in a laugh.’ Afterwards he worked in metallurgical and oil mill factories, as a fisherman’s assistant, a newspaper reporter and a proofreader. He was intoxicated by the 1917 revolution and welcomed the political upheaval attendant on the Bolshevik coup. Capitalism, with its inherent competition and strife, was at last moribund, and Leninism was the new creed that would heal the wounds of post-war Europe.
Very soon, however, Paustovsky found himself repelled by Bolshevik fanaticism. The Soviet authorities themselves detected a strain of ‘liberal kindness’ in The Story of a Life and disapproved of its absence of revolutionary prophecy and triumphalism. Where was the Red wrath and Stalinist fierceness in this so-called literary document? Paustovksy’s modest effort at description and recollection looked too tame for a subject as mighty as Soviet Mother Russia and its heroic peoples.
His literary avatars were of course not Stalinist socialist realists but Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Ibsen (‘that great manual labourer of the human soul’). In Tolstoy especially Paustovsky found the wisdom he needed to confront the mishaps of his own life. His feckless father had deserted the family early on, only to die before his time of cancer. His sister had gone gradually deaf and blind; his two soldier brothers were killed on the front line on the same day. For all that, The Story of a Life radiates a terrific vim and thirst for experience. A more gloriously life-affirming book is unlikely to emerge this year.