The Story of a Life
by Konstantin Paustovsky, translated by Joseph Barnes
Pantheon, 661 pp., $10.00
Konstantin Paustovsky is well known in Russia. He has written short stories, novels, plays, travel books, and biogphies of great men for children of high school age. A six-volume edition of his works came out in 1957. His autobiography is a major production. Written at irregular intervals from 1946 to 1960, and still far from finished, it consists of five parts that bring the story down to 1923, when the author is thirty-one years old. The present translation contains only the first three parts, ending with 1920.
In the West, Paustovsky first attracted attention when, in 1956, he defended Dudintsev’s Not By Bread Alone, and since then he has won a reputation for liberality in his stand against anti-Semitism and his advocacy of artistic freedom. Yet until now, so far as I know, only one excerpt from his work has appeared in English: an abridged passage on Babel from the fourth section of his autobiography, published in Patricia Blake’s and Max Hayward’s anthology, Dissonant Voices in Soviet Literature. If Paustovsky continues his story to the present—and it is to be hoped he will—his work will probably rival in length Alexander Herzen’s monumental My Past and Thoughts. But this would not make it too long, for its length is due not to discursiveness but to an abundance of lively detail, to minuteness rather than verbosity. Although his memoirs are not comparable to Herzen’s in literary merit or intellectual power, they have their own more modest importance, qualities that come through even in this unfortunately poor translation, which is awkward, flat, and often inaccurate. (The translations in this article are my own.)
Paustovsky is not a thinker. He neither analyzes nor theorizes, nor has he any unusual or profound insights. His occasional, somewhat commonplace, reflections are the weakest part of his book. But he has courage and honesty, an unaffected and very engaging simplicity, a clear eye for detail, a retentive memory, an avid thirst for experience, a generous, tolerant, sympathetic attitude to human beings, and an enormous capacity for appreciation. He makes no claim to be either historian or philosopher; he writes simply about himself, a dedicated man, possessed by two great loves, a love of his country and of literature. “I am writing,” he says, “only about what I myself have witnessed,” without intending to “give a broad picture” of the revolutionary years. But he has seen so much, looked on with such rapturous attention, recalled everything so well and retold it all so vividly that his story gives the impression of sharply focused close-ups that add up to an authentic record, though not an explanation, of a crucial period in the world’s history. The pages are crowded with big and small events—sometimes profoundly moving, sometimes humorous, sometimes horrifying. There are passages of lyric beauty, inspired by his love of the sea and of the Russian countryside; and the hundreds of men and women, famous or obscure, whom he sees, works …