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A Russian Soul

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 with, loves, or befriends are sharply drawn: Lenin subduing an unruly gathering by the sheer authoritativeness of his presence and his conversational speech, eccentric teachers, well-known artists and writers, anonymous passengers on trains and trolley cars, illiterate peasants, fishermen, bandits, soldiers, newsmen, priests, doctors, nurses, coachmen, children—they are not a mob, but a myriad of individuals, every one distinctly seen, though only a few are intimately known.

It is a straightforward and unassuming narrative, written with youthful gusto and naive delight. Starting with reminiscences of childhood in the peaceful Ukraine, where Paustovsky was born in 1892, it proceeds to school and university in Kiev and Moscow, then to battlefields and devastated villages in the rear of fighting armies, to insane skirmishes during the Civil War between outlaw bands that seek to gain control of Little Russia, to bandit-infested Odessa, and finally to the establishment of Soviet power. The first World War broke out when Paustovsky was a student at the University of Moscow. Rejected by the army because of his extreme near-sightedness, he first became a streetcar conductor, but soon managed to get himself accepted as an orderly on a hospital train; then he joined a field medical unit, was wounded by shrapnel, worked successively in metallurgical and oil mill factories, as a fisherman’s assistant, a reporter, a proofreader. His life is a tissue of wanderings and adventures, of meetings and partings, of attachments and losses, a full, tempestuous—and lonely life.

Paustovsky is not given to self analysis; even hair-breadth escapes (a near drowning in a storm at sea, a narrow getaway from bandits, a rescue from execution in the nick of time) take their place almost as a matter of course in his unsettled and precarious existence. But once in a while, when he is leaving some place to which he has become accustomed for a new and unfamiliar one, Paustovsky glances back over the years and tries to detect the thread of unity in the disjointed experiences that have filled them. He finds this thread in his irrepressible hopefulness, his dedication to literature and his devotion to Russia. “Another small stage of life has been passed,” he thinks at a railway station, waiting for a train, “and with it bitterness has been augmented. But, strange as it may seem, the bitterness did not dim, but, on the contrary, increased hope in the arrival of splendid days, the arrival of universal freedom.” On board a departing steamer: “The ship was bearing me away from the familiar, steep beach. Once again, as in all changes in life, the heart beat painfully. And it was all the harder because life was shaping itself senselessly somehow. Between its several parts there was no connection whatever. People who had suddenly appeared in my life, disappeared with equal suddenness, maybe forever.” Or again, on his way to revolutionary Moscow:

I remembered my life month by month, trying to find the single aim by which I had been guided these last years. But I could not manage to define it. One thing only I knew positively, that not once in all these years had I thought of my own well-being, of a comfortable life. One passion only possessed me—writing. Now, in the train. I felt that I could by now express and convey to those around me my understanding of the beautiful and the just, my sense of the world and my concept of human happiness…I knew only one thing—that I would strive to write with all the strength of my soul, that I would strive for it for the sake of serving my people and for the sake of the love I bore our magic Russian tongue and our amazing country.

To the disenchanted reader of the West, such nationalistic outpourings may appear sentimental, perhaps even suspect; but to any one who knows Russian literature they will have a homey, recognizable sound. From the Middle Ages to the present Russians have sung their land and their language with similar ardor and made unabashed promises of “service,” whatever their attitude to politics or society might have been, whether they supported a government in power, or fought against it, or fled from it. Paustovsky is a patriot and a Bolshevik. His father’s sympathy with the revolutionary movement, his own reading, and the prevailingly liberal atmosphere in school prepared him for the revolution. But in the events of 1918 he was an observer rather than a participator, and though he welcomed it from the first, he “accepted” the revolution only in 1920.

The third part of his autobiography closes on a scene (sadly mistranslated in the present version) of victorious Red soldiers entering Odessa. The news of their arrival had precipitated a panic flight to the ships in the harbor, which set sail with their cargo of terrified humanity just as the soldiers came in. “The warriors rode with bowed heads, as if in reflection, stopping only by those who were lying on the ground; they jumped off their saddles and stooped over them. They were, evidently, looking for any one who might be alive. But none were alive.” The ships whistle in parting. “They sounded like a prayer for the dying, for those who were leaving their country, having renounced their people, the Russian fields and forests, springtime and winters, their nation’s sufferings and joys, having rejected the past and the present, the bright genius of Pushkin and Tolstoy, the great filial love of every blade of grass, every drop of water from the well of our simple and magnificent land.” The convoy ship fires two parting shots. They are not answered from the shore. The Red army watch the departure silently. “In this silence of the conquerors there was a grave reproach.” A scene that is perhaps too theatrically heroic in its obviously calculated effect and its oversimplified judgment. But this is characteristic of Paustovsky’s ingenuous emotionality. He likes, as he himself admits, to exaggerate and idealize; and his attitude towards this propensity is ambivalent: he struggles against it and defends it also. In his autobiography he has curbed it, he says, but had he time, he would write another story about his life, not of life as it really was, but, he says, “as it should have been did the creation of my life depend on me alone and not on a series of external and often inimical circumstances. That would be a story about what did not take place, about everything that ruled my consciousness and my heart, about that life which gathered to itself all the colors, all the light, and all the excitement of the world.”

But it is hard to imagine how this fanciful life of what should have been could be any more colorful than this one about what actually had been. And of the true story one wants very much to see the continuation; one wants to hear this humane, liberal, adventurous, and courageous man tell how he lived under Stalin. We know that during World War II, he was a correspondent on the Southern front. But what were his thoughts all through these years, and how much of what he saw and thought was he able to express?

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