Konstantin Paustovsky titled his six-volume autobiographical work "The Story of a Life," and quite a life it was. He served as an orderly in World War I, worked various odd jobs (including tram conductor, munitions inspector and fisherman's assistant), reported on the Russian Revolution, worked as a war correspondent during World War II, and was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1965.
Douglas Smith's new translation makes the first three of the six volumes of "The Story of a Life" available in English for the first time in decades. The use of the word "story" is crucial; this is a work of literature rather than history. As Smith writes in the introduction, the "work moves forward less by the dictates of chronology and more by the power of memory."
This is especially true of the first volume, "The Faraway Years," with chapters functioning almost as independent stories. Paustovsky evokes the dreaminess of his bookish boyhood and later the hijinks and sorrows of the school years. Lyrical, meditative passages are sharply juxtaposed with personal tragedies, including the powerful and understated chapter "The Death of My Father" that opens the book. Momentous historical events — such as the failed 1905 revolution — unfold at the periphery: "Autocratic Russia had come unraveled like a piece of rotten old cloth."
The second volume, "Restless Youth," begins in 1914, Russia having just entered World War I. It was a time when "life became unrecognizable" and everything "held as familiar and permanent had vanished in an instant." This is a more brutal volume that sees Paustovsky on the Eastern Front, witnessing the carnage of war and the chaotic collapse of the military. In the midst of this, Paustovsky, ever the poet, remarks on the "low-hanging pewter sky" or the sight of "arrogant storks" in their nests. In the volume's final chapter, "A Raw February," Paustovsky describes the 1917 revolution that ended Tsarist rule. "Russia had found its voice and begun to speak," he writes of his optimism in those early days.
"Dawn of an Uncertain Age" picks up here and ends moments before the Red Army's capture of Odessa in February 1920. Like his friend and contemporary Isaac Babel, Paustovsky makes poetry of war: "The bullets sang with their own individual notes — some whistled lightly, some whined, others made a strange screeching sound as though they were turning somersaults in the air."
This volume more than the preceding two is also peppered with philosophical digressions on the thin veneer separating civilization from "a bottomless sea of dark savagery" as well as writerly meditations on the necessity of "vigor and austerity" for good prose and the power of literature to draw "us closer to the golden age of our thoughts, our feelings and our actions."
No review can do justice to this book. For 800 pages, Paustovsky is the reader's companion on a journey that seems to encompass all of life, one suffused throughout by the author's optimism. The length may seem daunting and the names alien to those unfamiliar with Russian literature, but the book offers a powerful literary experience for which no recommendation can be as high or as fervent as this terrific book is for itself.
Eric Vanderwall is a writer and musician. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Chicago Review of Books, Open Letters Review and elsewhere.
The Story of a Life
By: Konstantin Paustovsky, translated from the Russian by Douglas Smith.
Publisher: New York Review of Books, 816 pages, $24.95.