Lenin began to speak. I could not hear well. I was squeezed tight in the crown. Someone’s rifle butt was pressing into my side. The soldier standing right behind me laid his heavy hand on my shoulder and squeezed it from time to time, convulsively tightening his fingers….
He spoke slowly about the meaning of the Brest-Litovsk peace, about the treachery of the Left Social Revolutionaries, about the alliance of the workers with the peasants, and about bread, about how necessary it was to stop the endless meetings and noise in Moscow, waiting for no one knew what, and to start to work the land as quickly as possible and to trust the government and the party….
The heavy hand was now lying quietly on my shoulder, as if resting. I felt in its weight something like a friendly caress. This was the hand the solider would use to stroke the shaved heads of his children when he got back to his village.
I wanted to look at the soldier. I glanced around. It turned out to be a tall civil guardsman with a blond unshaven face, very broad and very pale, without a single wrinkle in it. He smiled at me in embarrassment, and said:
“What president?” I asked, not understanding.
“The President of the People’s Commissars, himself. He made promises about peace and the land. Did you hear him?”
“Now, that’s something. My hands are itching for the land. And I’ve straggled clean away from my family.”
“Quiet, you!” another soldier said to us, a frail little man in a cap.
“All right, I’ll be quiet,” the civil guardsman whispered and he started quickly to unbutton his faded shirt.
“Wait, wait, I want to show you something,” he muttered as he fumbled inside his shirt until he pulled out, at last, a little linen bag turned black with sweat, and slipped a much-creased photography out of it. He blew on it, and handed it to me. A single electric lamp was flickering high up under the ceiling. I couldn’t see a thing.
Then he cupped his hands together, and lit a match. It burned down to his fingers, but he did not blow it out. I looked at the photograph simply in order not to offend the man. I was sure it would be the usual peasant family photograph, such as I had often seen next to the icon in peasant huts.
The mother always sat in front — a dry, wrinkled old woman with knotty fingers. Whatever she was like in life — gentle and uncomplaining or shrewish and foolish — the picture always showed her with a face of stone and with tight-pressed lips. In the flash of the camera’s lens she always became the inexorable mother, the embodiment of the stern necessity of carrying on the race. And around her there always sat and stood her wooden children and her bulging-eyed grandchildren.
You had to look at these pictures for a long time to see and to recognize in their strained figures the people whom you knew well — the old woman’s consumptive, silent son-in-law — the village shoemaker, his wife, a big-bosomed, shrewish woman in an embroidered blouse and with shoes with tops which flapped against the base calfs of her legs, a young fellow with a forelock and with that strange emptiness in the eyes which you find in hooligans, and another fellow, dark and laughing, in whom you eventually recognized the mechanic known throughout the whole region. And the grandchildren — frightened kids with the eyes of little martyrs. These were children who had never known a caress or an affectionate greeting. Or maybe the son-in-law who was the shoemaker sometimes took pity on them quietly and gave them his old boot lasts to play with.
I first came across The Story of a Life in a garage sale. I thought the title rather pretentious, particularly when paired up with Paustovsky’s grim portrait on the cover. “Oh boy,” I thought: a great thick Russian book about how to live is to suffer. But then I noticed a quote by Isaac Bashevis Singer just beyond Paustovsky’s hands: “A work of astonishing beauty … a masterpiece.” I flipped it over and was moved to buy it by the following quote from Orville Prescott of the New York Time: “The Story of a Life is one of the most surprisingly wonderful books it has ever been my pleasure to read.”
Why had I never heard of this book if it was so terrific? After years of scouring the shelves of countless bookstores, I rarely ran into something truly new and unknown. I decided to make it the book I’d take on my next long airplane ride.
Unfortunately, when I’d found my seat, stowed my bag, and buckled my seat, I opened up my copy only to be confronted by: “The Death of My Father.” Less than ten pages into the book, and there I was standing beside Paustovsky at his father’s funeral: “The river went on roaring, the birds whistled a little, and the coffin, now smeared with dirt and clay, slowly settled down into the grave. At this time I was seventeen years old.”
Great. Only 650 pages of this to go.
I kept on reading through the chicken with gunk on it, but soon surrendered to the in-flight movie. The problem wasn’t that The Story of a Life was too grim, however. On the contrary. There is so much life in these pages that I knew I needed to find somewhere I could get away from all distractions and immerse myself in them. Luckily, we had a vacation in Sicily coming up. I’d rented a house out in the countryside, and each day for the week we spent there, I’d rise before the rest of the family, go out to the terrace, plop down in a lounge chair, and read for two or three hours straight, soaking up the sunshine and Paustovsky’s luminous prose.
Konstantin Paustovsky was born in Moscow in 1892. The earliest scene in The Story of a Life takes place in 1901, and the American edition, comprising three of six parts of the original Russian version, follows Paustovsky from then to his arrival in a besieged Odessa in 1920, in the midst of the Russian Civil War. He witnesses Tsar Nicholas and all the ceremony and obsequy that accompanied him. He joins an ambulance team and experiences the horrendous casualties and conditions of the Eastern Front; he finds himself in Moscow at the time of the October revolution; he hides out in Kiev as the Germans, the White Russians, the Ukrainians, the Poles, and the Bolsheviks in turn fight for ownership of the city. He sees a village die in the space of a few days from smallpox, survives starvation, abandonment, and the loss of much of his family. For the simple merit of providing a first-hand account of one of the most tumultuous times of the 20th century The Story of a Life would at least be a notable book.
The remarkable thing about how Paustovsky tells his story, however, is that with all the events that history would record around him, his attention is inevitably drawn from the great to the small. Lenin speaks to the restless soldiers, but Paustovsky turns away to focus on the guardsman next to him, to examine the photo and imagine the people it shows. The guardsman soon tells him of the beautiful woman sitting next to him in the photo, his bride-to-be, who later died giving birth to his child. He finds himself in a backwater provincial town when, late one night, the news arrives of the abdication of the Tsar, and he shows how the fops and eccentrics he’d met in the days before gather, first confused, then inspired, transformed, eager to act, not yet ground down by the brutal disappointments to come. And wherever he goes, whatever happens, he tells us about the color of the leaves, the smell of the grass, the warmth of the sun, the sharp cold of the water, and the people around him.
And such people they are. Hundreds come and go in the course of the book, but for each one Paustovsky manages to provide some brief yet memorable sketch:
… [A] frequent visitor to Uncle Kolya’s was Staff Captain Ivanov, a very clean man with white hands, a meticulously pointed light beard, and a delicate voice. In typical bachelor fashion, Ivanov became a member of the family at Uncle Kolya’s. It was hard for him to spend an evening without dropping in to sit and talk. He blushed each time he took off his overcoat and unbelted his sword in the vestibule, and said that he had dropped in for a word or to get Uncle Kolya’s advice on some matter. Then of course he would sit there until the middle of the night.
As he travels, he comes across vestiges of a very ancient Russia that would soon disappear. There are the “old men of Mogilev”, a fabled cult of ascetic beggars who gathered each year from the corners of Russia to speak to each other in a secret tongue and pass on the sacred prayers and ways of seeking alms. A group of them wander into the funeral of a peasant boy:
They were all dressed in identical brown robes with wooden staffs, shining with age, in their hands. Their gray heads were raised. The beggars were looking up at the altar where there was a picture of the God Jehovah in a gray beard. He looked amazingly like these beggars. He had the same, sunken, threatening eyes in the same dry, dark face.
Or the handful of elderly monks he finds in the forests of the Ukraine, disoriented and frightened in the new secular world of the revolution:
“We really don’t know any longer,” the monk told me, “whether we should ring it or not. It’s dangerous. It seems there is some insult in it for those who are in power now. So we just ring it gently. A crow sometimes sits of the bell and he doesn’t even fly away when we ring it so softly.”
There are lovely young girls he falls for with full youthful passion. He watches his first true love, Lelya, a nurse on his ambulance team, become infected with smallpox and die in a few days, along with a whole village the team has been ordered to isolate and quarantine until the last victim is dead.
Paustovsky was a member of the Writer’s Union during years when it was probably impossible to work without cutting some bargain, committing some betrayal large or small, and ever so rarely we witness a tip of the hat to the prevailing dogma: “It was only in 1920 that I realized that there was no way other than the one chosen by my people. Then at once my heart felt easier.” Usually, these outbursts of Party faith are brief, awkward, and out of step with the rest of the story. The worst, a caricature of a kulak woman — fat, greedy, hoarding a great trunk of silver on a crowded train of refugees — is pure stereotype. It’s as if Paustovsky kept reminding himself to drop in a good Soviet screed every hundred pages or so, just to keep his insurance premiums paid.
The Story of a Life is, with Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches, perhaps the sunniest Russian book ever written. Paustovsky seems to have possessed an almost inexhaustible stock of optimism. Sitting in a lonely room on a dark winter’s night, nearly penniless, a teenager whose family has fallen apart and scattered far from him, he notes, “I began to notice that the more unattractive reality looked, the more strongly I could feel all the good that was hidden in it.”
Russian literature produced two of the world’s greatest autobiographies in the middle of the 20th century: Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope and Konstantin Paustovsky’s The Story of a Life. Hopehas been in print continuously since it was first published in English in 1970. The Story of a Life went out of print a few years after its first English publication in 1964, enjoyed a reissue in 1982 as part of a Vintage series of modern European classics, then vanished again.
The Story of a Life was published in six volumes in the Soviet Union. Five were published in the U.K. between 1964 and 1969. In the U.S., the first three were collected in The Story of a Life, published in 1964, and the fourth as Years of Hope in 1968. I can find no trace of an English translation of the sixth volume.
- · Jose Yglesias, Nation, 11 May 1964
- Paustovsky is an old-fashioned writer by current American standards; he means to communicate and to do good; whether he is describing a landscape or discussing the revolution…. The Story of a Life seems to be the perfect book with which to make his acquaintance; in it he speaks directly and at length, an old man for whom youthful experiences have not lost their wonder, able now to speak truthfully and without vanity about hurtful, wonderful, and confusing days…. It’s a long, crowded treasure of a book and Joseph Barnes’ translation is particularly fine, for he maintains a single tone faultlessly throughout.
- · Peter Viereck, Saturday Review, 16 May 1964
- Paustovsky’s The Story of a Life is a literary masterpiece…. This is not the cracker-barrel blandness of some professional sage, as so often in America’s ghost-written memoirs, but a wisdom of tragic insight and of hard-earned integrity.
- · Naomi Bliven, The New Yorker, January 2, 1965
- The book is copious, as the urgencies of its author’s intentions require: an older man, a survivor, and a witness, he writes against time, to tell the young what the past was like, and to bring to life a host of human beings — cocky schoolboys, earnest schoolgirls, blind beggars — not because they were good or great but because they were. His work is nothing like an elegy, nor is it as routine as a backward glance at the good or bad old days. It is, rather, a series of sketches, stories, novellas, in which vanished people (including the author’s young self) are present again — as they once walked in a park, or smiled, or wept — and made anew in man’s most endurable medium, language.
- · Thomas Merton, The Commonweal
- The Story of a Life is one of the very finest autobiographies of our time. It has all the warmth and richness of the most authentic humanism … an unforgettable account of life in one of the most crucial periods and places in world history.
Find Out More
- Wikipedia entry on Konstantin Paustovsky
- Biographical sketch of Paustovsky at the Taganrog, Russian city website
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