A writer of poetry, stories and novels, Konstantin Paustovsky was one of the most famous writers in the Soviet Union, admired abroad in literary circles and by celebrities such as Marlene Dietrich. He became most widely known for his multi-volume, lyrical memoir, The Story of a Life.
After his death in 1968, thanks to some heavy-handed editing by the Soviet authorities and some clumsy translations, Paustovsky’s work has long been out of print in the West. Now, the first three volumes of Paustovsky’s epic work arrives in a new translation by Douglas Smith. With the final three volumes to follow, a new generation of readers will have the opportunity to discover Paustovsky.
After he was born in 1892, Paustovsky’s family moved from Moscow to Kyiv. The first volume, The Faraway Years, explores Paustovsky’s childhood as he develops a burgeoning desire to travel and be a writer. Although wistful and romantic about the land of his youth, Paustovsky contends with the end of his parents’ marriage and his father’s death. After finishing school – notably, he was a schoolmate of Mikhail Bulgakov – his time at university is cut short due to the first World War.
Avoiding conscription into the army, he becomes a train orderly, transporting wounded soldiers from the front to hospitals. These are arguably some of the most memorable scenes. Paustovsky’s prose can border on the florid but here his adjectives sustain pace as well as develop imagery. The accumulation of repeated and selected adjectives (“same rapid, helpless breathing, same prehensile steel fingers”) not only gives a devastating image of the soldiers, but a sense of the exhausting nature of the work. It’s when Paustovsky tries to make grander, more generalised philosophical statements that the narrative becomes stilted.
In later years, Paustovsky published and brought attention to writers suppressed by Stalin. Smith’s dutiful footnotes about the artists Paustovsky encounters in the book suggest they, too, could have their day to be critically re-assessed. While some critics said Paustovsky wasn’t outspoken enough about life in Soviet Russia, the images he leaves us with in the final volume, as mobs and thugs seem to roam the streets of Ukraine soon after the Revolution, are, arguably , damning. Not only that, it’s potentially a dark and portentous foreshadowing of the contemporary moment.