In my rather optimistic plans-for-2023 post, I mentioned that one of the projects I wanted to undertake this year was the reading of the six volumes of Konstantin Paustovsky’s autobiography, generally known under the umbrella title of “Story of a Life” (also the title of the first book in the sequence). Paustovsky’s epic work spans Russia through revolutionary and then Soviet times, and it’s being reissued by NYRB in a shiny new translation; however, I have the six books in the series in beautiful hardbacks, originally issued in the 1960s and translated by Manya Harari and Michael Duncan, and they’re the ones I’m going to read. Well, I had a few days extra off work before going back in the new year, and so it seemed like a good time to get started on this new project… 😊

Paustovsky was born in Moscow in 1892; his father was a railroad statistician and his mother came from a family of Polish intellectuals. He grew up in Ukraine, shuttling between Kiev and the countryside, attending school with Mikhail Bulgakov, and going on to study at the University of Kiev. This first volume of his memoirs is subtitled “Childhood and Schooldays”, and it covers his early memories of his family, growing up, spending time in the country, the changes going on around him, and the vicissitudes of family life. The book opens dramatically, with Paustovsky as a young man travelling into the country through a fierce storm to visit his dying father. This somewhat sets the scene for the rest of the book, in that the author does have a tendency to open a chapter with some dramatic new event and then go on to explain the lead up to it!

This was in September. Twilight was coming on. No one who hasn’t seen a Kiev autumn can have any conception of the gentle beauty of these hours. The first star lights up in the sky. The luxuriant autumnal gardens are still, waiting for the night and for the shooting stars which they will catch in their dense foliage as in a hammock and lower to the ground so softly that no one will wake up or know.

The chapters thereafter are short, lyrical and fascinating. Paustovsky recalls his visits to various relations; his adventures as a child; his capricious mother; his first crushes; his schooldays and playmates; and the beautiful countryside of Ukraine, which he obviously loves. His relatively tranquil young life is, however, disrupted when his family breaks up; there have been signs of his father and mother gradually growing apart, and this causes a drop into poverty and a break in his schooling. He often takes solace from nature and the country, especially whilst staying with relatives, and this is a constant theme running through the book.

It was during this summer that I became attached, for life and with all my heart, to the countryside of Central Russia. There is no other country I know of, which has the lyrical power and touching and compelling beauty of this melancholy, calm and spacious region. It is hard to measure the strength of an attachment. You get to love every blade of grass warm with sun or heavy with dew, every mouthful of water from a well in a wood, every sapling shivering in the windless air beside a lake, every cock crow, and every cloud in the high, pale sky.

However, not all is bucolic in his narrative; Paustovsky was living through a time of change and conflict, and as he grows up he becomes aware of the political turmoil surrounding him, which does affect the family at times, particularly when early revolution starts to break out. Paustovsky seems naturally to incline towards the thinking of those agitating for change, but underlying everything is his wish to be a writer, an urge which has solidifed at the end of the book. This first part of his life story ends with him graduating from school and becoming firm in his intention to become a writer.

“Story of a Life” really was a beautiful book to read from start to finish. It’s not really a traditional autobiography, as each chapter is almost a vignette of its own, focusing on a particular aspect of Paustovsky’s life. And although it’s a very personal book, relating to events which happened to him and his poetic development, it has the added interest of capturing how it was to be living in those changing times. Little things, like his thoughts on Russian culture, and his descriptions of how the deaths of Tolstoy and Chekhov affect everybody, bring his world alive. His writing is wonderfully atmospheric, transporting you through time and space to his world, and I absolutely loved this book!

So I have embarked on my first Paustovsky and hopefully will keep up the impetus to continue with the series. I felt an added poignancy reading the book at the moment, as with much of the narrative set in Ukraine/Kiev, I couldn’t help reflecting how different life is for its residents nowadays… ☹ As for the translation, I’ve seen this version criticised as being a little flat, but it certainly wasn’t for me – I found the writing lyrical and descriptive, the cities and countryside in which Paustovsky lived brought vividly alive, and his story a memorable one. I shall look forward to continuing my journey through his life!