In January 1965, when Roy Plomley asked Marlene Dietrich for her book to take with her on Desert Island Discs, he must have been baffled by her answer. Her choice was a practically unknown six-volume autobiography by a Russian novelist, Konstantin Paustovsky (1892-1968), of which only one volume had slipped out in English. But Dietrich, who spoke three languages, had come across his writing in French translation the year before, and been so haunted by it that, as Douglas Smith describes in the preface to his outstanding new translation, when chance brought her and Paustovsky face to face in Moscow that summer, all she could do was fall at his feet and bow her head.
In the Soviet Union, this reaction was not uncommon. Paustovsky was hugely popular, with an almost mythical status, not only for his prose but for his character – for managing not to be a member of the Communist Party, for never joining in the vilifying of a fellow writer. When the hounding of Boris Pasternak was at its worst, after Doctor Zhivago had been published in the West, Paustovsky walked out in disgust from the Soviet Writers’ Union meeting as it denounced him. Forty years after his death, my Russian mother-in-law still worshipped him.
But Paustovsky, unlike Pasternak, was – and still is – hardly published in English. We have left him out of our canon because his novels, short stories and children’s books aren’t clearly dissident works. How wrong we have been. Instead, he dissented indirectly, writing against dishonest political realities by living at one remove, quitting Moscow to seize on Chekhov’s “minute particulars”, to truthfully describe Russia and Russians and eventually the world-shaking events he lived through. The quality of his narrative imagination makes The Story of a Life, the Proust-length autobiography he started in 1943, a masterpiece.
Novelists tend to write their own contracts with factual truth when they write about themselves, as we know from Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. Paustovsky’s three volumes (the second three are yet to be rescued from their bowdlerised Soviet version) doubtless also mobilise the fictional process, because it is the story that rules, not plain facts. But his story is an artist’s achievement. “In the amount of time it takes Jupiter to orbit the sun,” he writes, “we had experienced so much that just thinking about it makes my heart ache.” To write it, he flips history inside out, seeing his turbulent times, from before the 1905 revolution to Soviet victory in the civil war, through an unmediated and fabulously peopled gaze, threading an inexhaustible string of narrative pearls – stories, anecdotes, sketches – cultivated by a self-trained memory and occasional invention.
Born in 1892, half-Ukrainian, half-Russian, Paustovsky begins at the end of his schooldays in Kiev (now Kyiv) with the arrival of a telegram telling him his father is dying on his farm at Gorodishche. Reaching him is near-impossible, because the river is in flood. But Konstantin (“Kostik”) succeeds. Having stayed with his father till the end, he is stuck at the farm:
I recalled my early childhood... Summer came into its own at Gorodishche – hot summers with terrifying thunderstorms, rustling trees, currents of cool river water, fishing outings, blackberry picking, the sweet sensation of carefree days filled with surprises... the ponds were my favourite place to visit. Father went there to fish every morning, and he took me with him. We went out very early, moving slowly through the heavy, wet grass.
That “sweet sensation of carefree days filled with surprises” signals the book’s rhythm: first, a picture of everyday life so colourful it can teeter between naturalism and magical realism, with a power of nature that overlays modernity, the way “thick pollen would cover the sides of the carriages” of passing express trains; and second, that picture’s harsh obverse, Kostik’s milestones of love and life that fail. Especially moving are Hannah, a 16-year-old cousin he is in love with at Gorodishche, who slips away from consumption; his brothers, Borya and Dima, killed on the same day in the First World War; and most heartbreaking, Lelya, a nurse he falls in love with while serving as a medical orderly in the war, who dies, trapped in a locked-down village near the frontline, of smallpox.
Kostik’s schooldays at the First Kiev Gymnasium and the superb collection of eccentric masters; his parents’ painful separation and his dismal tutoring to make money; boisterous holidays with his uncle Kolya; pogroms, poverty, the end of childhood; war, revolution and civil war, are all weighed by a distinctive, lyrical, frank sensibility in a translation that brilliantly retrieves the colours and coursing beat of his prose:
I decided to go to the Hermitage. It was the end of March . The garden was dark and quiet. Melting snow slid from the trees. I caught the smell of rotting leaves, like the faint bouquet of wine, of bitter -vegetable matter and last year’s thawed-out flowers, which seemed to be seeping out from deep down inside the damp, shelterless and long-untended soil.
Nature had been forgotten in those days... People had been seized by different joys and passions. Even love, simple and unconditional as sunlight and air, gave way now and then before the torrent of events and was experienced as an attack of sentimentality requiring a cure.
These events are steeped in literature too, from early memories of “mild foggy winters, and rich, gentle Ukraine which embraced the city with its fields of buckwheat, its thatched roofs and beehives” to the “time of sudden decisions and turbulence”. After his first story is accepted by a Kiev magazine, it is literature and his perseverance at it that lead Kostik to freedom. When revolution tears the empire from its foundations, its chaos leaves him “unable to form any proper judgement”, but his remarkable talent for peopling his stories is enough: from Moscow to Odessa, from listening to Lenin’s “unusually calm high voice” quieting angry soldiers to himself being trapped into serving in Petlyura’s army in Kiev, at cafes, hotels, factories, on trains, in shot-up houses and whitewashed fishing villages, his account “only about things I have seen and heard myself” has the breathing universality of what it must have been like.
A measure of the enjoyment and absolute non-obsolescence of The Story of a Life is that, across a century and a continent, you still want to step bodily into the book’s pages, to barge Kostik out the way of whatever grief is roaring towards him, or to be at his side when a good moment – a story published, a carp caught, a lover met again – is celebrated. When I first read this book a dozen years ago, it stamped my consciousness with everything I find most lovable about Russians and Ukrainians: their expansiveness, their obstinate courage and, above all, a quality, both positive and negative, that I would call their refusal to wait too long for happiness. When Russia, as now, is at one of its darkest hours, its president massing troops on the Ukrainian border and stealing Russians’ own rights and freedoms, we should treasure Paustovsky’s reflection of his “native land, the most magnificent gift of our lives” as both a sparkling, supremely precious literary achievement and an infinitely more enduring thing than the present regime’s regressive dishonesty.
The Daily Telegraph