The Story of a Life: Books One–Three by Konstantin Paustovsky (Translated from Russian by Douglas Smith) - review by Robert Chandler

Robert Chandler

Memories of Odessa

The Story of a Life: Books One–Three

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The Cold War lasted for over four decades and its stereotypes even longer. Western readers still tend to view Soviet writers in binary terms – either as cowardly hacks or as heroic truth-tellers. If anything, this tendency has hardened with time. During the early 1960s, when we were eager to glimpse signs of ‘socialism with a human face’, Konstantin Paustovsky (1892–1968) – genuinely gifted yet an acknowledged member of the Soviet establishment – was well known. In 1965 he came close to winning the Nobel Prize, but since then he has been somewhat forgotten. If anything is to change this, it will be Douglas Smith’s new translation of the first half of his autobiography, covering the period from his childhood until 1919. This is generally considered his greatest work and the translation is both accurate and stylistically immaculate.

As a young man, Paustovsky worked in many different jobs: as an orderly in a military hospital train, as a fisherman, in a metal factory and as a journalist. As a mature writer, he made the compromises necessary to survive but was certainly a force for good. He helped to bring about the republication of Isaac Babel’s stories. When Pasternak was in disgrace after publishing Doctor Zhivago abroad, Paustovsky walked out of a Writers’ Union meeting called to denounce him. And in 1966 he was one of the twenty-five scientists and cultural figures who protested publicly against the show trials of Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, who had also published abroad.

Twenty years ago, while I was compiling an anthology of Russian short stories, I used to ask almost every Russian I met to name their favourite stories. Many of them mentioned Paustovsky’s. In the end, though, I decided against including any by him; there were stories I quite liked,

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