Paustovsky’s real life was every bit as intriguing as one of his stories...
Konstantin Paustovsky: an interesting life
ALMOST THERE | ISSUE SEVEN
Paustovsky as a young man.
I have read your story The Inn on the Braginka and wish to tell you about the rare feeling of joy it gave me. If you exclude the last sentence (the ‘final curtain’) I would rank it amongst the very finest stories in Russian literature.
Ivan Bunin ³
As I mentioned in a previous post, there are a good number of talented Russian writers of the Soviet period that are barely known in the West, and as a consequence it is difficult to find their works in translation. I intend to make my own modest contribution towards redressing the balance by translating Snow, a short story by Konstantin Paustovsky.
This also gives me an excuse to provide a little biographical background on a man who was in his day, one of the most popular writers in the USSR and whose literary output and qualities as a human being make him, in my opinion, someone who should be much more well-known than he is.
Paustovsky’s early life was a strange mix of comedy, tragedy, incredible twists of fate and above all adventure.¹ It all began conventionally enough. Born on May 31 1892, Konstantin Georgevich Paustovsky was the youngest of four children from a comfortable Moscow middle-class background. Both his parents were originally from the Ukraine and when ‘Kostik’ was quite young the family relocated to Kiev.
Paustovsky’s childhood was by and large a happy one and characterised by the kind of innocent hopes, dreams, disappointments and bittersweet growing pains we can all identify with. This relatively carefree existence was, however, brought to an abrupt end when Paustovsky was sixteen. Out of the blue his father left home for another woman, leaving the family saddled with debt and virtually destitute. Paustovsky’s eldest brother Borya was by this time a student at the Kiev Polytechnical Institute and had already left home; the other, Vadim, was about to go to college in Moscow. It was decided that Paustovsky’s mother and sister Galya would go to Moscow with Vadim, while Kostik would be sent to stay with an uncle and aunt in Bryansk (about 200 miles south west of Moscow) until he finished school. Paustovsky was made to feel welcome at his uncle’s but could not settle in Bryansk. He missed his old school and after a few months wrote to his former class tutor to see if it was possible to return. The school kindly agreed to waive his fees and even found him a part-time job coaching the child of a wealthy couple so he would be able to support himself.
Paustovsky’s travails were not over however. During his final year
at school he received a telegram from the small country estate of his uncle Ilko (where his father had gone to live) informing him his father was dying. Paustovsky rushed to be at his father’s bedside and arrived just in time: he died later that evening. Despite this family tragedy Paustovsky succesfully finished his schooling and earned a place at the University of Kiev.
The next few years of Paustovsky’s life are hardly mentioned in his memoirs—we are not even told what he studied at university—and the next volume of his autobiography resumes in September 1914 with the young student on a train bound for Moscow. His brother Vadim had been called up to fight in the recently declared war and Paustovsky wished to see him off. It seems that Paustovsky had wanted to enlist himself, but his short-sightedness and the fact he was the youngest son of the family rendered him ineligible for military service.
During his stay in Moscow Paustovsky decided to transfer to the university there so he would be in a position to support his mother and sister. He did not, however, resume his studies. The enormous implications he felt the war had for Russia convinced him there were more important things than study, and as an aspiring writer he believed he needed to be ‘amongst the people’. He got a job as a tram conductor but longed to be more directly involved in the war effort (especially once he learned Borya had also been called up) and so in October 1914 he volunteered to work as a medical orderly on a rear echelon train transporting wounded troops from the front.
In the summer of 1915 Paustovsky’s train was ordered to Odessa to undergo urgent repairs. While waiting for his next assignment he got the chance to fulfil one of his childhood dreams- to go to sea. He was granted a transfer to a hospital ship, the Portugal, which happened to be docked in Odessa at the time. But before he could take his berth aboard his new home the Portugal left port unexpectedly, leaving the would-be seafarer behind. It was a bitter disappointment but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. A couple of days later Paustovsky learned that the ship had been torpedoed by a German submarine and had gone down with all hands.
Later that summer Paustovsky obtained another transfer, this time to a field hospital unit, which would bring him much closer to the front line. It was there that he experienced the full horrors of war, especially the impact it had on the thousands of refugees left cold, hungry and homeless by the fighting. He also found love, in the form of Lyolya, a nurse he had first met on the hospital train. But his happiness was to be short lived. When the pair were sent to help the victims of a small-pox outbreak, Lyolya contracted the disease herself. Rather than put her beloved through the anguish of witnessing her slow, agonising death she opted to take her own life.
In December 1915 Paustovsky was wounded in the leg by a shell fragment and spent a month in hospital. He often received food parcels from friends and one day, having nothing better to do, began reading the newspaper that had been used to wrap some of the food in. He casually ran his eye over the casualty list only to learn that both his brothers had been killed in action on the same day. He was given two months’ leave and returned to Moscow. There he found his mother and sister preparing to leave- they were moving back to the Ukraine to live with relatives. Now alone, Paustovsky longed to return to his unit, but before his leave was up he was summoned by his superiors and dismissed. It transpired that while he was in hospital the censors had opened a letter he had written to a friend which contained disparaging remarks about the Tsar.
Thus began Paustovsky’s long years of wandering. He got a job in an armaments factory and was sent on assignment to various places in southern Russia. After a few months he resigned his post and worked for a time as a fisherman on the Sea of Azov. He returned to Moscow in 1917 and starting working as a journalist. The years that followed the October revolution saw him back in the Ukraine, caught up in the ebb and flow of civil war, surviving as best he could and writing whenever he had the chance. With the civil war over and the Bolsheviks in power Paustovsky again found work as a journalist, first in Odessa, then in a number of locations across the Caucasus region, before finally settling in Moscow in 1923. His first collection of short stories, Sea Sketches, was published in 1925. His fitful career as a writer was now beginning in earnest.
Paustovsky the writer
In a literary career spanning more than fifty years Paustovsky turned his hand to just about everything: novels, plays, film scripts, children’s stories, biographical and topographical sketches; however it was the short story at which he really excelled. Even his six-volume autobiography The Story of a Life,² which many consider to be his finest work, contains many chapters which read like self-contained short stories. Indeed some have been published separately as such. In the late forties no less a figure than Ivan Bunin, who did not know Paustovsky personally, came across one of these ‘stories’ and was so impressed he felt compelled to write and congratulate him:
When you consider that Bunin was Russia’s first ever recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature and an absolute stickler for writing style, this is high praise indeed.
Paustovsky the man
Though very much of the first generation of Soviet writers who first came to prominence in the 1920’s, Paustovsky enjoyed his greatest popularity in his later years. Thus when Komsomolskaya Pravda (a newspaper aimed at young adults) ran a questionnaire in the early sixties asking its readers whose literary works they would take with them to the moon, Paustovsky’s name came second only to that of Pushkin. Such popularity was no doubt due to his ability to produce subtle, evocative and often moving stories that appealed to people of all ages. He also inspired a great deal of respect amongst his peers as an unflagging champion of artistic freedom in a society where such a stance required a great deal of courage.
In 1956, during the second of the so-called literary ‘thaws’, Paustovsky was one of the few who spoke up at a meeting of the Union of Soviet Writers in defence of Ehrenburg’s controversial novel Not by Bread Alone. That same year he was the inspiration behind the publication of Literary Moscow, a two-volume anthology brought out without the usual official authorisation. Literary Moscow was a bold move, publishing for the first time in years work by writers who had fallen foul of the Stalinist regime as well as showcasing work by a crop of young writers who were having trouble seeing their work appear in print. The anthology also contained a couple of stories that treated quite a controversial subject - the corrupt and hypocritical bureaucrats that were rife within the Soviet system.
Not surprisingly Literary Moscow was singled out for special criticism by Khrushchev during the ensuing ‘freeze’- the conservative reaction that came soon after the ‘thaw’. Paustovsky was clearly undeterred, because in 1961 he brought out another ‘unofficial’ anthology, Pages from Tarusa. And in 1966, when Leonid Brezhnev’s clampdown against freedom of expression took a particularly sinister turn with the trial of the dissident writers Sinyavsky and Daniil, Paustovsky offered to speak at the trial in their defence. I have no doubt that such acts of courage were the reason he never received the Lenin Prize for Literature, the Soviet Union’s highest literary award. Konstantin Paustovsky died in 1968, and so he did not live to see the Lenin Prize awarded to that other literary heavyweight, Leonid Brezhnev. Which is a pity, because he would have undoubtedly appreciated the irony.
¹ Much of this article is drawn from Paustovsky’s autobiography, The Story of a Life. It came out in an English translation in the 1960s but is long out of print. I have noticed that Paustovsky’s entry on Wikipedia contains a number of inaccuracies.
² The Story of a Life is not a conventional autobiography in a number of respects. For one thing, it only covers Paustovsky’s early life.
³ Taken from the introduction to Konstantin Paustovskii, Selected Stories, edited by Peter Henry, page xxviii.