How to blazon a book that comes in at the thick end of eight hundred pages across eighty chapters, when Hegel says quantity itself may be a quality? When after a book and a half’s worth there is another book’s worth, and more, to come? The modestly titled Story of a Life is in fact only half the story (it’s the first three volumes of a set of six), so that we finish it, if we do, knowing nothing of the life and career and circumstances of the author in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s or 1960s (Konstantin Paustovsky died in 1968). It is the autobiography (or autobiographical novel?) and magnum opus (or caput mortuum?) of a writer not now known for anything else. Towards the end of his life, in the Khrushchev thaw, Paustovsky apparently had millions of readers in the USSR and enjoyed some reputation, now long gone, in the West. Marlene Dietrich fell to her knees before him; Robert Frost, visiting Moscow in 1962, made a point of seeking him out; he was touted for the Nobel Prize. I once owned an edition of the Selected Stories (from Progress Publishers, Moscow), ransomed from Foyles; my current copy is an on-demand Dutch reprint from an outfit called Fredonia (no, me neither).
This was a man born in Moscow, in 1892, a product of the renowned First Kiev Gymnasium, who spent his early years peregrinating in war and peace around Crimea, Byelorussia, Kiev and Odessa (I use the spellings chosen by Douglas Smith in the book), all places of which we have a more recent and incompatible sense; a prose writer from a time when prose writers were eclipsed by poets (Blok, Bely, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Tsvetayeva, Pasternak, Yesenin, Mayakovsky); who was himself, in the West at any rate, eclipsed by other prose writers, Bunin and Sholokhov (both of whom did get the Nobel Prize) and Babel and Bulgakov (who was a year ahead of him at school in Kiev) and Platonov, until they were all swept away by Solzhenitsyn.
I like to quote Joseph Brodsky’s lines from ‘Plato Elaborated’: ‘There would be a café in that city with a quite/decent blancmange, where, if I should ask why/we need the 20th century, when we already/have the 19th, my colleague would stare fixedly at his fork or his knife.’ Even as the 21st splutters on, the constituency for the 20th isn’t what it was, and certainly not in Russia, where opinions of every stripe seem committed to making it disappear. It is interesting then to discover that much Russian writing failed to move with the times. I have seen Bulgakov described by his translator Roger Cockrell as a ‘Russian writer trapped in Soviet space’. Paustovsky seems not even to have been trapped. He is squarely of the 19th century, a Turgenevian or Chekhovian throwback.
Chekhov, almost invariably, and not wrongly, is the point de repère for Paustovsky, who refers to him many times in The Story of a Life. He lived for a while in Taganrog, Chekhov’s birthplace, and evidently admired him (they never met, but Paustovsky registers his death, when he would have been thirteen). Chekhov drew from the social and intellectual condition of Russia, Paustovsky from its terroir: he composes his delicious, addictive atmosphere from rain, night, distance, marsh, trees, transport, a dim source of light, duty, tea and bread. It is easy to imagine him concurring with Brodsky, to quote him again, this time in ‘The Thames at Chelsea’, in which Brodsky’s reply to the catechistic question ‘What in the world do you love most?’ is ‘Rivers and streets – the long things of life’. Paustovsky too. Rivers, roads, rails, night. They both looked to Urania, the muse of geography. (Paustovsky’s father worked as a statistician for the railways; Brodsky’s was a naval photographer.)
Communism is barely a presence in Paustovsky’s work, no more than in, say, Whitman. In his introduction, Smith quotes a miffed Soviet critic: ‘This book is filled with lots of liberal kindliness and very little revolutionary wrath.’ No communism and precious little electrification either, considering the great showing of candles and oil lamps. What you do see is curiosity, a shy gregariousness, a kind of solidarity that may be nothing more than pleasantness, and a tendency in the fiction to steer clear of couples and familiars, so avoiding domesticity and interiority. Romantic, yes, interested and tender, certainly, and, on occasion, heart in mouth. But there is nothing sexual in The Story of a Life, which, given that it’s an account of the first thirty years of the life of a young male, seems worthy of note. Perhaps it is this virginal or puritanical aspect of Paustovsky that is communism’s gift. In the absence of the anti-bourgeois construct ‘free love’ – the transaction uncomplicated as ‘a glass of water’ (Alexandra Kollontai) – the unsexy or sexless was the norm. The comradely. The boilersuit over the union suit. The furtive, the suppressed or the undeclared, perhaps. In this way and in the backwardness, poverty and plain hunger that he writes about, Paustovsky can appear not so much 19th-century as flat-out medieval. A knight errant in soft clothes.
Paustovsky’s fiction tends to be set in public and among strangers, so that one is tempted to think: ‘Aha, the great frieze of society,’ or ‘Is this perhaps social realism?’ But that’s probably wrong as well: what he is describing is Nature, give or take a few human figures. In ‘Isaak Levitan’, Paustovsky writes about the painter and his landscapes – all deserted except one, the most highly prized, where Chekhov’s brother Nikolai painted in a figure or two. Never again. A representative piece of Paustovsky might be peopled by an old man, two middle-aged women and a child, and set in a railway carriage or a waiting room. Trains, horse-drawn conveyances and paddle steamers figure. It is, as I say, almost always night. Nightfall, night or dead of night.
The restlessness seems to be Paustovsky’s own: it’s not his thesis that society has put itself on wheels. A place takes some finding, some getting to and also some leaving. In The Story of a Life, he often finds himself among country people who have never been more than fifty miles – sorry, versts – from where they were born, while what time they have seems to be left over from the demands of others. There is little that tells one this is the 20th century. Paustovsky is aware of this sometimes: ‘It was easy to think that nothing had changed here since the 16th century – that there was no railway, no telegraph, no war, no Moscow, no history.’ This in the revolutionary February of 1917. There are no brand names or gadgets or knick-knacks. No planes or automobiles. No prestige or protection. Life is happening everywhere we don’t expect it. Some woods or hills, a sleepy village, a river, a way station.
A snub-nosed girl wearing an apron over a short, fur-trimmed jacket sat at a small table with a sad expression on her face. She was watching a boy with a sallow face and a long, translucent neck which had been rubbed raw by the collar of his peasant coat. Thin flaxen hair fell over his forehead. The boy sat drinking tea from an earthenware mug, snow melting onto the floor from his worn-out boots beneath the table. He broke off big chunks of rye bread. When he had finished, he gathered up the crumbs from the table and poured them into his mouth.
Paustovsky finds himself almost ambushed – mugged – by an inexplicable desire to stay in these nowheres. To write, or just to live out his days. ‘Clouds of jackdaws circled and cawed. At that moment, and at many since then, I wanted to walk off into those wet fields of spring and never come back.’
Objects are old, few, solid, cheap, functional, heavy, minimal, expected. The opposite of clutter. This is true not only of The Story of a Life, which takes one into the very early 1920s, but of the fiction written and presumably set well past the end of the Second World War. One such was the piece that first brought the name Paustovsky to my attention, almost fifty years ago, a story I read in a German anthology of Russian short stories, called ‘A Rainy Dawn’ and dated 1945, which struck me then and since as the equal of Chekhov’s ‘Lady with Lapdog’.
We are on a Volga steamer. It’s night. The boat puts in for three hours at one of Paustovsky’s tiny nowhere places (what’s the Russian for ‘podunk’?) called Navoloki. Just long enough to allow the central figure, a Major Kuzmin, who has been wounded in the war, to perform an errand for a somewhat objectionable wounded comrade called Bashilov: he has a letter to deliver to the man’s wife. Everything is small, nothing happens, and nothing is encoded either (what I dislike about Joyce’s Dubliners). Kuzmin manages to rouse a cabbie, smokes a couple of cigarettes, chats in a desultory way with the driver. They rumble through the darkness, up a hill and over a bridge. The cabbie wakes the household and Kuzmin goes inside, to be met by the housekeeper, and finally by Olga Andreyevna herself. She sets aside the letter as of no interest; she presses him on his opinions; he blushes as he speaks; she offers him tea, then wine; she dismisses the cabbie; as she escorts Kuzmin down some rotting wooden stairs back to the dock, she takes his hand in her gloved hand. She says something to him that he doesn’t quite catch; it might have been: ‘Pity.’ When he turns to look back from the steamer, he sees her, but she isn’t waving. ‘A Rainy Dawn’ is neither symbolist nor suspenseful. Everything is on the surface; the narrator holds nothing back, and embellishes nothing.
The writing in these ten or twelve pages is of the sort that Chekhov put in the mouth of the dissatisfied and self-critical young writer Treplev in The Seagull:
The description of a moonlit night is long and stilted. Trigorin has worked out a process of his own, and descriptions are easy for him. He writes that the neck of a broken bottle lying on the bank glimmered in the moonlight, and that the shadows lay black under the millwheel. There you have a moonlit night before your eyes, but I speak of the shimmering light, the twinkling stars, the distant sounds of a piano melting into the still and scented air, and the result is abominable.
Paustovsky is a Trigorin, someone who has the broken bottle and the deep shadows under the millwheel in his blood. He doesn’t have even that faint hint of deviousness or imperturbability one might detect in Chekhov – who, when confronted by a group of anxious and pretentious female admirers (the anecdote is told by Gorky), changed the subject to candied fruits, and so set them at their ease. Was that modesty and empathy, or was it the opposite, pride and remoteness? Impossible to say. In any case, I don’t think such a switch of subject could have been managed by Paustovsky. He doesn’t seem to have had the assurance, the playfulness, the socio-sexual superbia of Chekhov. Paustovsky would have listened, blushed, suffered, remembered. ‘For a writer,’ he says, ‘memory is nearly everything.’
Iwonder if there has ever been better, simpler, clearer prose than Paustovsky’s; and Smith’s translation is attentive, rewarding and unflagging (I only wish circumstances would allow him to return to Moscow to complete the three remaining volumes). It’s hard to characterise the writing without filling it with lukewarm qualities and making it sound quite unfairly average. Thus: short sentences, an alert and pleasant tone, unremarkable vocabulary, focused paragraphs, plenty of background, lots of sensory detail from sounds and smells. For long periods, little or nothing happens; then one is suddenly on the Eastern Front or in revolutionary Moscow. On the whole, one prefers the phases of nothing. School. Family. Train journeys. A long-held desire to visit Crimea.
The young Paustovsky doesn’t hold himself to be especially interesting, is not especially strenuous or especially introspective, other than in knowing that he wants to be a writer. One slips easily with him through successive constellations of two or three or four people, rarely crowds. Classmates. Neighbours. A local literary personage. The chapters carry titles, like short stories, and they have the same length, ten to fifteen pages. The pace is not fast, not slow, but not halting either. There seems to be time for everything, and no longueurs. A few of the characters – his likeable father, who loses his job and shortly afterwards leaves the family; his increasingly unsighted sister, Galya – return unpredictably; others figure once and are gone. Again, one thinks of modesty or unassumingness, and the principle of this construction from small, practical units, neither overpoweringly long nor provocatively short, is the most unassuming possible. A wall made of bricks, I thought. In the end, the technique is no technique. It relies on being there and giving the reader that same feeling of being there.
The analytical mind and the memorious senses are equally involved. ‘Galya made friends with Lena and learned everything she could about her. Galya always did love to question people about every last detail of their lives. She did this with the doggedness of a short-sighted and inquisitive person.’ Rationality and anxiety maintain a kind of balance:
After our family’s Crimean holiday everything suddenly changed. Father had an argument with the head of the South-West Railway. He quit his job and our financial wellbeing came to an immediate end.
We moved from Nikolsko-Botanicheskaya to Podvalnaya – ‘Cellar’ – Street, where, as if fate were mocking us, we took a basement flat. We lived off whatever personal belongings Mama could sell. Silent men in sheepskin hats appeared with ever greater frequency in our dark, chilly rooms. Their sharp eyes roamed about the flat, taking in our furniture, paintings and the china laid out on the table, and they discussed business quietly and confidently with Mama and went off. An hour or two later a cart would drive into the courtyard and soon depart with a chest of drawers, a table, a mirror, a rug.
In the mornings we would find a Tatar man in a black quilted skullcap in our kitchen. We called him ‘Shurum-Burum’. He would be squatting and examining Father’s trousers and jackets or some sheet in the light. Shurum-Burum liked to haggle for a long time, leave and then come back, which drove Mama to fits of anger. Finally, Shurum-Burum would agree and shake on the deal, pull out a fat wallet from his pocket, and, after spitting delicately on his fingers, count out his torn banknotes.
The paragraphs are a succession of frames: distance shot, mid-shot and – with the fat wallet and terrible spitting – close-up. The whole thing comes as seen by an adolescent boy who has so far had nothing much to worry about in life, but who is now reacting to the presence of strangers, to unfamiliar darkness and gloomy premises, to the vulnerability of his mother. Then, on the next page, the situation gets worse. ‘After that, Father took the first job he could get – an awful position at a sugar factory near Kiev – and moved out. We were left on our own. Grief overtook us. Our family was dying, and I understood this.’
Paustovsky pays his way through school – still at the First Kiev Gymnasium – by giving private lessons. From the age of fifteen or sixteen, he is living on his own, or with relatives. His ancestry is admirably mixed (Tito would have envied him), with Polish, Turkish and Zaporozhian Cossack grandparents. A gallery of Ensors passes review. Latin and French teachers, magazine editors, cousins, landladies, lodgers. A soi-disant ‘Polish prince’ (a conman), ‘a puffy-looking young man with a face like sauerkraut’. Three revolutionary sisters: ‘all of them petite and each with cropped hair and a pince-nez on her nose. All of them smoked and wore stiff black skirts and grey blouses to which they affixed a watch with safety pins in exactly the same spot, as if by mutual agreement.’
When there are no people, things get, if anything, still more spectacular and memorable: ‘The turning wheels produced a steady trickle of sand. Grass snakes slithered across the road in front of us. It was a sultry day, and we could see the hot air hanging over the swamps. In the little Jewish village, goats wandered about on the roofs of the houses and nibbled on the moss.’ Or: ‘The shop smelled of herring brine and soap and, most of all, the heavenly aroma of fresh sacking kept in the back room.’ Such details decorate the book without distracting from its overall architecture (there is nothing rococo about Paustovsky); they add intensity without advertising the extreme sensitivity of the observer (he is no Decadent either). They are short records of ordinariness, and from a writer who claimed not to make notes or keep notebooks – I would like to believe him – because the reader would know the difference. The one method, he suggests, produces notes, the other – which is no method – reality. ‘I recognise notebooks only as a genre,’ he is supposed to have said. He seems never to have been unkind.
After school, Paustovsky went to Moscow; his older brothers signed up for the war. He was briefly a tram driver, then a conductor, then a medical orderly on a hospital train. He went everywhere. ‘Spring had come to Russia. We found it in Vladimir, in Klyazma, in Tambov, in Tver – wherever we took the wounded.’ He wrote for local newspapers (listening on local trains) and worked as an inspector in metallurgical factories (‘the smoke was the yellow of fox fur and stank like scorched milk’) and as a fisherman on the Sea of Azov. Back in Moscow, following the revolution, he took himself to parks and gardens. ‘Now and then the wind filled the street with the smell of stagnant water and tomato plants.’ There are scrapes and adventures as Paustovsky makes his way back to his mother and sister in the country (his brothers both lost their lives on the same day, hundreds of miles apart), but they aren’t really the point. What interests him is noticing, retrieval, memory. Whatever catches his blessed sense. ‘The outskirts,’ he writes, of Moscow a hundred years ago,
had their charm – the crooked old wooden houses being held up by heavy beams blackened with age, the long-abandoned little manufactories, their boilers red with rust and lying on their sides among the weeds, the timber sheds smelling of birch bark. There was charm in the little benches, buffed to a bright gloss over the years, standing at gateways where so many sunflowers had been trodden into the ground that it had turned as hard as asphalt. There was charm in the roads soft with goosegrass, and in the raised barriers at the crossings of disused railway lines. Black locomotives with gaping funnels, most likely from the time of Stephenson, stood on the tracks, their fires extinguished for good. Swallows nested in the drivers’ cabs. There was also charm in the dark, ancient elms, weak from age and almost devoid of leaves even at the height of summer, in the slag heaps overgrown with dandelions, in the nest boxes and in the fences made of broken iron bedsteads and church railings, all entwined with bittersweet morning glory. Geraniums in old tins blazed on the windowsills, looking as exotic as birds of paradise. In one yard I came upon a strange sight – a kennel and inside it a carmine, black-tailed cock (taking the place of the missing dog), chained by the foot, apparently to correct its insolent and aggressive manner.
This is the point: the lyrical – but selfless and unselfconscious – stopping of time.
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