August 15, 2023

Books We Liked

“Book One: The Faraway Years,” the first 290 pages of Paustovsky’s immense, never-completed autobiography, is a gem, glorious, beautiful. This newly translated volume collects the first three “Books”; the next three and a half may be awaiting or undergoing translation now. Douglas Smith, the translator, tells us that, even in the tumultuous 1920s, Paustovsky (1892-1968) had already found his literary niche, one that luckily kept him out of the line of fire that compromised or murdered so many of his contemporaries. A Soviet editor impatiently objected to one of Paustovsky’s early stories because it was only “a romantic episode, completely devoid of social significance.” Decades later, a Soviet critic squawked about Paustovsky’s evocation of his life during the Revolution: “this book is filled with lots of liberal kindliness and very little revolutionary wrath.”

Paustovsky disarmingly confesses in the midst of the first part’s gorgeous chapters about his childhood and youth that “my memory pushed aside everything unpleasant. It was as if my memory had cut out the bad sections in a piece of cloth and sewn together only the good parts – autumn in Crimea and the cheerful, noisy Russian winter. I tried not to think about what had recently happened in Kiev.” Paustovsky was born in Ukraine and loved Kyiv but wrote only in Russian. It occurs to me that if he hadn’t been a real person, he might have been invented by Nikolai Leskov: “My spirit was as light as only that of a boy with a clean conscience can be,” he writes in an early chapter. “I’m nothing more than a child of a petty-bourgeois family from the village of Vasilkov in the province of Kiev,” he told an acquaintance. As a teenager, because of family trouble, he moved to Moscow. His father abandoned the family for another woman, and Paustovsky describes, in a heartbreaking passage, a latter-day encounter: “I looked at Father. This was no longer the man I knew from 1905 or before… It was as if that had been my real father, and this was some double who had ruined his life.”

Paustovsky committed himself to a primarily non-political response to the events occurring during his long life in the Russian Empire, then in independent Ukraine, and lastly in the Soviet Union. He consistently expressed objections to violence and seems to have been one of the least prejudiced or bigoted writers of his time. As a budding author he developed a reflex to beautifully render details that readers will reasonably suspect are impossible to actually remember: “I could spend hours crafting different descriptions of sunshine… I wanted to forget real life, and so I never did struggle to give my writings the precision of reality. Eventually, I created my own literary school out of these descriptive sketches.… Traces of this misty, florid prose remained… even now, I have to be on guard against my predilection for pretty words.”

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