Konstantin Georgiyevich Paustovsky (poh-STAWF-skee), a short-story writer, novelist, playwright, and essayist, has an important place in postrevolutionary Soviet literature. He is highly respected for his inimitable late Romantic style and for his integrity, especially toward the end of his life. The son of a railway statistician of Cossack origin, Paustovsky was born in Moscow but spent his childhood and early youth in Kiev, where he graduated from a classical Gymnasium and where he also published his first story, in 1912. During World War I and the revolution he was a tram conductor and driver, a factory worker, a fisherman, a teacher, and a newspaper correspondent. He was in the Red Army from 1919 to 1921. After the revolution, he returned to Moscow, where he spent the rest of his life working as a journalist and editor and, after the publication of The Black Gulf, as a professional writer.
In his early career Paustovsky concentrated on short stories, in which he gave expression to his yearning for exotic lands and unusual experiences. The greatest passion of his life was traveling, and he traveled widely, both in the Soviet Union and abroad. In his writing he drew mostly from his own experiences. Many of his early stories are highly romantic, full of unfulfilled dreams and desires. Soon, however, he changed the tone of his stories and began to depict more realistic themes, although the romantic vein remained throughout his writing career. A fascination with nature is another constant in his writings. Paustovsky recorded his visceral responses to nature directly and forcefully. His depiction of the natural beauty of his land, in all of its simple splendor, is highly lyrical, even emotional. He treats his characters in a similar fashion, seeing them as integral parts of nature, simple and unspoiled despite the harshness that often marks their lives. In this sense Paustovsky upholds the humanist tradition of the nineteenth century Russian writers.
As Paustovsky entered his mature years, he spent most of the time writing his vast autobiography—undoubtedly his most important accomplishment. He began writing it in 1945 and finished it in 1963. The six-part work, collectively known in English as The Story of a Life, does not actually cover his entire life, as it ends with the 1920’s. The first part, subtitled Childhood and Schooldays, depicts his childhood (which was happy until his father’s death), his boyhood up to his high school graduation, and his wrestling with the discovery that he was somehow different from most of the people around him. Accounts of visits to his relatives in rural Russia are occasions for him to express his love of the beauties of the Russian countryside. His high school days are depicted with warmth and nostalgia.
The second part, Slow Approach of Thunder, takes up the end of the author’s boyhood and innocence, the approach of World War I, and the first three years of the war. It also marks the beginning of his family’s falling apart: Two brothers are killed in one day on different battlefields, a sister goes blind, and Paustovsky experiences increased estrangement from his surviving relatives, despite his undiminished love for them. Exempt from military service, he serves as a medical orderly and witnesses war’s tragedy.
Compounding the misery, the revolution and civil war soon engulf the nation—the subject of the third part, In That Dawn. Paustovsky’s dilemma is made worse by his indecision regarding the position he should take toward the revolution. His sympathies for the revolutionaries’ cause and his willingness to believe in their promises of justice are offset by his growing desire to acquire a distance in order to give his impressions the ring of artistic truth.
The following segment, Years of Hope, deals with the author’s stay in Odessa at the end of the civil war. The fifth, Southern Adventure, and the final part, The Restless Years, find the author wandering through Russia in the 1920’s. The last two parts are somewhat weaker artistically, perhaps because they lack the immediacy of a young boy’s impressions and the drama of war experiences. Paustovsky’s autobiography is an important literary document for both its subject matter—a monumental event in Russia’s history—and the artistic rendering of it. As such, it ranks with the best autobiographies in Russian and world literatures.
Toward the end of his life, Paustovsky became increasingly engaged in the defense of artistic freedom and of persecuted writers in his country. He strove to reaffirm his loyalty to his country while he protested against the excesses and misuse of power. His popularity with readers stems from his personal integrity as well as from his ability to depict genuine human situations and characters, their everyday joys and sorrows. He also excelled in passages extolling the beauty of Russian nature. Finally, he wrote influential essays on general topics and a book of literary musings, The Golden Rose, published in 1956, in which he shed light on his literary inspirations and on the creative process in general. The last years of Paustovsky’s life, spent in writing his autobiography and championing the cause of artistic freedom, were a fitting finale to a long and illustrious career.
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