(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The Story of a Life offers an insight into the early life of a Russian intellectual at the beginning of the twentieth century. Paustovsky realized early that his propensity for dreaming and inventing a world of his own predisposed him toward writing. This vocation, in turn, made him of necessity a loner. At times, he realized that he was afraid of behaving differently from others. He often asked whether a man had the right to live the way he wanted, by which he implied his desire, indeed, his need, to do so.

Another important part of his maturation was the inspiration he received from nature. He describes with tenderness and sensitivity his relationship with nature— not only his vague love for its beauty, but also as something indispensable for developing one’s full strength; indeed, he believed that a life in nature should be the constant vocation of every human being. Whether he developed into a romantic writer because of his peculiar relationship to nature or whether he was drawn to nature because of his romantic disposition is difficult to say, but he remained close to nature all of his life.

Paustovsky was inspired by the simple yet profound wisdom of his grandmother: “The world is wonderful and good, and a man should live in it and work in it just as in a big garden.” He strove to live up to that philosophy, looking for what was good in everything around him and often finding it. The conviction that one should affirm life remained with him throughout his life, placing him in the best of the humanist tradition. At the same time, Paustovsky was aware that good and bad exist together and that good often shines brighter through layers of lies, poverty, and suffering. His optimistic attitude was often put to the test, especially during years of war and revolution. It also made him look for every flicker of humanity in even the worst people. The core of his belief was that there is something in every heart which must respond to even the weakest challenge of what is good. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the episode in which he carried carnations onto a trolley during the war; all the passengers wanted a flower, awakened briefly to a memory of happiness buried by the litter of daily life, after years of deprivation.

Much of the book deals with the war and the Revolution. The majority of the people were not for the war and were utterly confused by the Revolution. Most swam with the tide, wishing only to survive. The reaction of the young Paustovsky was typical of such an attitude. From his earliest childhood he had heard from his father words about freedom, about a revolution that would bring to an end the misfortunes of the people. The young...

(The entire section is 1107 words.)