Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1107
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 Paustovsky was attracted primarily to the romantic side of revolutionary activities, seeing the Revolution as something “desperately brave, inflexible, and selfless.” This was a rather naive stance, and he admitted as much: “Belief in universal happiness shone in us like the sun rising over our disordered lives. It was sure to come. It seemed to us, naive as we were, that its guarantee was our desire to construct it and to see it.” This belief that the Revolution would suddenly change people for the better and reconcile bitter enemies was, again, typical of the Russian intelligentsia, starved for honesty and fairness in government but helpless at organizing the state and realizing their dreams.
Strangely, Paustovsky blames the liberal intelligentsia for this failure, yet he was unwilling to accept the Bolshevik revolution completely. As a consequence, he experienced the first two or three years of the Revolution not as a participant but as “a deeply interested spectator.” In this ambivalence lies an explanation for the failure of the Russian liberal intelligentsia and for the success of the Bolsheviks. If Paustovsky, personifying the humanist intellectual, was unclear about the future course of Russia, how could one expect it from the uneducated masses? Still, clinging to an expectation for the wonderful days ahead and freedom for all people, he joined the Revolution.
Yet not before he drew a frightening picture of the destruction of Russia, its culture, arts, and almost everything else. The happenings sometimes seem unreal, sometimes magnificent, but unnecessarily cruel nevertheless. Man forgot about nature and even love was regarded as a sentimental sickness. In the words of the poet Maximilian Voloshin, “What use are poets and artists in such tough times as these?” Even the barbarisms of the Middle Ages paled in comparison to the cruelty, the violence, and the ignorance that had erupted. “Where had all this been hiding, ripening, gathering strength, and waiting for its hour to strike?” Paustovsky wonders. History itself was sliding swiftly backward and everything was confused. Still, when faced with a decision regarding whether to emigrate, he decided, as a matter of conscience, not to leave his country: “A deep devotion to freedom, justice, and humanity, together with an honesty toward oneself, have always seemed to me the essential qualities of a man in our revolutionary times.”
Written in a straightforward, realistic fashion, The Story of a Life has many literary, social, historical, and political resonances. Paustovsky presents his life story during a crucial period of Russian history in plain yet beautiful language. He excels in the creation of mood, penetrating beneath human relationships and motivations, couching his story in pastel colors and gossamer, despite the pain and destruction.
Paustovsky stands as one of the last practitioners in the great tradition of Russian realism. He touches upon a society undergoing cataclysmic transformations, not all of which were for the better, and offers a view of historical events that is much more objective than the official one, mainly because he did not belong to those who made history. Indeed, Paustovsky was more or less apolitical during the period of the Revolution and its immediate aftermath. It took him a long time to understand the events occurring around him, let alone to participate fully. Thus, his presentation of his early life is more faithful to reality.
The last three parts of Paustovsky’s autobiography, Years of Hope, Southern Adventure, and The Restless Years, are somewhat weaker than the first three, perhaps because they no longer deal with the excitement of youth and because they depict life in the Soviet Union, with its lack of artistic freedom. In its totality, Paustovsky’s autobiography covers most of his youth and adult life as well as the intellectual history of a turbulent era in Russia during the first half of the twentieth century.