The Story of a Life: The Novel and Biography

Story of a Life: The Novel and Biography

If novels are the essential artistic expression of transformative choice and decision-making, biography (auto and non) often has similar interests. Reading The Story of a Life, Russian/Ukranian Konstantin Paustovsky’s very literary autobiography is a reminder of how much biography may resemble the novel both in ethical purpose and literary form.

After all, the novel is an exploration of the choices we might make to create a life, the ways a culture may reward, punish, corrupt or shape those choices, and what kind of outcomes we might expect from the interaction of choice and culture. Biography is an exploration of exactly those things with respect to a single individual. Of course, unlike a novel, the biography is constrained (at least loosely) by what actually happened. That is both useful and limiting. It’s useful since we are not dependent on the novelist’s verisimilitude to see what reactions different choices will create and, of course, we have the subsequent life of the subject to judge the result of those interactions. On the other hand, a novel can do many things that a biography cannot. The novel can explore our moment. The biography is doomed to review the past. The novel can explore a range of characters and their choices. The biography is limited to a single individual. The novel can explore everyman. The biography is necessarily focused on someone who’s life is unusual.

As to literary form, Paustovsky is a beautiful writer, even in translation. And while I have no reason to believe that his narrative is less accurate than anyone else’s autobiography, it reads like a novel. Kosti feels as earnest, fresh and alive as David Copperfield. His descriptions of summers in Kiev, winters in Moscow, of getting his first story published, of working as a medical orderly in WW1, and of the chaos of revolution are like magical summoning’s creating, whole cloth, a vision of those past worlds.

He lived in the late 19thcentury well into the 20th. He was a young journalist during the Russian Revolution and lived to become a famous writer in Soviet Russia. The introduction to the book claims that Paustovsky managed the apparently impossible feat of being a public figure during Stalin’s Russia without becoming either a victim or a toady. However unlikely this seems, I will mostly take their word for it since I knew (and know) nothing about Paustovsky except what’s in The Story of a Life and that covers mostly his early, formative years.[1]

If Paustovsky did have a secret sauce for staying out of political trouble, it was probably bound up with his decidedly non-political ambitions. All he wants, even from an early age, is to write. And The Story of a Life, like so many writer’s autobiographies, is a study in the only kind of personal transformation that most great writers are directly interested in – what makes a writer.

For Paustovsky, that begins with love of place. His descriptions of place are lyrical and beautifully evocative, giving me a sense of Kiev that I never had.

“…it wasn’t just the Dneiper that flooded. Every spring Kiev witnessed a flood of sunlight, of freshness and of soft fragrant breezes. On Bibikovsky Boulevard, the cone-shaped poplars blossomed and filled the neighbouring streets with the smell of incense. The chestnut trees put out their first leaves – translucent, wrinkled and covered with a faint reddish fur…Waves of cool air, the scent of young grass and the sound of new, rustling leaves poured out of the ancient parks and into the city streets…

The wind swept dried petals into piles. Cockchafers and butterflies flew into the trams through open windows. The nightingales sang in the dark, front gardens. The fluff from the poplars swirled over the pavements like the surf upon the Black Sea.”

Even in translation this is breathtaking stuff. And it isn’t just Kiev that Paustovsky draws like a Medieval illuminator.  Here is central Russia:

“You love every blade of grass, sparkling with dew or warmed by the sun, every cup of water drawn from a forest well, every sapling bent over a lake, its leaves somehow trembling in the calm air, every crow of the cock, and every cloud floating high across the pale sky.”

Or Moscow in the winter: “Fresh snow sparkled on the square. Flakes seemed to be suspended in the night air, hovering in the light of the street lamps. The shop windows of Muir and Mirrielees cast elongated patches of light onto the pavement. In one of the windows stood a Christmas tree, all lit up and decorated with gold and silver paper chains, which hung down to the floor.”

It’s true that not every writer cares about place, but in Paustovsky’s mind, this love was vital to his work. He says, “No one can be fully human without a feeling for their homeland, with all its simple and endearing little details.”

Like most writers, Paustovsky’s love of place was at least equaled by his love of language. The love is implicit in Story of a Life, but it is explicit as well. He’s rarely without a book, a poem or a reference to one or another Russian author in any scene from his life. He is a very bookish writer.

“Shchelkunov gave a lecture on the history of books. It was less of a lecture, however, and more of a poem or even a rapturous encomium to books. Books, he said, are the sole repository of human thought and its only mode of transmission from century to century, from generation to generation. They preserve it through all time in its primordial freshness and its variations of tone and meaning, as though it were newly born. Although made by human hands, books have become part of the eternal, like space and time. Mortals have created something of immortal value. “

Much of what Paustovsky writes about is beautiful, but even that which is cruel and terrible is rendered in language of harsh beauty. Paustovsky spent much of WW1 working as a medical orderly and saw all the horror and pain you would expect.

“The train was carrying several hundred wounded men, their field dressings soaked with blood and falling off, their faces darkened by thirst. All the bandages had to be changed….We set to work at once, and from that moment on, time stood still. We had ceased to notice it. Every fifteen minutes I swabbed the blood off the linoleum floor of the operating room, threw away the crusted bandages, and was then called to the operating table where, not fully realizing what I was doing, I held a wounded man’s leg, trying to look, as Pokrovsky cut through the sugar-white bone with his hard steel saw.”

It is not hard to see nor easy to forget the sugar-white bone yielding to the steel of the saw.

Words are the tools of the novelist. Books are the examples of one’s craft – with something to be learned from every single one, and a writer, like any craftsman, must love both the tools and the product of their craft.

Paustovsky was one of those lucky people who know, from an early age, what he wanted to do. But while nothing might have prevented him from writing, he clearly benefitted from the extraordinary respect that writers received in his world and the encouragement of friends, teachers, patrons and even bosses. It is easier to become what you wish when your culture takes your goals and desires seriously and encourages them in both word and deed.

Consider this passage:

“A minute later Volodya appeared. He walked up in a dusty topcoat and boots and his face was pinched as if he were about to cry. In his hand he held a newspaper.

‘What is it?’ asked a worried Uncle Kolya.

‘Chekhov has died.’

Kostik, Mama said, ‘go down to the river and call Papa. He can stop his fishing for once.’

She said this as if Father could have somehow known already about Chekhov’s death, but wasn’t saddened by it or even cared given his frivolous nature. I felt bad for my father but went anyway….

I told my father that Chekhov had died. All at once he went pale and slumped over.

‘How is it possible?’ he said in a confused voice.”

How is it possible for a culture to value writing and writers this way? We can hardly imagine those scenes taking place in our world and time. To be a writer in that Russia meant something that it cannot possibly mean in ours. But one may still, perhaps, find tiny micro-cultures where the things you care about do matter and both ambition and grief may be shared.

Of course, Paustovsky’s world did not stay safe and sane.  His family fell apart while still a child. He was engulfed in war. He lived through the tumultuous and often crazed times that followed as Reds and Whites struggled for power. His years during the war and its aftermath are a continuing struggle to not be swallowed up or soul-devoured by the madness around him. He works hard not to be a soldier. He clings to the bits of life he can find. He recognizes that some things cannot be written and some experiences can never be unlived. One has the sense that he desperately wants to avoid the personal transformation that would come from life as a soldier.

“Our unit was already on the move. Rain poured off the men’s oil-skin cloaks. Bedraggled crows descended out of the sky, landed on the rotten rooftops, and then opened their beaks as if to caw. But no sound came out, almost as if they had realized it was pointless. You can’t stop the rain by cawing.”

No doubt one could be a writer after living through the trenches of WW1, but I doubt one could be a Paustovsky kind of writer.

Yet outside of the war and revolution and counter-revolution, he meets mostly with kindness. People seem drawn to his dreamy bookishness and he is drawn to many people. Whether in a fishing village or a newspaper room, Paustovsky finds people to cherish.

It is the current fashion of serious novelists to hate their characters, but this is no way to make art. It is too easy to find contempt for other lives to make this useful. We can all do contempt. It is finding the good that takes work. Paustovsky brings to his story and his life an affection for people that cannot be feigned and an interest that cannot be manufactured.

At his Moscow newspaper, he works his way through the room bringing each man to vivid life.

“I was encouraged in my infatuation for the East by a journalist named Rozovsky, a lazy older man with a wavy auburn beard. He went about all winter in a long and once luxurious but now bedraggled episcopal fur coat, and, despite his Jewish origin, had the distinct appearance of an Orthodox priest. He spent all his free time in his room lounging on a battered old ottoman covered with a Turkoman rug and engrossed in books about the East…

He had much to say about Turkey, but he did it in his own unique way. He never began with the main point of his story, but with little details, often irrelevant bits of information. But gradually, bit by bit, the details would build up into a fascinating story, and he told it in such a precise way that had you written down his words, they could have been published without changing a thing.”


“Always the last to burst into the café was the polite but noisy Oleg Leonidov, also known as the ‘King of Scoops.’ He purposely arrived late, just at the moment when the newspapers, damp with printer’s ink, were rolling off the presses. By then Leonidov could safely share with the competing reporters all the scoops he had made that day without fear they might end up in any of the other papers.

Just once, during the war, did he fall for a fake story fed to him by an incautious Kievan journalist. Leonidov nearly got sacked, but his revenge was so complete that after that no one even dared to joke with Leonidov, much less make a fool of him.

He sent the journalist in Kiev a cryptic telegram. “IN DORPAT IN ODESSA TSARITSYN IN CRIMEA FEED OATS ONLY LAST.’ It was wartime. The telegram came to the attention of the military censors, who deemed it a coded message. Espionage was suspected. The journalist was arrested.

No one knows how long he would have sat behind bars if one of the investigators hadn’t hit upon the idea of combining the first letter of each word in the telegram in the hope of cracking the code. They read ‘IDOTIC FOOL.’”

Paustovsky likes people. Not everyone of course, but he is generous not stingy in his affections, and it makes him a better writer.

If we take the lessons of Story of a Life to heart, many of the things that make a good writer are, from a work perspective, common to every form of craft. A love of the tools of one’s craft and a passion for both the product and the production are essential. Finding a culture that shares one’s interest and rewards fittingly is notably important. Very few great craftsmen don’t get this at some point in their journey – and certainly Paustovsky is no exception.

If there is anything truly distinct in the craft of novel (or biographical) writing, it is in the way it must incorporate people into its production. A good programmer must care for both the tools and the product they produce. But they need care for or understand little about the people who use their programs (this isn’t totally true, but it’s true enough). Even people-oriented professions like doctors or lawyers often have little interest in those they practice on except in the most professional sense. A novelist must love language and books, as Paustovsky so clearly does, but because the novel/biography is fundamentally about people, the novelist must have a love of place and genuine affection for others.  

Novels are the single most important art form we have. Biography, though more limited, can fulfill many of the same functions. Paustovsky’s Story of a Life manages this extraordinarily well. It is a great novel dressed in autobiographical clothes.

[1] I noticed only one blameworthy passage in the book, a truly repugnant description of an encounter with a kulak woman on a train. Substitute the word Jew for kulak and it could have been written by any 1930’s German fascist and, given the Russian extermination of the Ukrainian kulaks, it has a similar, unfortunate, resonance. The passage is quite out of character with the rest of the book and I hope it was a product of Soviet editors not Paustovsky.

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