The Bookshelf: The Story of a Life.

I’m afraid Konstantin Paustovsky is not much remembered these days, but in the 1960s he was one of the most famous Russian writers — he was nominated for the Nobel Prize Sholokhov got in 1965, and he would have been at least as deserving a winner. His most enduring work is his six-volume memoir with the overall title “Повесть о жизни” (Story/tale of a life), and I was greatly pleased to learn that the always dependable NYRB Classics was publishing a new translation by Douglas Smith of the first three volumes, called The Story of a Life. Since they were kind enough to send me a copy, I can report on it here.

Smith starts his introduction with a striking anecdote that will suggest the impact the author had in his heyday: when Marlene Dietrich visited Moscow in June 1964, the only request she had was to meet Paustovsky, and when this was arranged she fell at his feet, after which they “spent the next several hours together talking about literature and art.” She had been bowled over by a French translation of his 1946 story Телеграмма [The Telegram] (available in English in the old collection Soviet Short Stories [Anchor, 1960], if you can find it), which is indeed powerful, pitting the demands of art and family against each other (and featuring a bust of Gogol as a prominent character). Paustovsky was a natural storyteller, and his memoir is not a standard-issue autobiography (I grew up here, went to school there, got a job…) but a string of vividly observed and beautifully told anecdotes that bring to life the people and places he loved. The three volumes translated here begin with his childhood (and a gripping tale of burying his father) and end with the Bolshevik seizure of Odessa in the Civil War (which resonates very differently in 2023 than it did earlier). Gary Saul Morson has a typically perceptive WSJ review that says, inter alia:

At its best, “The Story of a Life” rivals any autobiography in world literature. Its hero is imagination itself. While the Soviets professed absolute certainty regarding all important questions of life, Paustovsky detected mystery, complexity and hidden poetry everywhere. […]

The present volume takes us from Paustovsky’s childhood to the civil war. It recounts his experiences during pogroms, war, revolution and more war. But in the midst of these he shows us hidden simple wonders. Suddenly, “in the crown of an old lime tree, I beheld a miracle,” he writes. “A shaft of sunlight had broken through the leaves and, its refracted rays scattering here and there, ignited countless little lights of green and gold. It was a sight no painter could ever capture.” […]

Paustovsky’s prose could not differ more from that of a modernist or postmodernist. It is as if he regarded literary cleverness as a sign that one had failed to detect the wonder of the everyday world and so had to fabricate a substitute.

And Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings has a rave review (“I absolutely loved this book!”) of the earlier translation by Manya Harari and Michael Duncan, which gives me a chance to compare the two versions. Kaggsy quotes this passage from the end of ch. 8 (“Svyatoslavskaya Street”):

This was in September. Twilight was coming on. No one who hasn’t seen a Kiev autumn can have any conception of the gentle beauty of these hours. The first star lights up in the sky. The luxuriant autumnal gardens are still, waiting for the night and for the shooting stars which they will catch in their dense foliage as in a hammock and lower to the ground so softly that no one will wake up or know.

Here’s Smith’s version:

It was already September. Twilight was approaching. No one who has never been in Kiev in autumn could ever imagine the delicate beauty of those hours. The first star catches fire up in the sky. Autumn’s lush gardens wait in silence, knowing the stars must fall to earth and the gardens will catch them in their dense foliage, as if in a hammock, and then set them down on the ground so gently that no one in town will wake up or even know.

They both read well, but Smith captures the details of the Russian better:

Был уже сентябрь. Приближались сумерки. Кто не видел киевской осени, тот никогда не поймет нежной прелести этих часов.

Первая звезда зажигается в вышине. Осенние пышные сады молча ждут ночи, зная, что звезды обязательно будут падать на землю и сады поймают эти звезды, как в гамак, в гущу своей листвы и опустят на землю так осторожно, что никто в городе даже не проснется и не узнает об этом.

For good measure, here’s DeepL’s rendering:

It was already September. Twilight was approaching. Those who have not seen the autumn of Kiev will never understand the delicate charm of these hours.

The first star lights up in the sky. The lush autumn gardens are silently waiting for the night, knowing that the stars will surely fall to the ground and the gardens will catch these stars, like in a hammock, in the thick of their leaves and lower them to the ground so gently that no one in the city will even wake up and know about it.

This new edition has helpful notes along with the excellent introduction. It’s a real contribution to literature; I’m glad NYRB commissioned and published it and I hope it’s widely read.


  1. A shooting star is not a star. The former shoots across the sky, whereas the latter sails slowly with the turning of the firmament. Which are the gardens catching?

  2. It sounds like he’s talking about the fixed stars slowly setting. If so, “falling” is a little confusing.

  3. My dictionary says падать can be translated as ‘fall’ or ‘sink’. So fall as snow, not as a stone.

  4. Yes, and if you’re young and imaginative, you can imagine them falling to the ground.

  5. Dmitry Pruss says

    The stats aren’t shooting in Russian, they are falling, as if they were attached to Heaven but shook loose and dropped down to Earth. So Paustovsky’s stars are both kinds at once, flickering now, falling then. I was always mesmerized by his word, too.

    In Vysotsky’s classic song, the falling stars are raining down during the night battle, and the soldier wants to wish to survive upon one, but the wayward star pierces his heart in its fall, even as some others meekly land on the shoulder strips of some officers…

  6. The first stars are fixed stars and light up as the sun’s light diminishes. Then the gardens begin their watchful waiting for the nightly meteor shower of late August and early September – probably the Persied, see e.g. – so that they will be ready to catch the (fanciful) meteorites that will fall to earth as the remnants of the meteors that are incinerated in the atmosphere.

    I say “probably” the Persied because, although the link above shows the dates of the Persied in Kiev in 1950, it doesn’t go further back than that and as I’m no astronomer I can’t say that there wasn’t some movement so that it would have been a different shower as of the early years of the 20th c that he’s presumably describing.

    I just happen to know about the Persied because when I was a boy in summer camp, we would stay up until the early morning hours on the last night to see the falling stars.

  7. The Perseids are the debris of Comet Swift-Tuttle, and they peak around August 11 ± 2 days, so there would have been no substantial fluctuations. Each Earth-orbit, the Earth passes through the debris field.

    The comet itself was first observed in the year 188 [sic] by Chinese astronomers, with an estimated apparent magnitude of 0.1 (brighter than Arcturus, dimmer than Alpha Centauri), and it sheds a lot of junk into its orbit, whose period is 133 years (it is in a 1:11 resonance with Jupiter – 1 cometary orbit for each 11 Jovian orbits). Its last pass was in 1992: I remember seeing it close to the horizon and looking absolutely huuuuuge with rays, um, radiating all around it.

  8. I stand corrected. The September shower is the ε-Perseid meteor shower, as indicated in the link I gave. That works for the Paustovsky passage.
    So I must be improving on my story about watching the Perseids on the last night of camp.

  9. Does Kiev feel (or rather, did it then feel) autumnal in early September?

  10. I don’t know whether this says more about the abilities of modern AI or about my taste, but I actually like the DeepL translation most.

  11. It is surprisingly good.

  12. Paustovsky’s memoirs are really popular in The Netherlands. A couple of years ago, the Dutch translator = together with Paustovksy’s stepson – compiled a book of his letters and diary excerpts, which was in the bestseller list for some weeks.I liked his “Повесть о жизни” a lot, so I also tried his novel “Романтики” but wasn’t really impressed.

    On Paustovsky’s life under the Soviet regime, I recommend Frank Westerman’s Engineers of the Soul.

  13. David Marjanović says

    Does Kiev feel (or rather, did it then feel) autumnal in early September?

    In 1950? Sure.

  14. Dmitry Pruss says

    Does Kiev feel (or rather, did it then feel) autumnal in early September?

    Autumn officially started there on the 1st of September in any case, in a counting system known as “calendar autumn” or “meteorological autumn”, and not after the Equinox like in the West (including neighboring Poland). Traditionally, autumn started even earlier in the Northern cultures. In Russian Orthodox tradition summer comes to close on Prophet Elias Feast (Aug 2, “Илья-пророк пустил ледок”), and in Chinese Solar Term cycle, also in early August. Apparently in the old England autumn also started on Lammas Day, August 1.

  15. PlasticPaddy says

    The idea is that solstice/equinox falls in the middle of the corresponding season.
    1 Feb (Lá ‘le Bríde) -30 Apr: Spring
    1 May (Bealtaine) – 31 Jul: Summer
    1 Aug (Lúnasa) – 31 Oct: Autumn
    1 Nov (Samhain) – 31 Jan: Winter

  16. David Marjanović says

    Colloquially we use the meterological dates over here, so everything is a month later than in Ireland (which I had no idea of).

  17. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    The definition I learned as a kid was that Autumn started on September 1, each season being 3 months. August is often the hottest month here, and early June is often fickle. Shifting this later by half a month would be fine.

    I’ve also seen some people move February to Spring and August to Autumn, in what I guess is an attempt to make the calendar symmetrical–though it matches the weather even worse.

    Having Jan-Feb as Winter and Jul-Aug as Summer would work fine for Denmark, weather-wise. Having the white nights at the end of Spring would feel a little wrong, though. A. d. XVI Kal. Julias as the start of summer, maybe.

  18. I think of winter as Dec.-Feb. and the other seasons accordingly, and it works for me. I pay no attention to the silly definitions they use in official sources.

  19. I was thinking not officially, but subjectively. Would early September, when the meteors are about, have felt to Paustovsky like a “Kiev autumn”?

  20. David Marjanović says
  21. I just discovered an error of translation embedded in a confusing reference, and I thought it would be worth explaining here for the three people who might ever care. On p. 322 of the NYRB translation of Paustovsky, in the chapter “To One Side of the War” [Мимо войны], Smith has “the icy Bunin, who was reading his story ‘The Psalm’ in a monotone.” The Bunin fan will look in vain for a story called “The Psalm” (or Псалом); what is referred to here is his 1913 story “Лирник Родион” [The hurdy-gurdy player Rodion], whose original (manuscript) title was «Псальма про сироту», ‘The psal′ma about the orphan.’ A psal′ma is not a psalm (though it is etymologically connected), it is (to quote Russian Wikipedia) “a polyphonic song of spiritual content in everyday life. It was widespread in Poland, Russia, Belorussia and Ukraine in the 17th-18th centuries.” William Noll says of it in The Transformation of Civil Society: An Oral History of Ukrainian Peasant Culture, 1920s to 1930s (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2023, p. 900): “Mainstay repertory of semi-mendicants such as startsi / starchykhy as well as kobzari and lirnyky.” In this touching little story, set on a steamship on the Dnepr, the blind Rodion sings a Ukrainian song (called in the final text «Стих о сироте» ‘Verses about the Orphan’) about a girl whose mother has died and who is ill-treated by her stepmother; as you can see, the word “psalm” is wildly misleading.

  22. John Cowan says

    That got me interested in etymological translations and whether any of them (outside scripture) have stuck. I couldn’t find much easily. I did find this amusing map linked in many places, giving English etymological translations of the capitals of Europe, from Bay of Smokes in the northwest to Safe Harbour in the southwest and from Wet in the northeast to Bishop (or White Estate) in the southeast, or Athena (ultimate etymology unknown) if you consider Cyprus part of Asia. Some of the etymologies given are self-admittedly folk etymologies if that’s all that’s available.

    I particularly like the names in the Balkans: Behind the Mountains, Palace Plains, White Town, Spring (of water), Under the Little Mountain, Watcher, (Holy) Wisdom, Dairy.

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