konstantin paustovsky, the story of a life

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26733ABI’ve been reading Memoirs 1906-1969 by Manya Harari, perhaps best known to the world as the publisher and translator (with Max Haxward) of Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, which first appeared in English in 1958 under the imprint of the Harvill Press. Harvill was founded in 1946 by Harari and Marjorie Villiers, who met during World War II when both were attached to the Department of Political Warfare in the Foreign Office. Its foremost legacy remains as publisher of the first English editions of contemporary Russian authors among them Mikhail Bulgakov (The Master and Margarita, Heart of a Dog, Black Snow), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (The Gulag Archipelago, The First Circle), Anna Akhmatova (Poems), Ilya Ehrenburg (The Thaw), Yevgenia Ginzburg (Into the Whirlwind), although it also translated and published many non-Russian authors: in particular Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (The Leopard) and much later W.G. Sebald (Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn). Lesser known but equally important is Harvill’s interest in religion, metaphysics, and psychology, which it shares with its contemporary in the United States, the Bollingen Press. Among the authors Harvill published in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s are Mircea Eliade (Rites and Symbols of Initiation (Birth and Rebirth); Images and Symbols: Studies in Religious Symbolism; Myths, Dreams and Mysteries: the Encounter between Contemporary Faiths and Archaic Realities), Gabriel Marcel (The Philosophy of Existentialism, Man against Mass Society, The Decline of Wisdom), Victor White (God and the Unconscious), Max Picard (The World of Silence), St. John of the Cross (Poems), and Blaise Pascal (Pensees).

Harari’s memoirs were in progress at the time of her death and the resulting book is incomplete and haphazard. Sadly, there is nothing here about her wartime years in the Foreign Office, or of the founding and operation of the Harvill Press. In the first of the books three sections, there are only cursory descriptions of Harari’s early childhood in St. Petersburg, her family’s emigration to England on the eve of World War I, her subsequent education at Malvern Girl’s College and Bedford College, University of London, and her marriage to Ralph Harari in 1925. In a brief middle section, The Middle East, she describes her years spent in Egypt and Palestine in the 20s and in Jerusalem in 1948-49, along with reflections on Zionism and her brief tenure in a kibbutz. The last section, fully two-thirds of the book, comprises accounts of three visits she made to her native Russia in 1955, 1956, and 1961, and these observations and descriptions of her encounters with ordinary people during the post-Stalin cultural thaw under Khrushchev are the most engaging portions of the book.

In some ways they remind me of my first introduction to Harvill, the remarkable six-volume autobiography of Konstantin Paustovsky (published between 1964 and 1974, volumes one and two translated by Harari and Michael Duncan, volumes three and four by Harari and Andrew Thomson, and volumes five and six, published after Harari’s death, by Kyril FitzLyon). The Story of a Life spans barely thirty years (with a few brief excursions farther into the future), from Paustovsky’s early childhood in the waning years of the 19th century to the middle of the 1920s, and so covers the tumultuous years of World War I and the Russian Revolution which, as it says on the jacket of the fourth volume, ‘he can be said to have lived through…three times: in 1917 in Moscow, in 1918 in Kiev, and…in 1921 in Odessa.’ Paustovsky’s encounter with Nestor Makhno, the leader of the Ukrainian Anarchist Black Army at a train station in Pomoshnaya, halfway between Odessa and Kiev, is one of the most horrifying passages in the book.

Geographically, The Story of a Life spans the immensity of Soviet Russia: as a student, journalist and adventurer Paustovsky travels from Kiev to Moscow, Odessa, the Abkhazian capital of Sukhum, the Georgian cities of Batum and Tiflis, various far flung cities on the White and Barents Seas in the north and on the Caspian Sea to the east, as well as the western front in Poland and Belarus. Here as well is its immense and fertile literary life, with too many names to mention but including Mikhail Bulgakov, Isaac Babel, Ilf and Petrov, Sergey Esenin, Eduard Bagritsky, Alexander Blok, Seymon Hecht.

Helen Muchnic, writing in the New York Review of Books in 1964, gets it right:

But he has seen so much, looked on with such rapturous attention, recalled everything so well and retold it all so vividly that his story gives the impression of sharply focused close-ups that add up to an authentic record, though not an explanation, of a crucial period in the world’s history. The pages are crowded with big and small events—sometimes profoundly moving, sometimes humorous, sometimes horrifying. There are passages of lyric beauty, inspired by his love of the sea and of the Russian countryside; and the hundreds of men and women, famous or obscure, whom he sees, works with, loves, or befriends are sharply drawn: Lenin subduing an unruly gathering by the sheer authoritativeness of his presence and his conversational speech, eccentric teachers, well-known artists and writers, anonymous passengers on trains and trolley cars, illiterate peasants, fishermen, bandits, soldiers, newsmen, priests, doctors, nurses, coachmen, children—they are not a mob, but a myriad of individuals, every one distinctly seen, though only a few are intimately known.

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