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The Story of a Life

The Story of a Life

by Konstantin Paustovsky, translated from the Russian by Douglas Smith

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In 1943, the Soviet author Konstantin Paustovsky started out on what would prove a masterwork, The Story of a Life, a grand, novelistic memoir of a life spent on the ravaged frontier of Russian history. Eventually expanding to fill six volumes, this extraordinary work of a lifetime would establish Paustovsky as one of Russia’s great writers and lead to a nomination for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Here the first three books of Paustovsky’s epic autobiography—long unavailable in English—appear in a splendid new translation by Douglas Smith. Taking the reader from Paustovsky’s Ukrainian youth, his family struggling on the verge of collapse, through the first stirrings of writerly ambition, to his experiences working as a paramedic on the front lines of World War I and then as a journalist covering Russia’s violent spiral into revolution, this vivid and suspenseful story of coming-of-age in a time of troubles is lifted by the energy and lyricism of Paustovsky’s prose and marked throughout by his deep love of the natural world. The Story of a Life is a dazzling achievement of modern literature.

Additional Book Information

Series: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 9781681377223
Pages: 816
Publication Date:


I wonder​ if there has ever been better, simpler, clearer prose than Paustovsky’s; and Smith’s translation is attentive, rewarding and unflagging.
—Michael HofmannLondon Review of Books

Paustovsky imbued Soviet literature with tender curiosity about ordinary people and loving care for the natural world. He captured all the beauty, turbulence and injustice of his youth, and the strange blend of horrific violence and intoxicating hope that arrived with the revolution.
—Sophie Pinkham, The Washington Post

At its best, The Story of a Life rivals any autobiography in world literature. Its hero is imagination itself.
—Gary Saul Morson, Wall Street Journal

The quality of [Paustovsky's] narrative imagination make The Story of a Life, the Proust-length autobiography he started in 1943, a masterpiece.
—Julian Evans, Daily Telegraph

In Douglas Smith's revelatory new translation of the first three volumes, late imperial Russia and Ukraine, the Revolution and the Civil War are observed with astounding clarity and originality. . . . Smith's limpid and outstandingly readable translation finally captures this unique voice, and should assure Konstantin Paustovsky's monumental autobiography a substantial new readership.
—Polly Jones, TLS

One of the great Russian autobiographies, as fresh now as the day it was written—and the day it was lived.
—Julian Barnes

The Story of a Life combines high drama with heroic misadventure in a comico-lyrical amalgam of history and domestic detail that enchants from start to finish. . . . The book is brimful of vivid character sketches, racy incidents and sharp-focused vignettes. Passages of striking lyric beauty. . . . The Story of a Life radiates a terrific vim and thirst for experience. A more gloriously life-affirming book is unlikely to emerge this year.
—Ian Thomson, The Spectator

Paustovksy’s gift is in vivid and humane presentation of the numberless figures who populate his life. . . . For Paustovsky, books are like stars in the darkness, and ‘literature draws us closer to the golden age of our thoughts, our feelings and our actions’. He was, unquestionably, a part of that golden age, and now with this lively new translation of his memoir, he can be again.
—John Self, The Times

Paustovsky is neither sanguine, nor scathing about communist life, while his prose is highly observational, free from argumentation or theoretical prattle. Instead, he details the emergence of his individual consciousness, dedicated to writing, his country, and the cultivation of a rich inner life, which, set against the developments of early 20th century Ukraine and Russia, makes for a compelling ground-level work of historical testimony.
— Matt Janney, The Calvert Journal

A mid-century Soviet Thoreau.
—Joshua Yaffa, The New Yorker

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