I was reading The Story of a Life by Konstantin Paustovsky recently, a celebrated 20th century Russian writer, recommended by a BBC book podcast. I had never heard of him, but, apparently, he is much loved by Russians (he is a Ukrainian) and he succeeded in avoiding the various gulags and Siberian camps to which Stalin sent many Russian writers, partly, I guess, because one of his books written in the 1930s praised the industrialisation of the country.
This book is beautifully written. It is his life story, and I started to read it just as the Russians invaded Ukraine which made it more poignant. It gave me an appreciation into how intricate and dovetailed the states of Ukraine and Russia have always been, even before the Russian Revolution. He writes fabulous descriptions of cities, trees, the sky, people. He lived through exciting times – war, revolution, the five year plan, civil war, which made his adventures as a medical orderly on a train travelling through Russia, Ukraine and Belarus picking up wounded soldiers, a journalist in Moscow during the revolution very exciting.
Paustovsky was born in 1892 on 31st May, which is my birthday! He had a happy childhood but when his parents split up, the separation of the family led to his life fragmenting and his writing reflects a boy and a young man always seeking salvation or something which is elusive. He casts a lonely figure in his stories, but his writing is very lyrical and romantic. Perhaps a little too sentimental? He describes his experience of cruelty, war, and death vividly. It was an oddly reflective of the scenes I was watching on the TV. It reminded me of how circular life is.
The circularity of life, including how our human reactions seem to lead, inevitably, to diminishing circles is also apparent in To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara which is another long book (both this and The Story of a Life were three volumes!). On the surface, this book was very different to Pautovsky because it is science fiction, but it was but as grim in terms of its portrayal of human nature.
To Paradise is set over three generations of a wealthy and renowned family from the late 19th century to the late 21tst century. In the first book, families are made up of same sex marriages and we follow the story of a grandfather looking after his grandchildren after the parents die of a virus. America is divided into free states, the Wild West and the bigoted south and shifts between the different places. The first book has a Henry James feel to it. The story starts with the portrayal of an anxious, wealthy boy who doesn’t appear to grow up. This ineptitude seems to be the general thread through each protagonist of the following generations. I began to feel a little exasperated by them. The three books are about familial relationships and while excellent in parts, in other places was hard to follow and occasionally I felt lectured at.
An interesting feature in each of the To Paradise are the ‘pandemics’ that break out in each generation, and the increasing severity of each and how the last one destroys humanity, not just in terms of death but it takes away our ability to be generous and kind. Yanagihara writes about love, wealth, poverty, human weakness, the latter two ever increasing in volume as the centuries pass. Given we were experiencing our own Pandemic while I was reading this, the book was particularly scary. I’m not sure I would recommend it. It can be heavy going.
On a positive note, I went to see The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, a book I much loved in childhood, at Bord Gais this month which was much better than I thought it would be. The choreography and stage set were both excellent, the acting good, though I could have done without the songs. Aslan was a rather good puppet but nothing as wonderful and magical as the War Horse which was staged by the National Theatre at Home during lockdown and was nothing short of brilliant. I watched it on line and loved it.
Now, I’m just listening to sad, wrecked refugees streaming out of Ukraine and three British soldiers deciding to go off on an adventure to ‘do something’ in Ukraine dressed up in knights in white armour. You couldn’t make it up!