Prince of Russian literature:
Undoubtedly the greatest paradox in world literature, sort of a
marvel: Russian workman Alexi Maximovich Peshkov with only a second-rate
knowledge of the Psalter that too drummed into him during an agonising
Oliver Twist childhood rises to become Maxim Gorky, a pseudonym he
adopted as he began to write his first story. Despite world fame
literary critics in an uncharitable display of snobbishness continued to
call Gorky "the workman" who lived virtually on the banks of the river
Gorky’s statue in Art Muzeon Sculpture Park, Moscow
Maxim Gorky, as it were, defied literary tradition and intellectual
pomposity of the orthodox literati and even as a humble member of the
proletariat in bourgeoisie Tsarist Russia wrote his way up to be
acclaimed a unique, literary genius in the world of letters - what made
him unique was he was self-made; characteristically it was an odd
accomplishment - from virtual illiterate slavery and abject poverty to
reach the summit of authorship unaided.
His life story reads like fiction, a story like a novel that inspires
the hopeless to be hopeful, a fantastic journey of a writer from
destitution to world recognition. He made himself, single-handed the
great writer he became.
Some years ago before the break-up of the Soviet Union I was
strolling down the Elizabeth Quay in the Colombo harbour. There was a
Soviet ship docked and across its bow painted in bold letters was the
ship's name GORKY.
I was pleasantly overwhelmed, for, it is not often that you witness a
ship named after a writer - perhaps such an honour is reserved only to a
politician in these modern philistine times.
Maxim Gorky wrote lyrical prose; it rings like music, sonorous on the
pages of his work, interwoven with rustic Russian humour and wisdom; in
places Gorky drops a philosophical gem, an odd remark that sometimes
startles you and make you think about life of men and women of the world
so cruelly contrived. But there is no pontificating - it sounds and
reads as simple as the expressions of the Russian peasant in those
pre-revolution days of poverty.
We read Gorky in the English translation. Even so it is breathtaking
poetry, euphonic like a scintillating melody; if the translation is such
you wonder what a marvel the original must be.
Gorky imbued the vicissitudes of life early in his childhood,
experiencing at first hand its enormous hardships in poverty, growing up
without parental love and care solely dependent on his beloved
grandmother Akulina Ivanovna whose tender devotion and understanding he
captures with such brilliance and affection in his first memoir titled
Childhood which was followed by My Apprenticeship and My Universities.
Gorky spent ten years - from 1913 to 1923 - writing the autobiographical
trilogy which describes the author's childhood and youth from 1871 to
1888. Childhood translated into English by Margaret Wettlin was compared
to Tolstoy's own life story under the same name.
But Tolstoy did not like Gorky and he did not conceal his dislike.
Chekhov thought Tolstoy was jealous of Maximovich Alexi Tolstoy told
Chekhov: "I don't know why but somehow I can never be myself with
Gorky...Gorky's wicked. He's like a divinity student who has been forced
to take monastic vows and has a grievance against the whole world. He
has the soul of an emissary, he has come from somewhere to the land of
Canaan, an alien land for him, and he keeps looking round, noting
everything, as to report about it all to some god of his own. And his
god is a monster, a wood-sprite or a water-sprite, like the ones country
Chekhov said "Gorky's a good sort." But Tolstoy disagreed, "No, no,
don't tell me. He has a nose like a duck's bill, only unfortunate and
bad-tempered people have such noses. And women don't like him, and women
are like dogs, they always know a good man."
In 1908 Lenin was staying with the author in Capri and Gorky had said
that he was finally writing an autobiography. Lenin after listening to
the author's description of this childhood, youth and wanderings and
especially about his grandmother told him earnestly: "You ought to write
all that down, my friend, you really ought! It's wonderfully
instructive, all of it, remarkable..."
After a long silence, Gorky replied: "I'll write it...some day..."
Childhood was published as a separate book in Russia in 1915. An
Armenian writer wrote to Gork: "In my opinion the whole book is a symbol
of the life of the Russian people, of the oppression they suffer, in
fact, not just the Russians, but all nations. For example, I myself am
not Russian - I am an Armenian born and bred far from Russian life - and
yet all you have described affects me as profoundly as anything in the
life of my people. And believe me, you will be told the same by a
French, English or other writer who has risen from his people or who
knows it well. That it touches the whole of mankind is the most
important virtue of your great book."
A Russian critic noted: "This book has great value for us, not just
as a work of art, but also as a biography of the author, as a commentary
to all his writings.... This terrible things literally shines with
light, is one great song of joy, and although it contains so many curses
and wounds, is the happiest, most buoyant and joyful book to have come
out in the last few decades..." Gorky spent seven years - from 1906 to
1913 - in Italy and during that period wrote Tales of Italy considered a
It is a succinctly drawn pieces of stories of real Italian life
written lucidly and poetically as his other work and reminds you of the
easy style of Chekhov.
Anton Chekhov wrote before Gorky. Gorky was much younger than Anton
Pavlovich. They were friends. Reading Chekhov it does not escape you
that there are similarities of style and language. Did Gorky,
unwittingly though, hold Chekhov as a literary model?
Gorky's name had been well known in Italy long before he came there.
Stories by him had been appearing in Italian translation since 1901 and
his plays had been produced in Palermo, Rome and Naples in 1904. He was
also well known as an active participant in the Russian revolutionary
movement. When the writer was imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress
in 1905, Italian cultural figures signed a protest against his arrest
along with their English, German and French colleagues.
A group of Italian parliamentarians proposed to their government that
it should demand Gorky's liberation. Gorky was warmly welcomed in Italy
and he wrote: "Everything is amazingly beautiful here - the countryside,
the people, the sounds and the colours... but the police are keeping an
eye on me and my correspondence is being read. One town offered me the
title of honorary citizen and the local Capri Union of workers has
elected me to life membership.... I love this country and its people..."
On the very day he arrived in Italy, Gorky was asked if he intended to
write about Italy, as he had written his American essays during his trip
to that country. "I would like to do so," Gorky replied," but before
writing, it is my usual practice to spend a long time observing all that
is around me. It is only by means of such observation that one can
obtain the right ideas. To write for the sake of writing is something
incomprehensible to me."
Gorky defined the work thus: "In essence, these are not 'tales', that
is to say the product of the imagination of a person whom harsh reality
or the heavy boredom of life has exhausted and who therefore consoles
himself and others by drawing on his imagination, to create a new life
that is brighter, and more festive, gentler, or, perhaps, more
frightening; nor are these tales 'inventions' of a writer concealing a
moral or some cutting truth as the wonderful wise stories of the famous
Voltaire, Laboulaye, Saltykov Shchedrin and other writers."
Gorky's tales are scenes of real life as he saw in Italy; he called
these scenes tales only because Italy's nature, the customs of its
people, and their whole lives are so unlike Russian life that to the
simple Russian they might appear to be fairy tales.
Tales of Italy translated into English by Rose Prokofieva are 27
pearls of skilfully written stories, concise, full of wit and wisdom,
about simple Italian people, their simple living, their simple sayings
which are pregnant with deep humane philosophy, their articulate humour
which Gorky seems to share, writing them perhaps with a chuckle. And
when some story is tragic or poignant the words seem to weep, the author
Gorky was actively involved in the Russian revolutionary movement but
in the Tales some characters scoff at Socialism branding them naive
idlers or trouble-makers.
Gorky probably had a bitter sense of humour. Some tales in the book
may concern a serious plot but it is likely to begin on a hilarious
note. It is not flippancy but a mood introduced to the reader as if to
temper him for the somewhat shocking events to follow.
About Socialism. There is a fine last sentence by an old Italian with
which one story ends: "Socialists? O, my friend, every working man is
born a Socialist, I believe, and though we do not read books we have a
good nose for truth - for truth always smells of working man's sweat!"
Gorky adored all mothers - perhaps it was a grief - stricken response
to his own lack of motherly love in his childhood. As if to compensate
his own and his mother's unintentional deficiency Gorky writes with
filial passion. "Let us raise our voices in praise of woman, the Mother,
inexhaustible fount of all-conquering life!"
A hated crippled tells his sister: "There are no wise magicians or
good fairies, there are only people. Some are bad, others are stupid,
and all that is said about kindness is a fairytale."
An old man tells a young soldier a story. The impetuous youth does
not like it and says that the character in the tale is stupid. The old
man tells him solemnly: "In a hundred years from now your life too will
seem stupid - that is, if anyone will remember that you lived on this
earth at all...."
Maxim Gorky died in 1936, aged 68 years of consumption; he had been
plagued with the killer disease, tuberculosis most of his literary life.
Often on Lenin's insistent advice he went to Capri to recuperate. But it
was futile. Finally in 1936 Gorky called his granddaughters to his death
bed and showed them his punctured body which was frail and emaciated.
They were aghast. One of the granddaughters is now working at the Gorky
Research Centre in Moscow.