Reviving an enigmatic Russian

Donald Fanger, Harry Levin Professor of Literature Emeritus at Harvard, hopes that through this volume Gorky will be rediscovered by a modern readership, less censorious about the last chapter of his life. With this in mind he has divided it into three sections: the memoirs of Tolstoy and Chekhov; selections from Fragments from my Diary; and Gorky’s literary contemporaries’ estimate of him. He has also provided a useful and informative introduction for those who know little of this Russian writer, who was born in 1868 and died in 1936.

Gorky, born Alexei Maximovich Peshkov, used his pen-name consistently from the age of 24. “Gorky” means “bitter”, but unlike the assumed names of his famous contemporaries, Lenin and Stalin, it does not strictly reflect his personality. He was, as Fanger states, “energetic, rebellious, impossible to pigeonhole”. An autodidact with a phenomenal memory, who rose from the peasantry and was schooled early on in the brutal university of Russian provincial low life, Gorky was also large-hearted, generous and endlessly curious about other people – especially the army of oddballs and eccentrics that roamed the landscape in the decades before the Revolution.

His memoir of Tolstoy, whom he knew for an extended period in the Crimea during 1901-1902, is justly his best-known work and is here reproduced in full. As with Boswell and his original way of recording the conversation of Dr Johnson, Gorky had his own method of vivid and accurate recall: notes of his meetings were jotted on scraps of paper, to be shaped later and supplemented by his superb memory. Oliver Cromwell had famously asked to be painted “warts and all”; Gorky’s pen-portrait of Tolstoy does the same for him. He had great love and respect for the grand old man of Russian letters but was no sycophant or flatterer. Thus we see Tolstoy in all his flawed grandeur: his inconsistencies, sensuality, crudeness of language (especially where women were concerned), his perceptiveness, humour and his dominating personality. Gorky remarks truthfully, “One never tires of marvelling at him; all the same, it’s difficult to see him too often and I could never live in the same house with him.”

He who had also declared that “I am not an orphan on the earth so long as this man is alive” was stricken to learn of Tolstoy’s death, writing that “the pride of having seen this man lightens all my pain and sorrow.” Appended to his memoir is a shorter one on Chekhov, whom both Tolstoy and Gorky had met up with at Yalta. Neither, interestingly, had a critical word to say about the playwright, whose melancholy charm made him lovable to all who knew him; the adjectives “gentle”, “modest”, “winning smile” constantly recur. Chekhov’s playful irony is well captured by Gorky, who quotes the remark, “I am thinking of writing about a schoolteacher, an atheist who adores Darwin and is committed to battling the prejudices and superstitions of the people... while she boils a black cat in a cauldron so as to get a wishbone for attracting a man.” Chekhov had early perceived the irrationality of those who declare themselves most rational.

Unlike Tolstoy and Chekhov, who lived and died in pre-revolutionary Russia, Gorky’s fate was to span the two eras: born in Nizhnii Novgorod, the grandson of a Volga boatman and coming to adulthood under the tsars, he lived to see the old order overthrown, the Bolsheviks take power and finally Stalin to consolidate his own power under Communism. As Fanger shows, Gorky occupied an uneasy, hybrid position, neither a member of the old bourgeois intelligentsia nor a true Bolshevik. He shrewdly commented in his Fragments, written in exile in 1921, “When you wish to make all of humanity happy at one fell swoop, the individual rather gets in the way of the job” – a point forgotten by Marx, ignored by Lenin and derided by Stalin – yet he later managed to survive as the “great proletarian writer” under Stalinism.

This Diary is not a regular record of his personal life; it is more accurately notes and jottings from the 1890s to the revolutionary years in Petrograd. Allusions to the turmoil of 1917-18 are thin on the ground; what Gorky does best is provide marvellously fresh pen-sketches of the strange assortment of humanity that crossed his path in those years and which strike the reader as more reminiscent of the world of Dostoyevsky than that of the dictatorship of the proletariat. “Babnov’s filthy rooming house – a place populated by canary sellers, con men, detectives and all sorts of seekers after happiness, who pursued it lying on decrepit sofas surrounded by clouds of tobacco smoke” best captures the author’s viewpoint.

The final section of Fanger’s book places Gorky in the context of his times and in the estimate of his literary peers. They complete the reader’s own impressions and fill in the facts that we do not know: he bore physical pain with great courage; he had a huge capacity for work and abhorred laziness; he disliked introspection, often petitioned on behalf of other writers who had suffered the arbitrary cruelties of the Soviet regime, wept easily in the presence of creativity and had a fondness for the company of bandits, counterfeiters, swindlers and petty crooks.

This last fact should not surprise those who have read Gorky’s early autobiography, Childhood. Up to now this was all I knew of him; it provides a compelling account of his youthful experiences: apprenticed by his violent and miserly grandfather to a shoemaker when he was eight (one is reminded of the young Charles Dickens, forced to work long hours in the blacking factory), the gifted and neglected boy variously turned his hand to selling icons, being a ship’s cook, working as a ragman, baker, stevedore and fisherman before becoming a writer.

His later reputation has been tarnished by his association with Communism and by his unwitting manipulation by Stalin – another gifted autodidact of peasant origins but who was also, unfortunately, a psychopath. Unlike the recently dead Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Gorky did not, on his return from exile, become a prophet and a truth-teller, even though by the time of his death in 1936 the signs of political oppression were longstanding and everywhere. He died before the possibility of persecution (that would have enhanced his posthumous standing) and which he might well have evaded. As Fanger comments, he preferred the “truth” of tomorrow rather than the “truth” of the actual and had a capacity for not seeing what he chose not to see. He clung to the promises of the Revolution – “They have very lofty goals. And for me that justifies everything” – in the face of the threadbare and bankrupt reality.

The critic V.S. Pritchett, quoted by Fanger, says of Gorky, “He was really a life rather than a novelist...more important than anything he says is what he is”. Having kept his photograph for years on my book shelf, with his jaunty yet prickly expression, his rough and ready garb, the suggestion of a swagger and with an air of pride and of solitariness surrounding the whole, I agree.

Francis Phillips writes from Bucks, in the UK.


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