Maxim Gorky’s My Childhood (1913) is what a few years ago was called a misery memoir. Maybe that trend is over. Gorky’s book, the first of his trilogy of autobiographies, is, nevertheless, utterly miserable.
The book begins with the corpse of Gorky’s father. Alexei Peshkov, the future Maxim Gorky, is four years old. It ends with the death of his mother when Alexei is eleven. In between, well, “[t]his nightmare was soon followed by another” (first line of Ch. 5).
The middles of the thirteen chapters were not necessarily so bad. The ends, though, oh boy. It was always a relief when no one ended up murdered:
I went to the window where, numb with misery, I stared down at the empty street. (last line of Ch. 6)
The house seemed to be a deep pit from which light and sound and feeling were absent, in which I lived a blind and almost lifeless existence. (last line of Ch. 7)
Thus ended the first of a chain of friendships with the best people of my land. (last line of Ch. 8)
And, lying on the oven ledge, I looked down on them and thought how squat and obese and repulsive all of them were. (last line of Ch. 9)
Ah, I love that last one – that’s the chapter that ends with the brutal murder.
The strange thing is that Gorky emerges from this childhood as an optimist. He has resiliency. Much of this attitude comes from his grandmother, a wonderful character who is perpetually happy, sometimes with the aid of booze, no matter what life or her awful children or her brutal husband throw at her. Some of this is religious belief – she always prays for the happiness of others, not herself – and some of it temperament, a temperament she shares with, or passes on, to her grandson.
Grandma, a terrific, imaginative storyteller, is describing the time she saw a pair of angels:
“How beautiful it was! Oh, Alex, dear heart, things go well wherever God is, in heaven or here on earth.”
“But you can’t mean here in our house?”
“Praised be Our Lady!” said grandma, crossing herself, “everything goes well.”
I was bothered by this. (Ch. 4)
This section with grandma becomes so happy that the chapter has too end with two catastrophes, a fire and a separate death.
I suppose I would call the grandfather a wonderful character, too, but he is more “wonderful” in the sense of making a good character in a novel. In real life, he would be a person to avoid. Much of the “plot” of this “novel” is about the deepening relationship between the bad grandfather and the smart, willful grandson as the family declines, one disaster at a time, from prosperous craftsmen (dyers) to beggars.
Gorky only resorts to editorial once, near the end of the memoir. Why return to “such atrocious memoires of our bestial Russian life”? Because along with “our animal self… grows a brilliant, creative, wholesome human type which encourages us to seek our regeneration, a future of peace and humane living for all” (last line of Ch. 12).
If My Childhood were a novel, this would sound false, but it is a memoir, and there are two more volumes.
I read Isidor Schneider’s translation.