Monday, February 6, 2017

This nightmare was soon followed by another - Maxim Gorky's My Childhood

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.


  1. Ha, I just finished My Universities. I was really surprised when he was happy for a little while, but then there was a spectacular disaster and it went back to normal. I was also highly entertained by his hatred for Tolstoyans -- "All this blather about the simple wisdom of the Russian peasants! Every peasant I met was stupid and cruel! The country was worse than the city!"

  2. Yes, he is not that kind of idealist. You're going to write a post about the whole trilogy? I hope to read the other two soonish. They're a sensible length.

  3. After reading this blog post, I am not surprised that his best known fictional work/play is literally set in a homeless shelter.

    How's War and Peace going? On the subject of Russian literature, I've begun translating Tsvetaeva's verse play Fortune. Will be putting up a long, drafty excerpt on Patreon, if you want to see how the sausage is made.

  4. A jolly, happy homeless shelter, compared to Gorky's childhood.

    Yes, I will enjoy seeing the Tsvetaeva translation. What a good project.

    As for how War and Peace is going, ah, Prince Andrei just died! It is so sad.

  5. I already did the first two, so I just need to write about this last one. And I am waaay behind (as usual) -- I have a pile of neat books to write about. This time my excuse is the state of the world. :D

  6. Why don't I remember those, I ask myself, knowing the answer. Okay, here is My Childhood.

    Maybe by the time I read My Apprenticeship I will again have forgotten about your posts.

  7. You mean the Schneider translation is still being inflicted on people? Oh dear. I'm glad the essence of Gorky manages to shine through the murk, but I complained about this wretched Englishing repeatedly: 1, 2, 3.

  8. Inflicted by me on you! Or on me by my library. But fortunately the library has the Oxford World's Classics of In the World, a later translation, from the 1960s, I think.

    Some of the howlers you describe are terrible, and some are hilarious.

  9. Yes, in that way I wasn't sorry I was reading it.

  10. Belated props for this post--you make appalling sound highly appealing! I guess it helps, though, that Gorky sounds like he could have stepped right out of the pages of Petersburg. Whatever, I'll have to keep this in mind for when I return to the Russian Literature of Doom. Cool beans!

  11. Yes, this belongs on a good Russian reading list. The whole trilogy, presumably.