Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Gorky's Tolstoy, Gorky's Chekhov - He was wonderfully sympathetic at that moment.

Gorky’s Tolstoy and Other Reminiscences (2008) is translator and editor Donald Fanger’s replacement for an older collection titled Reminiscences of Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Andreyev.  The Tolstoy section dates from 1919 and made it into English in 1920.  Gorky was a celebrity author.

Is something wrong with the old translations?  Fanger says no, but the old texts were incomplete.  These are the first English translation of the complete texts.  Fanger added some additional biographical portraits of writers and other oddballs Gorky knew, as well as four portraits of Gorky, by Khodasevich and Zamiatin and so on, plus plenty of commentary and notes.  The whole thing is still under three hundred pages.

This is a useful book.

It is easy to find the “Lev Tolstoy” section described as “like a novel.”  I don’t know what novels these folks were reading.  The “Leonid Andreyev” portrait is much more like a novel.  The long night where a drunken Andreyev wants to pick up girls while Gorky tries to get him sobered up, that scene appears in a lot of novels.

The Tolstoy memoir is all anecdote and talk from about six months in 1901 and 1902.  The old literary celebrity enjoying the company of the young one.

Suddenly a hare started under our feet.  L. N. jumped up in excitement, his face flushed, and whooped like some ancient animal-hunter.  Then he looked at me with an indescribable smile and laughed a wise, very human little laugh.  He was wonderfully sympathetic at that moment.  (69)

That is not always the case.  “The subjects he talks about most often are God, the peasant, and woman” – just the subjects to drive Gorky crazy.  “About literature he speaks seldom and grudgingly, as if literature were something alien to him” (35).  Still:

One evening, at dusk, squinting, his eyebrows twitching, he read us a version of the scene in “Father Sergius” where the woman goes to seduce the hermit.  He read it clear through, raised his head, closed his eyes, and said with great clarity:

“The old man really could write!”

He said it with amazing simplicity – his delight at the beauty of what he’d written was so sincere – that I will always remember the thrill I felt then, a joy I could find no words for, and one that cost me an enormous effort to control.  (64)

“Lev Tolstoy” is immensely humanizing, remembering that humans are strange beasts.  The subject of “Anton Chekhov,” by contrast, is a saint, a member of a higher species.  In his presence, people’s falseness, posturing, and vulgarity drop away.

He had fine eyes.  When he smiled they became warm and caressing, like a woman’s.  And his laughter, almost soundless, was somehow particularly fine.  Laughing, he was enjoying the laughter, rejoicing.  I don’t know anyone else who could laugh so – if one could put it that way – “spiritually.”  (103)

When Tolstoy praises Chekhov’s story “The Darling” – “with real emotion. There were tears in his eyes” – Chekhov responds with:

For a long time he said nothing.  Finally, with a sigh, he murmured in embarrassment:

“It’s got misprints in it…”  (105)

The portraits are also self-portraits, by contrast, Gorky’s differences from and exasperations with Tolstoy, Andreyev, and Blok revealing his own character.  But he was mostly interested in other people more than himself.  This was true in his own childhood memoir, and even more so here.

What an enjoyable book.


  1. “It’s got misprints in it…”

    That is the best response I've ever seen to praise of one's writing, and I will try to remember it should I ever find myself in the appropriate context. And I really have to read Gorky's reminiscences.

  2. I don't exactly think of Gorky as a source of pleasure, but this book is pleasurable. Tolstoy is funny, Andreyev is funny, Chekhov is almost too wonderful. Gorky is funny in a kind of straight man way.