Tuesday, January 22, 2019

This last thought completely stunned me. - the last volume of the Education of Maxim Gorky

My Universities (1923) is the third volume of The Education of Maxim Gorky, my title for the trilogy, not Gorky's, but it fits.  Young Gorky, age 15, orphaned, with no resources he does not carry with him, moves to Kazan with the hope – utterly futile – that he can attend college.  Kazan is a change, though, identifiable as a “college town.”  It is full of student radicals, Tolstoyans, oddballs, and most importantly for Gorky, the future Gorky, ideas and books.  There is a thick, yeasty ferment of ideas, good, bad, and crazy.

Sometimes it is as if Gorky had moved to, I don’t know, Haight-Ashbury in 1966. It is not the Summer of Love yet, but there is a strong hippie haze.  I mean like this:

The fat lecturer, who was blind drunk, was sitting on the floor in his underwear with a guitar in his hands amidst a chaos of furniture, beer bottles, and discarded clothes.  There he sat, rocking himself and growling: ‘Mer-cy…’ (88, ellipses in original)

Gorky worked in a radical bakery.  With one eye on the police, he was able to include to include objects besides bread in his deliveries – messages, pamphlets, books.  He becomes friends with the grocer who “possessed the best collection of banned and rare books in the town,” a library for the student radicals kept “in a secret storeroom”:

Some of the books had been copied in ink into thick notebooks, for example Lavrov’s Historical Letters, Chernyshevsky’s What is to be done?, a few articles by Pisarev, Tsar Hunger, and Crafty Tricks.  All of these manuscripts were well thumbed and had been read again and again.  (36)

The secret police spent a fair amount of their time searching for illicit printing presses; this is the result, a living system of circulating manuscripts.

There is a joke about the kind of well-meaning reformer who loves humanity but hates people, with Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House as the great fictional example.  Gorky is the opposite.  He has the lowest opinion of humanity, of any hint of a mob.  He loves people, though, and the book is about the people who were his great teachers, even when they were wrong, or nuts, or both.

‘People seek oblivion, comfort, but not knowledge!’

This last thought completely stunned me.  (53)

I wish I had read Gorky’s autobiography a long time ago.  It’s view of Russia, or part of it, from the bottom, from a writer of such intelligence and energy, is unique.

Page numbers are from the Penguin edition, the Roland Wilks translation.

16 comments:

  1. Can you IMAGINE copying "What Is To Be Done?" out by hand? Great googly moogly.

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  2. I know! And think of the copies of the copies, partial and whole. Just that one paragraph, the part I quoted and the rest about the grocery store with the secret radical book closet, was an eye opener.

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  3. Well, I obviously need to drag these off the shelves and read them straight away... Thank you! :D

    kaggsysbookishramblings

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  4. Yes, although the three parts of the autobiography were published over the course of a decade, so there is no hurry to plow through the whole thing.

    I would point the reader interested in pre-Revolutionary Russia, not just Russian literature, to a fat collection of Chekhov first, but after that Gorky's memoir would be a good place to go. It is not as intellectual as, say Herzen's. It is more like a boy's adventure book, a miserable one.

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  5. I really should read these books. My impression of Russia under the tsars is all from Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Troyat (I do not include Chernyshevsky because I'm not sure he wasn't writing fantasy). And Gorky, why not? I haven't read much Gorky.

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  6. Chekhov comes closest to Gorky's subject matter, since he covers so much ground, spatial and social. Gorky's setting is in provincial cities, plus the Volga, not the countryside, and the main "characters" are generally not peasants. It's not Tolstoy's or Dostoevsky's world at all, really, although the ideas in the air overlap in a lot of interesting ways.

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  7. Always get geeked up over these Gorky posts of yours. Your Haight-Ashbury citation and allusion are just the latest unexpected example of how often he seems to bring out the best in you, "strong hippie haze" on the prairie or not. Nicely played!

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  8. I mean, Janis Joplin ought to walk in and start singing with that guitarist.

    The wandering Tolstoyans have an especially strong hippie flavor.

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  9. That contrarian wit, W. M. Spackman, wrote something that might be apposite. "Chekhov once wrote that Gorky's style wore him out. The sheer Russian downpour of modifiers exhausted his attention -a simple statement that a man sat down on the grass became, helplessly, 'A dignified, pigeon-breasted, middle-sized personage with a short reddish beard seated himself on the green but now stroller-trampled grass, seated himself without a word, and began staring timorously and twitchily about'. Chekhov wrote this amiable parody, as advice, to Gorky himself".

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  10. Very interesting, interesting in part because Gorky seems, in these later books, to have understood and accepted Chekhov's advice. The memoirs, and the great author-portraits in Gorky’s Tolstoy and Other Reminiscences, do not suffer from that tic. Or the translators hid it; what do I know.

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  11. In 1898 Chekhov wrote a response to a fan letter from Gorky. Part of it reads:

    Talking about a talent’s shortcomings is like talking about the shortcomings of a tall tree growing in the garden; the issue at hand is not the tree itself, but rather the tastes of the person looking at the tree. Isn’t that so? I’ll start by saying that, in my opinion, you lack restraint. You are like a spectator in the theater who expresses his delight with so little restraint that he prevents himself and others from listening. This lack of restraint is especially evident in the nature descriptions you use to break up your dialogues. When I read them—these descriptions—I feel I’d like them to be shorter, more compact, only about two or three lines long. Frequent reference to languor, murmuring, plushness and the like give your descriptions a rhetorical quality and make them monotonous; they discourage the reader and become almost tiresome. The same lack of restraint is evident in your descriptions of women (“Malva,” “On the Rafts”) and love scenes. It is neither a majestic sweep nor bold strokes of the brush; it is simply lack of restraint. Then the frequent uses of words that do not belong in the type of stories you write—such words as musical accompaniment…[and] harmony—is annoying. You often speak of waves. In your descriptions of intellectuals I feel a tenseness somewhat akin to caution. That doesn’t come from not having observed intellectuals enough. You know them, but you don’t know exactly from what angle to approach them.

    They wrote fairly often over the years. Chekhov pushed Gorky to write for the stage ("Go watch some plays and then set aside six weeks to write a script!").

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  12. Chekhov's eye for detail was something else. From his travel notes book, Sakhalin Island: "Traveling with me on the anchor steamer to Sakhalin was a convict in leg irons who had murdered his wife. His daughter, a motherless little girl, aged six, was with him. I watched him when he came down from the upper deck to the WC, the little girl and the soldier with his rifle waited outside the door. When the convict climbed back up again, the girl clambered up behind him, hanging on to his fetters."

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  13. I think a lot of high-level writers are like that, although how many are there? Not so many.

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  14. I'll really have to read the whole trilogy; he really was a wonderful observer of life. (Fun fact: the Russian phrase translated as "blind drunk" is in the original пьяный до слёз 'drunk to tears.')

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  15. "Drunk to tears" is good. It describes more drunks as I have known them.

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