Two by Nabokov

I: Maxim Gorki (1868–1936)

In My Childhood Gorki has left an account of his life in the house of his maternal grandfather, Vasili Kashirin. It is a dismal story. The grandfather was a tyrannical brute; his two sons—Gorki’s uncles—though terrified of their father, in turn terrorized and maltreated their wives and children. The atmosphere was that of never-ending abuses, senseless reproaches, brutal floggings, money-grabbing, and dreary supplications to God.

“Between the barracks and the gaol,” says Gorki’s biographer, Alexander Roskin, “amidst a sea of mud, stood rows of houses—dun-colored, green, white. And in every one of them, just as in the Kashirin household, people fought and squabbled because the pudding was burnt or the milk had curdled, in every one of them the same petty interests prevailed—about pots and pans and samovars and pancakes—and in every one of them people just as religiously celebrated birthdays and commemoration days, guzzling until they were ready to burst and swilling like hogs.”1

This was in Nizhni Novgorod, and in the social milieu of the worst description—that of the meshchane, in status just above the peasants and on the lowest step of the middle class—a social milieu which had already lost the wholesome relation to the soil but had acquired nothing to fill the vacuum thus created, and therefore one that became a prey to the worst vices of the middle classes without their redeeming qualities.

Gorki’s father had also had a dismal childhood but afterwards had grown into a fine kind man. He died when Gorki was four, and this was why his widowed mother had gone back to live with her dreadful family. The only happy memory of those days for Gorki was that of his grandmother, who in spite of her terrible surroundings carried in her a kind of happy optimism and a great kindness; only owing to her did the boy ever come to know that there could be happiness, indeed that life was happiness in spite of anything.

At the age of ten Gorki started working for a living. He was in turn an errand boy in a shoe store, a dishwasher on a steamboat, an apprentice draftsman, an icon-painter’s apprentice, a rag-and-bone man, and a birdcatcher. Then he discovered books and began to read everything he could get hold of. At first he read indiscriminately, but very early he developed a fine and sensitive feeling for real literature. He felt a passionate desire to study, but soon realized that he had no chance to be admitted to the university, for which he had gone to Kazan. In his complete destitution he was thrown upon the company of the bosyaki—Russian for bums—and made there invaluable observations which he later exploded like a bomb-shell in the face of the dumbfounded reading public of the capitals.

He had eventually to go to work again and served as assistant baker in a basement bakery, where the working day lasted fourteen hours. Soon he became associated with the revolutionary underground…

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