From 1898—when he was thirty—until his mysterious death in Stalin’s Russia, Gorki was the most famous, the most embattled of the Russian novelists, both in Russia and in the outside world. He was a symbol of the Russian turmoil, and like all symbols had the strength of being open to many interpretations. It has often been said that in the dreadful revolutionary period between 1917 and 1921, he was in person the only alternative government in the Soviet Union. Lenin saw his importance with the Russian masses and with foreign opinion and gave him pretty well a free hand in rescuing writers and artists of all kinds, works of art, and the historic monuments of the country from the terrible savagery of the mob and the factions: one of Gorki’s devices was to adopt the people he rescued by announcing they were his blood relations—sons, sisters, brothers, and so on—and one can almost say that he became surviving Russia itself.
It is easy to see why. It was not simply a question of his great fame. Gorki himself was a chaos and he contained in himself the conflict of the revolutionary mind: the ardor for remaking a just society in the future and an intense, even reactionary sense of the oldest traditions. Future and past grappled inside him. He was deeply romantic—unlike the leaders of Leninism—an autodidact whose mind had been formed by the folk tales and allegories of his grandmother and who retained to the end a powerful feeling for the tradition of the holy wanderer or vagrant. At the same time he was a petit bourgeois, a déclassé holding a sententious political Sunday School. He saw himself poetically, as the “stormy petrel” who announces with proper frenzy the coming upheaval; also, as the “siskin,” the bird that lures its fellows away by tales of new happiness, and who urges the need of the “lie that ennobles the soul”; but never the objective Leninist “woodpecker.” But which “lie” did he favor? Sometimes it was Lenin’s; then it became the holy wanderer’s. The phases of Gorki’s rhetoric are difficult and, in his writing, they lead to a great deal that is either hysterical or stagnant. The fact is that he is a novelist or playwright of brilliant disturbing beginnings that become rapidly bogged down. He was personally more picturesque and attractive and certainly more touching than most of the great Russian novelists, except Chekhov; but he is far inferior to them as a writer. The man to whom his popular genius is nearest is Leskov; but Leskov is a far greater artist.
Most books on Gorki have compressed his life into its controversies; Mr. Dan Levin’s Life is more spacious and animated. It is rather over-dramatized in style and the writing is very uneven. Anxious to bring Gorki’s day to day life vividly to the large public, he flatters them with vulgarities, as when he talks breezily …