Chaliapin: An Autobiography compiled, and edited by
The Bridge and the Abyss
Gorky wrote Chaliapin’s autobiography. This is how it happened. Having heard in the fall of 1909, in his home in Capri. that Chaliapin was planning to let someone publish the story of his life, Gorky dispatched an anxious, exclamatory epistle: “I hasten, my friend, to tell you the following: You’re undertaking a serious business, an important and widely significant matter, that is, something interesting not only to us Russians but to the whole world of culture and especially of art! Do you understand this?” It would be a great pity if his tale fell into the hands of some fellow incapable of appreciating all it meant: “A symbolic life, which attests indisputably to the great strength and power of our land…. Watch out, Feodor, don’t toss your soul into the hands of word peddlers!… Devil take you! I am terribly afraid you won’t understand the national, the Russian significance of your autobiography! Listen, my dear, shut your eyes and think a minute! Look closely—you’ll see on a gray, desert plain, the mighty figure of a peasant genius!”
He suggested that Chaliapin come down to Capri for a month or so, promising, in underlined words: “I myself will write your life as you dictate it.” Chaliapin was too busy at the time, and Gorky’s suggestion was not realized until the summer of 1916. Then, in the Crimea, with Chaliapin “shouting, laughing,” running about in a bathing suit, Gorky got him to dictate his story to a stenographer. “At nine o’clock,” he reported to a friend, “Feodor and Evdokiya Petrovna [the stenographer] appear; we keep busy until about twelve…The work progresses smoothly enough, but not as fast as I had expected…A great deal has to be corrected…Feodor’s narrative is sometimes desperately sluggish, dull and wordy. But sometimes—amazing!” The work was finished that winter and published in Gorky’s journal, Letopis.
It is an absorbing story, without a trace of sluggishness or dullness, a swift, ebullient narrative, full of humor and enthusiasm, an irrepressible verve that keeps even its melancholy moments from seeming dismal—very much a mighty giant’s tale. How much of it is Gorky’s own is hard to tell. Years later, in connection with Chaliapin’s suit against the Soviet government for publishing the book without his permission, Gorky said that it was three-quarters his, that he had not only edited the narrative but filled it in with what Chaliapin had told him at various other times. But it hardly matters. Whatever pruning and shaping had been necessary, the facts are, of course, Chaliapin’s, and so also is the style, if we judge by other pieces of his writing. Gorky knew how to catch another’s tone of voice and reproduce another’s mode of thought, especially when the other was a man with whom he had much in common and of whom he was very fond.
They had met in the summer of 1901 …