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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 where he met more congenial people than the bakery workers. And he continued to read all he could—literature and science and books on social and medical subjects, anything he could get.

At the age of nineteen he attempted to kill himself. The wound was dangerous, but he recovered. The note found in his pocket began thus: “I lay the blame of my death on the German poet Heine, who invented toothache of the heart….”

He tramped on foot all over Russia, to Moscow, and once there made straight for Tolstoy’s house. Tolstoy was not at home, but the Countess invited him into the kitchen and treated him to coffee and rolls. She observed that a great number of bums kept coming to see her husband, to which Gorki politely agreed. Back in Nizhni he roomed with a couple of revolutionaries who had been exiled from Kazan because they had participated in student rioting. When the police received an order to arrest one of these and found that he had given them the slip, they arrested Gorki for questioning.

What odd kind of a revolutionary are you?” said the gendarme-general during the interrogation. “You write poems and the like…. When I let you out, you had better show that stuff of yours to Korolenko.” After a month in prison, Gorki was released and, taking the policeman’s advice, went to see Vladimir Korolenko. Korolenko was a very popular but quite second-rate writer, loved by the intelligentsia, suspected of revolutionary sympathies by the police—and a very kind man. His criticism, however, was so severe that it frightened Gorki, who gave up writing for a long time and went to Rostov where he worked for a while as a longshoreman. And it was not Korolenko, but a revolutionary named Alexander Kaluzhny, a chance acquaintance in Tiflis in the Caucasus, who helped Gorki to find his way in literature. Charmed by Gorki’s vivid narrations of all he had witnessed on his endless tramps, Kaluzhny insisted that Gorki write it down in simple words, the same in which he used to tell it. And when a tale was written, the same man took it to the local newspaper and had it printed. The year was 1892, and Gorki was twenty-four.

Later, however, Korolenko proved a great help—not only with valuable advice, but also by finding Gorki a job at the office of a newspaper with which Korolenko was connected. During this year of journalism in Samara, Gorki devoted himself to work. He studied, he tried to perfect his style, poor man, and he regularly wrote stories which appeared in the paper. By the end of this year he became a well-known writer and received many offers from Volga region newspapers. He accepted an offer from Nizhni and returned to his native town. In his writings he stressed savagely the bitter truth of contemporary Russian life. And yet every line he wrote was permeated with his unconquerable faith in man. Strange though it sounds, this painter of the darkest sides of life, of the cruelest brutalities, was also the greatest optimist Russian literature produced.

His revolutionary bias was quite clear. It added to his popularity among the radical intelligentsia but it also made the police redouble their vigilance in respect to a person who had already for a long time figured on the lists of the suspect. He was soon arrested because a photograph of his with a line of dedication had been found in the lodgings of another man arrested for revolutionary activity; however, he was shortly released in the absence of incriminating evidence. He returned to Nizhni again. The police kept an eye on him. Strange individuals were always hovering around the two-storied wooden house in which he lived. One of them would be sitting on a bench, making believe that he was idly surveying the sky. Another would be leaning against a lamppost, ostensibly engrossed in the contents of a newspaper. The coachman of the cab drawn up near the front door also behaved strangely; he would readily agree to take Gorki, or any of his visitors, wherever they pleased, free of charge if need be. But he would never take another fare. All these men were merely police observers.

Gorki became engaged in philanthropic work. He organized a Christmas party for hundreds of the poorest children; opened a comfortable daytime shelter for the unemployed and homeless, with library and piano; started a movement for sending scrap-books with pictures cut out of magazines to the village children. And also he began to take an active part in revolutionary work. Thus he smuggled a mimeograph for a secret press from St. Petersburg to the Nizhni Novgorod revolutionary group. This was a serious offense. He was arrested and put in jail. He was a very sick man at the time.

Public opinion, which was a force not to be easily discarded in pre-revolutionary Russia, came out for Gorki in full strength. Tolstoy came out to his defense, and a wave of protest swept through Russia. The government was forced to yield to public opinion: Gorki was released from prison and confined in his own home instead. “Policemen were posted in his hall and in the kitchen. One of them would constantly intrude into his study,” gushes the biographer. Yet a little further we find out that Gorki “settled down to his work, often writing until late at night” and also that he “happened to meet” a friend in the street and, undisturbed, to hold with him a talk about the imminence of revolution. Not such a terrible treatment, I would say. “The police and secret police were powerless to restrain him.” (The Soviet police would have restrained him in a twinkle.) Alarmed, the government ordered him to go and live at Arzamas, a sleepy little town in southern Russia. “The reprisals against Gorki evoked a wrathful protest from Lenin,” Mr. Roskin goes on. ” ‘One of Europe’s foremost writers,’ wrote Lenin, ‘whose only weapon is freedom of speech, is being banished by the autocratic government without trial.’ ”

His sickness—consumption, as in Chekhov’s case—had become worse during his imprisonment, and his friends, Tolstoy included, brought pressure to bear on the authorities. Gorki was allowed to go to the Crimea.

Earlier, back in Arzamas, Gorki, under the very noses of the secret police, had participated actively in revolutionary activities. He also wrote a play, The Philistines, which pictures the drab and stuffy milieu in which his own childhood had passed. It never became as famous as his next play, The Lower Depths. “While still in the Crimea, sitting one evening on the porch in the gathering dusk, Gorki had mused aloud about his new play: the hero is a former butler to a wealthy family whom the vicissitudes of life have brought to the poorhouse, from which he has never been able to extricate himself. The man’s most treasured possession is the collar of a dress shirt—the one object that links him with his former life. The poorhouse is crowded, everybody there hates everyone else. But in the last act spring comes, the stage is flooded with sunlight and the inmates of the poorhouse leave their squalid dwelling and forget the hatred they bear for each other…” (Roskin, From the Banks of the Volga).

When The Lower Depths was finished, it amounted to more than this sketch suggests. Every character depicted is alive and offers an advantageous part to a good actor. It was the Moscow Art Theater that gave it theatrical realization and, scoring with it a tremendous success, made the play familiar to everybody.

Perhaps it is appropriate at this juncture to say a few words about this amazing theater. Before it came into existence, the best theatrical food the Russian theatergoer could obtain was largely confined to the imperial companies of Petersburg and Moscow. These had at their disposal considerable means, sufficient to engage the best available talent, but the administration of these theaters was very conservative, which, in art, may often mean very stuffy, and the productions, at best, were on extremely conventional lines. For a really talented actor, however, there was no higher achievement than to “make” the imperial scene, for the private theaters were very poor and could not compete in any way with the imperial ones.

  1. 1

    From the Banks of the Volga, translated by D.L. Fromberg (Philosophical Library, 1946), p. 11.

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