Mother

By Maxim Gorky.

This was a good novel. At times it seemed a little over-the-top with some of the emotive language but this could have been the old translation. The book was written a hundred years ago too, for a political purpose, so we can give it some leeway. A good story.

As mentioned in the previous post Gorky has very strong female characters, which if you compare to the writers of his time is unique. I can’t imagine Conrad, despite his genius, having a character like ‘the mother’ – Vlasova. What is really interesting is the subtle movement (Gorky controls this very well) from an oppressed peasant, easily controlled, to a woman full of life and purpose. She always had those qualities, but the very narrow hand-to-mouth way she had been living kept her downtrodden and without hope.

I’m glad I read this, but I have to admit I like Gorky’s autobiographies more. Probably because there is more breadth. Mother, like the characters in the novel has political purpose. While this is understandable, it is maybe not as engaging to the modern reader. In context, we can see how this would have been an important novel for the working people in Russia at the turn of last century. The novel understood and highlighted their problems. Maybe it isn’t as sublime as Zola’s Germinal but Mother was a more direct call to action for the oppressed.

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In The World

By Maxim Gorky.

The first volume of Gorky’s autobiography, My Childhood, was so good I decided to read the second installment ‘In the World’. If anything, ‘In the World’ deepened my appreciation of Gorky. He is brutally honest throughout and nothing is left out because it is too harsh or distasteful. The man must have had real strength of character to deal with such hardship and come out with a positive world view. A large part of the reason for that must be his grandmother who was a formative influence on him. In the Gorky books I have read there are always strong female characters and ‘In the World’ is no exception.  This quote from the book seems to explain what he was trying to do.

I am a lover of humanity and I have no desire to make any one miserable, but one must not be sentimental, nor hide the grim truth with the motley words of beautiful lies. Let us face life as it is! All that is good and human in our hearts and brains needs renewing.

There are problems with the the translation – it is very much of its time – 1917. The translation of ‘My Childhood’ was better. Still, it didn’t get in the way too much as Gorky kept me interested. The final volume, ‘My Universities’, doesn’t seem to be in the public domain but I will keep my eyes open for a modern translation to finish the autobiography on a good, well-translated note.

The refrain that sounds through ‘In the World’ is one of education and that books can be a path to a better life. In Gorky’s case this was true and this sentiment is also seen in the novel ‘Mother’ that I am currently reading.

If you have never read Gorky before and want to try reading something brutally honest and quite different, as an antidote to the spin of our consumer culture, then start with ‘My Childhood’ and carry on through the three books.

Soundtrack: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Southern Accents.

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My Childhood

the-childhood-of-maxim-gorkyBy Maxim Gorky.

After reading this autobiography you can’t help but have a new respect for Gorky. His domestic circumstances were absolutely unbelievable – but the narrative is still given in a very matter-of-fact way. Nobody is all one thing – each person is capable of kindness and evil. That Gorky emerged out of this cyclical poverty is due to his personal qualities and incredible luck. What does shine through the abject hopelessness is Gorky’s humanity. He still believes in people despite how he has been treated. His grandfather, who beats him as well as everyone in the family and is miserly and cunning, is also capable of emotion and Gorky has a few moments where they share a common understanding. Every character is the same – imperfect. But Gorky takes something from each moment and remembers these and sets them down thrity years later. This is maybe one of the best autobiographies I have ever read. There doesn’t seem to be much pride – everything is stated as remembered with no filter. This is the first part and I am going to have to read the final two parts.

Gorky was supposedly a friend of Stalin and he did intercede on behalf of many people with Stalin and Lenin. I wonder how he could have justified the actions of Stalin in later years… Gorky did die in mysterious circumstances before the beginnings of the 1938 purges – so perhaps he didn’t realise the extent of Stalin’s madness and cruelty. Or, perhaps he still believed the elements of humanity he had seen in Stalin would overcome the evil – that good would prevail. At the end of the penultimate chapter Gorky says the following:

Life is always suprising us – not by its rich, seething layer of bestial refuse – but by the bright, healthy and creative human powers of goodness that are for ever forcing their way up through it. It is those powers that awaken our indestructable hope that a brighter, better and more humane life will once again be reborn.

This is probably the answer. Gorky hoped things would get better.

Soundtrack: The American Analog Set – The Kindness of Strangers.

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