Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Gorky, Bowker, and Said

Hello! I hope you are all healthy and safe. I’ve read three very interesting books. Some you might not want to read, but others you probably would.


Mother, by Maxim Gorky

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“People love their own feelings—sometimes the very feelings that are harmful to them—are enamored of them, and often derive keen pleasure even from grief, a pleasure that corrodes the heart. Nikolay, the mother, and Sofya were unwilling to let the sorrowful mood produced by the death of their comrade give way to the joy brought in by Sasha. Unconsciously defending their melancholy right to feed on their sadness, they tried to impose their feelings on the girl.”

Mother by Maxim Gorky is (you guessed it) about a mother in Russia under the Tsar. Her son is a revolutionary and he brings home revolutionary friends and the mom eventually becomes a revolutionary, too. Maybe that’s why Gorky’s book is called the “Great Revolutionary Novel,” but may as well be called the “Stilted Ideological Tract.”

Most of what the characters do is to explain why socialism is great and why imperial rule is bad. Gorky tries to get you invested in these ideas by making the characters sympathetic, but his idea of making people sympathetic seems to be slapping on sympathetic-sounding tags. Someone has kind eyes and smiles warmly and the mother is very happy her son has made such a good friend.

Also, the book says that people should think for themselves and that by thinking for themselves, they will realize socialism is good. Well, the mother never really thinks for herself. She just hears her son talk about socialism, and is amazed by his oratorical skills. So she comes to like socialism not because she thinks for herself about whether she likes it or not, but because she likes her son’s speaking skills. The rest of the people in the book don’t really think for themselves, either. It’s obvious they’ve just gobbled down someone else’s Manifesto and are spouting words from it, because what they say about socialism usually comes out very stilted and forced. So if you write characters with kind eyes and warm smiles, and a mother who accepts their ideology without showing her processing it and coming to terms with it, how can you get your reader invested in the ideology, too? You can’t.

Yet this is what Gorky tries to do, and then he seems to expect the readers’ investment in his ideology to be the most compelling reason for them to keep reading. Well, it’s not compelling. Gorky doesn’t even develop the opposing ideas so he can show their flaws. There’s a scene where someone gives a speech about these opposing ideas. Instead of giving us the speech, Gorky glosses over it, labeling it as bad, and then spends long pages quoting someone else’s speech about socialism and labeling it great. What are we left with? For me, at least, an inability to connect with Mother’s ideas.

It’s interesting because in the book a character repeatedly says that you can’t just tell people ideas, you have to connect with their hearts, but the book rarely connected with my heart.

Here are the rare parts where it did: when the characters stopped acting like mouthpieces and started acting like humans. The son felt affection for a girl. The mother sometimes thought about life’s wonders. A few characters sometimes reflected on other peoples’ situations. We got to understand the source of one character’s troubled outbursts.

None of these things really have much to do with socialism. Everyone, even non-socialists, can have such experiences.

And then the book seems to contradict its own ideas. First, Gorky writes that we should try to understand everyone, then he has one character say that a lot of rich people are inherently evil and so there’s nothing to understand, they just have to be done away with violently (and the other characters agree). First one character says you shouldn’t get married because it would go against socialism. Then Gorky implies that the very same character winds up marrying anyway.

Overall, Mother wasn’t as provocative as I thought it would be. It mainly made me think of how misguided idealism could wind up causing more trouble than there already is. The very system that the socialists criticize kind of turns out to be the same system the socialists establish. In Gorky’s Tsarist Russia, people can’t read certain books, the government takes their money for its own purposes, and people are shot and imprisoned by the Tsar’s police force if they rebel. In Communist Russia, people couldn’t read certain books, Stalin’s government took their money for its own purposes, and people were shot and imprisoned by the secret police force if they rebelled. But, unlike in Tsarist Russia where one of Gorky’s characters says, “the prison is our place of rest and study,” the prisons in Stalinist Russia were anything but restful.


Inside George Orwell: A Biography, by Gordon Bowker

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“Two days after his visit [to Orwell], Muggeridge lunched with Warburg [Orwell’s publisher] and reported, somewhat uncomfortably, that ‘a characteristic remark of Warburg’s was, in a rather plaintive voice, that what George should do was to use his little remaining span of life and energy to write at least two more books.’ Nineteen Eighty-Four, he told him shortly afterwards, ‘had a very good chance of having a large sale.’ The implication was that Warburg now saw his ailing author only as the source of more books, and, presumably, more profit to Warburg.”

This book is a biography of George Orwell. It gives a fresh picture of Orwell. He’s not just a saint, but a womanizer with flashes of cruelty. Inside George Orwell also gives great insight into the inspirations for his books. Working for the BBC during WWII inspired 1984, living near a farm with the word “Manor” in its name partially-inspired Animal Farm, and so on.

For some reason, I didn’t think the book was as engaging as it could have been. Maybe I would have thought otherwise had I not been reading other biographies at the same time that were better. Those biographies have arcs to them—Beethoven was amateurish at first but then he started taking risks and look at how his music grew in complexity! Orwell’s bio lists what happened to him in the year of X, what he did in this war, what he did in that war, how he was storing up ideas for the future, and so on. In one part, the author seems to be writing about Orwell’s love-life, but then in the next paragraph he writes about the publication of one of Orwell’s books, before returning to Orwell’s love-life two paragraphs later. I found these disconnected ideas sort of confusing.

On the reading-front: Read this for its insight into his psychology, what inspired his books, how he died from over-work, and how he was exploited by his publisher for the sake of profit.


Ali and Nino, by Kurban Said

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“Nino was bending over the atlas. ‘I’m looking for a country that is at peace,’ she said, and her finger crossed the many-coloured border lines. ‘Maybe Moscow. Or Petersburg,’ I said, mocking her. She shrugged her shoulders, and her finger discovered Norway. ‘I’m sure that’s a peaceful country,’ I said, ‘but how do we get there?’ ‘We don’t,’ sighed Nino. ‘America?’ ‘U-boats,’ I said cheerfully. ‘India, Spain, China, Japan?’ ‘Either they’re at war, or we can’t get there.’ ‘Ali Khan, we’re in a mousetrap.’ ‘You are quite right, Nino. There’s no sense in running away. We will have to find a way to get a bit of common sense into our town, at least till the Turks come.’”

You’ll probably want to read this book. It’s a love-story between a Muslim Azerbaijani boy named Ali (who narrates the book) and a Christian Georgian girl named Nino. It is set in Azerbaijan, during World War I and World War II. At that time, there were still horses and swords and princes in Azerbaijan, even when Europe had cars and guns and republics.

The conflict comes from the romance between Ali and Nino and how they navigate a changing world. The lovers’ parents disapprove of their relationship for religious reasons, and they themselves have clashing values. Ali represents Asia, and Nino represents Europe, but they manage to get along anyway. Meanwhile, the world around them changes. Azerbaijan is ruled by imperial Russia for a while, then becomes independent, then gets caught in a tug-of-war between Asia and Europe. These global dynamics have a huge impact on the story.

The book itself is very well-written in terms of its style and story. When Said writes about mundane things, you’re interested. When Said writes about epic chases through the desert, you’re interested. Maybe it’s because Said manages to get across Ali’s excitement about everything he experiences, which makes you excited, too. Maybe it’s also because the story is really good, and it’s filled with intriguing ideas about Europe and Asia. Somehow, Ali and Nino manages to get all this across without becoming a Stilted Ideological Tract like other books out there. That must be the reason Ali and Nino is known as Azerbaijan’s national novel.

In any case, you won’t regret reading this book. If you do read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Until next time. Enjoy the summer!

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Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Gorky, Gorky, and Gorky

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Hello everyone! Today, I’m reviewing the three books that comprise the autobiography of the Russian writer, Maxim Gorky.


The first book is called My Childhood. This book could have been called “A Tale of Bitterness and Curiosity,” because that’s basically what it is.

It starts when Gorky is five, with his father’s death, and ends with Gorky going out into the world at around the age of twelve. Along the way, he’s raised by his mother and grandparents, gets unjustly treated by his grandfather, and starts acting out. Even though his childhood is rooted in bitterness (Gorky’s name literally means “bitter”), this book also tells of the roots of his compassion, and how he finds solace from his troubles by meeting different people, learning about their lives, and being curious about the world.

Another possible title for this book could have been “Maxim’s Marvelous Memory.” He seems to remember everything.

He remembers everyone’s name, and is able to recall certain details (like the specific pranks he played on his grandfather, and in what order he did so, for instance). He also has the uncanny ability to remember every single word of every single conversation he ever had with every single person he met. Wait, no. He likely reconstructed them from what little shreds of recollection he had.

In the end, though, even if some of the book’s specific details and conversations are reconstructed, they don’t take away from this book’s sense of truth, and my keen appreciation of Maxim’s marvelous memory:

“The only saints grandmother knew were Nikolai, Yowry, Frola, and Lavra, who were full of kindness and sympathy with human-nature, and went about in the villages and towns sharing the life of the people, and regulating all their concerns; but grandfather’s saints were nearly all males, who cast down idols, or defied the Roman emperors, and were tortured, burned or flayed alive in consequence. Sometimes grandfather would say musingly: ‘If only God would help me to sell that little house, even at a small profit, I would make a public thanksgiving to St. Nicholas.’ But grandmother would say to me, laughingly: ‘That’s just like the old fool! Does he think St. Nicholas will trouble himself about selling a house? Hasn’t our little Father Nicholas something better to do?’”


The second book in the trilogy is called In the World.

In this book, twelve-year-old Gorky goes into the world to find work to help support his grandparents. He makes a lot of unrealistically-mature observations about people, and takes on different jobs, such as working on a steamship with middle-aged men, or hawking religious icons to indifferent passerby.

It’s interesting to see him living the rough life and getting a full immersion into its wonders and crudeness, but parts of the book seem repetitive. For instance, he’d meet someone interesting, describe that person, and then go on to describe another interesting person. Also, he’d describe a lot of the work he does in detail, and hearing about him trying to sell religious idols makes for not-so-interesting reading.

However, there are some redeeming features to this book, like when he describes his encounters with literature and how he becomes super-interested in reading:

“It was hard to find books. We could not afford to subscribe to a library, but I managed to get them somehow, asking for them wherever I went, as a charity. One day the second officer of the fire brigade gave me the first volume of ‘[Mikhail] Lermontov,’ and it was from this that I felt the power of poetry, and its mighty influence over people. I remember even now how, at the first lines of ‘The Demon,’ Sitanov looked first at the book and then at my face, laid down his brush on the table, and, embracing his knee with his long arms, rocked to and fro, smiling.

‘Not so much noise, brothers,’ said Larionovich, and also laying aside his work, he went to Sitanov’s table where I was reading. The poem stirred me painfully and sweetly; my voice was broken; I could hardly read the lines. Tears poured from my eyes. But what moved me still more was the dull, cautious movement of the workmen. In the workshop everything seemed to be diverted from its usual course—drawn to me as if I had been a magnet. When I had finished the first part, almost all of them were standing round the table, closely pressing against one another, embracing one another, frowning and laughing.”

Despite these merits, this book isn’t as good as My Childhood. You basically read In the World so you can get to the third book without missing anything relevant.


The third book is called My Universities. It starts when Gorky’s around sixteen, and ends when he’s around twenty.

In this book, Gorky doesn’t actually attend a university. Instead, he attends the metaphorical university of life. This means that he travels more, meets more interesting people, and reads more books, like he did in Book 2.

Unlike in Book 2, he also falls in love, gets married, separates, and becomes a famous writer. This automatically makes Book 3 more interesting. What makes it even more so is that this book is less focused on the boring details of his day-to-day work.

Even though Book 3 is more interesting than Book 2, I found it less interesting than Book 1. Gorky’s less thoughtful, so you don’t get as much of the reflections and wonderings about life which made My Childhood so enjoyable.

There is one exception to this. Gorky tries and fails to end his life, and later has a sort of epiphany where he realizes how wonderful life actually is. This section is pretty heavy reading, but it is very inspiring to hear how great life is. If you don’t want to read the heavy part, the excerpt below is the inspiring part:

“Isot was a man of the night. He was wonderfully awake to all beauty, and expressed it in a wonderful way, with the words of a dreaming child. He believed fearlessly in God, in the church-like notion of Him and he imagined Him as a big, fine-looking old man, a kind and clever master of the world, who cannot conquer all evil only because—

‘He’s got no time for it; there’s too many men come about! But never mind; He’ll manage it all right, you’ll see. But Christ, Him I cannot understand at all. What am I to do with Him? There’s God—well, what more do I want? And here’s another one, if you please. The Son, so they say. What of that, that He’s the Son? God’s not yet dead, is He?’

But oftener Isot sits in perfect silence, thinking of something, and only from time to time murmurs, sighing.

‘Yes, that’s how it is…’


‘That is about myself…’

And sighs again, looking into the dim space.

‘How splendid life is!’

I agree with him.

‘Yes, it is splendid.’

The velvet stream of dark water moves powerfully along. Over it stretches itself in a curve the silvery line, the Milky Way; the big stars sparkle like golden larks, and the heart gently sings its unreasonable thoughts on the mysteries of life. Far away beyond the pastures rays of sun break out from the reddish clouds and—here it comes, spreading its peacock’s tail on the skies.

‘What a wonderful thing, the sun!’ mutters Isot, smiling happily.”


I promise I’ll have happier books to review next time. Until then, I hope you stay healthy and hopeful, and that you remember life is indeed splendid if you appreciate its wonders.

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