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.