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Low Truths

Gorky's Tolstoy and Other Reminiscences: Key Writings By and About Maxim Gorky

Translated by Donald Fanger

(Yale University Press, 320 pp., $30)

Aleksei Maksimovich Peshkov, the future Maxim Gorky, was born in 1868 in Nizhni Novgorod on the Volga River, and grew up in what he later described in his melancholy, violent autobiography as "that close-knit, suffocating little world of pain and suffering where the ordinary Russian man in the street used to live, and where he lives to this day." It was the world of the provincial petty-bourgeois--neighbors cut the tails off each other's cats and sons besieged their fathers' houses, knocking all night on the doors with fists and clubs.

Gorky was struck from the start by the chaos and the carelessness of the life that he saw around him. Many of the most lyrical passages in his autobiography describe the silences that followed the savage outbursts of his relatives. He remembered his lazy cousin Sasha, whose two rows of teeth were "the only interesting thing about him": "I liked to sit close to him," Gorky wrote, "neither of us speaking for a whole hour, and watching the black crows circling and wheeling in the red evening sky around the golden cupolas of the Church of the Assumption, diving down to earth and draping the fading sky with a black net.... A scene like this fills the heart with sweet sadness and leaves you content to say nothing." The cruelty around him made him want to embellish and to correct what he saw. In his best work, however, he told his stories without ornament.

Literarily speaking, Gorky was never a true "realist": inventing heroes who were better than life, he placed them in realistic settings and convinced his readers and himself that he was a "chronicler of everyday events." According to the poet Vladislav Khodasevich, "he himself half-believed in that half-truth all his life." Gorky had a tendency toward a broad, bright clarity that blurred life into myth. "In Gorky's books," Victor Shklovsky noted, "things take on an inflated quality without being enlarged out of proportion.... It's like a card game played by some officers sitting in the basket of an observation balloon a mile up in the air."

Gorky may have been his own greatest character, but the story of the character Gorky is one of the most disappointing and upsetting in modern literature. It is, in fact, the sort of story against which Gorky himself protested all his life: a story of disillusionment and "low truths," of a revolution wildly off its course.

In his youth, Aleksei Peshkov tramped numberless miles all over Russia--the Caspian Sea, Astrakhan, the Mozdosk steppe, Bessarabia--and worked an endless series of odd jobs: ragman, stevedore, icon seller. In each new town, he would show up with a change of underwear and a small suitcase full of books, and dazzle his listeners with stories of the bizarre men he had met. At the age of twenty, he spent his last money on a pistol and shot himself in the chest. He survived, but he carried the bullet in his lung for another forty years. His friend Leonid Andreyev later told him, "You know yourself that a man who hasn't tried to kill himself isn't worth much."

In 1892, he published his first story in a newspaper in Tiflis under the pseudonym Maxim Gorky, which means "Maxim the Bitter." It was the age of invented names--Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin--as the thought of revolution promised every individual a chance at a new history. When, in 1898, his first collection of stories was published in two volumes, Gorky was launched into an iconic celebrity, his picture appearing on matchboxes, postcards, and cigarette packs. Here was the author as "emissary from the anonymous masses," the representative of the "Lower Depths," as he later named his most famous play, which depicted the destitution, both physical and spiritual, of prostitutes and minor thieves. For two decades, Gorky was the object of adoration by many Russian readers, and even took on the image of a kind of people's protector. (On Gorky's fiftieth birthday, a convict sent him this request from prison: "Dear writer!... I am in prison for murdering my wife, whom I killed on the fifth day after we married because she [followed by a series of extremely frank details].... Would it be possible to obtain an amnesty for me?" ) In fact, Gorky's immediate ancestors--particularly his grandfather, who owned a dye factory--were of a higher class than those of Chekhov, whose grandfathers were both serfs. Across Russia, false Gorkys began turning up wearing his trademark long overcoat and boasting a collection of anecdotes about the heroic outcasts they had known.

An obsessive corrector, Gorky would sit for hours with a blue pencil annotating manuscripts--his own and everyone else's. Finishing a newspaper, he would cover the pages with additions and alterations, then throw it away. A conservative group once sent him a rope noose and a threatening note. He threw out the noose and corrected the note in blue pencil, so that the rabid ideas remained but were expressed more clearly. No one ever saw him sleep. His bed was as neat as a hospital bed. He stayed up nights, making himself a medium for grammar.

His memory was prodigious. Many who knew Gorky recorded his miraculous ability to remember the names of streets and towns that he had visited decades before, and to recall the plots of hundreds of novels by writers whose names had already been forgotten. He was astonished when someone once asked him how he knew a certain fact. "How could anyone not know?" he asked. "There was an article about it in The Messenger of Europe for 1887, the October issue."

Gorky appeared bearing tales of hoodlums and tramps, but also scraps and pamphlets of anarchist ideas charged with revolutionary hopes. His financial support, much of which came from his own royalties, bolstered Lenin and the Bolsheviks from 1903 until their seizure of power in 1917. Wishing to believe all his life that human reality could be improved and even perfected, Gorky achieved a greatness that was ultimately social, not artistic; at his best he was a grand-scale inspiration for a worldwide cult of human progress and social struggle. He was a famously mesmerizing raconteur, but many who heard his stories in person were disappointed when they read them. He was himself attracted to power and the raw energy of self-assertion, and idolized men who tried to remake the world.

When Gorky met Tolstoy in 1900, the two men were the most famous writers in Russia. Tolstoy was long into his religious "conversion," having abandoned literature and positioned himself as the wise, troubled savior of Russia, preaching nonviolence and personal spirituality, dressing as a peasant, and receiving pilgrims and truth seekers from all corners of Russia and the world. Gorky was a young writer in search of a literary idol. His memoir of Tolstoy is the centerpiece of Donald Fanger's fascinating new volume of translations.

The memoir, which Fanger translates for the first time in its entirety, is torn-edged, surprisingly vicious, unpredictable, and empathic to the point of being almost an X-ray of a spirit. Composed of forty-four fragments recording anecdotes and quotations, as well as an unfinished letter written on the eve of Tolstoy's death, the memoir is held together by contradictions--the galactic attraction of Tolstoy's charm and self-regard against the willful slyness of his half-hearted preaching; Tolstoy's insistence on peasant simplicity against his silent, agonized consideration of complexity, human and divine; the tenderness for the man, so vast that Gorky almost falls into it like a sea, against Gorky's own defensive animosity.

Always fascinated by the way people talked to and about God, Gorky caught in Tolstoy's preaching the wavering false note of the non-believer. His memoir is an alternative gospel relating the teachings and contradictions of a god-like man, who himself rewrote the Gospels in search of a god who could save him. It is clearly a hagiography, but one that goes out of its way to emphasize that its subject was not a saint. In this, Gorky was challenging the Tolstoy cult, which insisted on the authentic martyrdom of its patron saint. It was not for his gigantic faith in God that Gorky admired Tolstoy, but for his gigantic faith in Count Tolstoy. Searching the world for a spiritual mentor, a figurehead for the theory of men's elevation that would enable his country to transcend the darkness of the past and the mindless cruelty and ignorance of the present, Gorky found Tolstoy, who must have appeared to him as the incarnation of his hopes.

Gorky's literary portraits capture the culture of reading in which their subjects lived: classics, forgotten treatises, learned tomes, and pulp novels are mentioned in single breaths and passed between interlocutors like playing cards. References swing back and forth like punches. The Tolstoy memoir contains one of the most vivid accounts anywhere of the physicality of literary conversation, the atmosphere of toughness and prowess, the insults, the writers' comparisons of each other to bewitching women, the emphasis on work and perfection of technique, the cultivation of style and personality. The conversations between Tolstoy, Gorky, Chekhov, and their friend L.A. Sulerzhitsky, each competing for the affection of Lev Nikolaevich, read like a mixture of a boxing match, a tea party, the judgment of Paris, and a pilgrimage to an enlightened and damaged hermit. Chekhov plays Jacob to Gorky's Esau, but he requires no fur on his arms to gain the patriarch's blessing: it is his smoothness--"like a young lady!"--that Tolstoy secretly prefers.

Tolstoy appears in the memoir as a Russian god who "sits on a throne of maple under a golden lime tree"; a wizard; a satyr with the mouth of a sailor; Sviatogor, whose name means "sacred mountain," the Russian hero whom the earth itself could not hold; a force of nature. Once, in the Crimea, Gorky saw him walking along the edge of the seashore:

And suddenly, for one mad moment, I felt that he might be about to stand up and wave his arm, and that the sea would grow calm and glassy, and the rocks would move and begin to shout, and everything around would stir and come to life and start talking in different voices about itself, and about him, and against him. I cannot put into words what I felt then; I was filled both with rapture and with horror, and then everything came together in one happy thought:

"I am not an orphan on the earth so long as this man is alive."

Whereas Tolstoy's work, especially War and Peace, is shot through with protest against the idea of the "great man," Gorky's life and work record an ongoing search for just such a figure--a "Man with a capital M," as he called Lenin. "I think that such men are possible only in Russia," Gorky wrote, "whose history and way of life always remind me of Sodom and Gomorrah." In his literary portraits, Gorky is so drawn to his subjects that his admiration at times verges on chameleonic impersonation. In one uncanny photograph from 1920, Lenin stands in front while the much taller Gorky, in an identical suit and with his head shaved, leans diffidently to one side behind his idol, like an uncertain, elongated mirror image. The scene is right out of Zelig--Gorky the remora, the parrot, the perpetual acolyte.

He found his first hero in Tolstoy, and then hoped to find an alternative in, of all people, Mark Twain (who invited him to a banquet in New York and then dropped him because Gorky, on a fund-raising mission for the Bolsheviks, crossed the Atlantic in 1906 with a woman who was not his wife); and later found an even more beguiling one in Lenin; and lost his will altogether before Stalin, who badgered him to write his biography (Gorky never did) and lured Gorky back to Russia with the promise that Gorky, too, would be recognized as a great man.

Gorky sought a man with a "living faith," but in Tolstoy he settled, ironically, on the embodiment of possibly the greatest spiritual crisis of the age. Tolstoy sought the simple truthfulness of the peasantry, and instead met the eyes of a proletarian revolutionary lighting up at a usable idea. Each mistook the other for the mascot of his cause. Considering Tolstoy's view of Western influence upon Russia, Gorky observed that "the culminating figure of our history ... wished (both consciously and unconsciously) to lie like a mountain across the road that leads to Europe, to that active life which demands of men the utmost concentration of all their spiritual powers." Tolstoy stands for the "Old Russia" that the revolution would leave behind; but still he offered something without which it could not succeed.

When Gorky published his memoir of Tolstoy in 1919, at the height of the Russian Civil War, he must have been thinking of Lenin. (It would be useful to have a translation by Fanger of Gorky's memoir of Lenin, which in its controversial original version--never translated in full--contains Lenin's praise of Trotsky and Gorky's comment about Sodom and Gomorrah quoted above, along with bitter remarks on the Russian peasantry.) Immediately following the Revolution, Gorky became the most prominent source of internal criticism of the Bolshevik government's methods and ideology. He published articles ferociously attacking Lenin and the authorities for their brutality, arbitrary violence, double-dealing, and hard-headed disregard for Russia's intelligentsia. The Russian Revolution had no greater believer than Gorky, and he believed it could go another way. The way it actually went was nothing like the way he dreamt it.

Shklovsky called Gorky the "Noah of the Russian intelligentsia." He formed committees to provide work and shelter for Russia's threatened poets and scholars, composing hundreds of letters of recommendation, and swore into the phone at Lenin. He secured ration tickets by claiming all writers as members of his family, suddenly boasting dozens of siblings, children, and wives. Most notable among his ventures was the World Literature Publishing House, which set out to translate into Russian the world's literary classics for "the new Soviet reader." Sitting in his office, Gorky discussed the best translator for Gilgamesh while sporadic gunfire erupted in the streets.

A subsection of his enterprise, the Committee for Historical Representation, would produce plays based on every great event in human history. When Alexander Blok, one of the great poets of the age, read his play on the life of the Pharaoh Ramses, Gorky suddenly remarked, "You should do it a little like this," and stretched out his arms to the sides like an ancient Egyptian. There was also the Studio for Literary Translation, the House of Scholars, the Expert Commission for the Preservation of National Objects, and so on. (It is worth noting that in Kafka's The Trial, the only communal activity in which Joseph K. participates is the Society for the Preservation of Municipal Monuments of Art.)

Evgeny Zamyatin, the author of the dystopian science-fiction novel We, which appeared in 1921, imagined the World Literature venture as a spaceship on an interplanetary mission which, after an accident, began to fall, though it would be a year and a half before the vessel actually crashed. Wondering how the voyagers would behave, Zamyatin pitched the story to Gorky, who responded: "Within a week, as if nothing had happened, they will start shaving and writing books and in general acting as if they had at least another twenty years to live.... We've got to believe that we won't be shattered, otherwise all is lost. "

Gorky's decision to leave Russia in 1921 was most likely made because of his extreme disillusionment with the Soviet government--Blok had died from scurvy, exhaustion, and spiritual despair; another poet was executed for supposedly participating in a conspiracy. He was also repeatedly encouraged to leave by Lenin, who claimed that Gorky's weak lungs needed a rest. Gorky was furious with Lenin, whom he denounced as a theoretician who "carried out a planetary experiment" that failed. He was deeply exercised by the condition of Russia, which was experiencing a catastrophic famine. After three years traveling Europe, raising money for famine relief, Gorky moved to a villa in Sorrento with a view of Mt. Vesuvius, where he lived for almost ten years before returning permanently to Russia. While in exile, Gorky remembered a scene from his days with Tolstoy:

Leo Tolstoy once asked a lizard in a low voice:

"Are you happy, eh?"

The lizard was sunning itself on a rock in the bushes along the road to Diulber, and Tolstoy stood facing it with his hands stuck into his leather belt. And looking around carefully, that great man confessed to the lizard:

"I'm not ..."

(Heinrich Heine, whom Blok was translating for the World Literature Publishing House, wrote in one of his Italian travel sketches that the lizards on a certain hillside had reported that the stones expected God to manifest Himself among them in the form of a stone.)

Where was the revolution, with its elemental image of man in search of meaning? One source records that, in Italy, Gorky received thirteen thousand letters from Russia. But what sorts of letters was he getting? According to the KGB archives, many of them were from Soviet citizens detailing the injustices and the absurdities of Russian life. Convincing himself that Russia was nonetheless on the right track, Gorky chose not to focus on their warnings.

Like Tolstoy, Gorky appears to have experienced during his exile a spiritual turning point that impelled him to take a false position. But whereas Tolstoy's crisis demanded that he disown his past life as harmfully misdirected, Gorky's crisis forced him to act as though his past actions, and the revolution as a whole, had been right. What was at stake was Gorky's place in the narrative that he had spent his life constructing: if the revolution had been a failure, his role as its prophet and its bard would be meaningless, or worse.

Gorky's return to Russia was marked by a fury of re-naming in his honor, at the suggestion of Stalin. The main street, the central park, and the Literary Institute in Moscow as well as the Art Theater; the city and region of Nizhni Novgorod; hundreds of collective farms, factories, and schools--all took Gorky's name. He was given an Art Deco mansion and estates outside Moscow and in the Crimea. In 1932, an airplane named Maxim Gorky, which boasted the widest wingspan in the world, flew over Moscow in a tribute to him. (The plane crashed the following year.) By the end of his life, Gorky's remarkable talent for remembering the names of places was no longer necessary: every place he went was named "Gorky."

And so Gorky became the single most prominent apologist for Stalin's regime. During the drive toward collectivization, which resulted in the deaths of millions of peasants, he provided a slogan for the authorities' struggle against the kulaks: "If the enemy does not surrender, he must be exterminated." Perhaps most notoriously, he led an expedition of writers to the site of the White Sea Canal, the first grand-scale construction project completed by the labor of convicts in the Gulag, during which more than ten thousand prisoners died. Gorky edited and contributed to an anthology praising the work for its ambition and its successful rehabilitation of criminals. The scholar John Freccero has pointed out that Dante's Inferno resembles a prison camp. Returning from Hell, Gorky told the world that it was only Purgatory.

And yet, at the same time, Gorky continued to write letters to the secret police for "the release of prisoners or leniency in punishments." He appears to have been kept under a stultifying house arrest in "the country of the pharaohs. " Observers noted that he barely touched the food at the banquets in his mansion. At the end of his life, Gorky, the great believer in positive literature, was given specially printed newspapers with "the necessary cuts and alterations." Just before he died, he proposed that one hundred writers should be mobilized for a new project:

All world literature and history, the history of the church and philosophy must be rewritten: Gibbon and Goldoni, Bishop Irenaeus and Corneille, Professor Anfilonov and Julian the Apostate, Hesiod and Ivan Volnov, Lucretius and Zola, Gilgamesh and Hiawatha, Swift and Plutarch. The entire series must end with oral legends about Lenin.

The project was typical of Gorky--the variety of reading, the love of collective work, the certainty that the answer can be found in books, the fanaticism for correction. The taste was bitter.

Tolstoy found that the truth was a leveler that cut across every aspect of life, leaving the same inhospitable wilderness of death and suffering. This revelation jarred him, and his "teachings" were constructed and preached in an effort to regenerate his own faith. Yet his faith in himself was always vast. He was a great man and he knew it. His attitude toward the truth never really wavered, but he could not bring himself to face completely the consequences of his search for it. Women reminded him of death, and he hated them for it.

Gorky, by contrast, felt extreme pity for mankind, but he seems to have been pursued by the suspicion that the fight was fixed, that the smart money was on the world and on suffering. What Fanger's book strikingly shows is the extent to which other writers had Gorky's number, even early on. During the Russian Civil War, Blok, on the steps of World Literature Publishing, had told Gorky, "We have become too clever to believe in God, yet not strong enough to believe in ourselves. As a basis for life and faith there is only God or oneself. Humanity? Can anyone really believe in the reasonableness of humanity after the last war, with new, inevitable, and crueler wars in the offing?"

But Gorky put his faith in humanity. And he embellished and polished humanity so as to keep his faith in it secure. "You always want to paint over all the nicks and cracks with your own paint," Tolstoy told Gorky. Like Tolstoy, Gorky was unable to face life as he suspected it to be, but he lacked the belief in his own powers that kept Tolstoy from committing any real self-betrayal. Gorky's terror at powerlessness was so strong that in the end he favored cruelty itself to the acknowledgment of cruelty. He appears to have believed that from where he stood, down in the "lower depths," there was nowhere to go but up, and that people needed to be convinced to strive to this end. Any repression would be temporary. Always the believer in revision, Gorky treated Russia like a young writer who needed only to be further edited and encouraged. He was wrong: there was an even lower depth. His need to adorn life caused him to side with those who, for their own purposes, wanted to show it as better than it was. The corrected manuscript metamorphosed into the correctional facility.

And yet the Tolstoy memoir is so strange and moving that it is hard to comprehend completely what followed. It is a great work (Gorky never approached its quality before it or afterward), but it is not a modern work; and it is misleading to class Gorky among the ironic prophets of the twentieth century, when he was in many ways a nineteenth-century writer who lived on into the next awful age. The memoir is utterly lacking in irony. Two elements appear to have misled its readers. The first is its subject: Tolstoy himself comes off as the massive, tormented precursor of modern man--a Moses of the Modern who peers into the promised land but does not enter it. Readers seem to have taken this to mean that Gorky was modern, too, when in fact the whole piece could be read as his attempt at exchanging one certainty (religion) for another (the collective faith in Man). The second is its open-ended, fragmented form, which looks not only modern but even modernist. For Gorky, however, this form was conceived not in a modernist spirit, out of experimentation and irony, but rather out of necessity. When he writes that he cannot finish his letter, he means it: he actually could not finish it. For us, however, there can be only modern writing. We have lost the ability to write with Gorky's certainty, or even to read him with certainty. Where Gorky saw a bridge, we see a chasm.

There was certainly a sense of the Promethean in Gorky's hopes for the Russian Revolution. Man would acquire for himself aspects of the gods and gradually replace them, in this way eliminating all suffering and chaos. Kafka himself retold the story of Prometheus, dividing it into four legends. In the first, Prometheus was chained to the Caucasus for betraying the gods to men, and eagles fed off his liver, which perpetually grew back; in the second, Prometheus pressed himself deeper and deeper into the rock to escape the beaks, and became one with the rock; in the third, the betrayal was forgotten by the gods, the eagles, and by Prometheus himself; in the fourth, the gods and the eagles became tired of the meaningless story, and the wound closed wearily. Finally, Kafka concluded, "there remained the inexplicable mountains of rock." So, too, in the story of Gorky, we are left with rock: the rock of the hero Sviatogor, the "sacred mountain"; the rock of Tolstoy stretching himself like a mountain range; the rock of Vesuvius, seen from the Sorrento villa; the rock of the White Sea Canal; the mysterious rock of the individual; and the sight of a mountain that makes us imagine moving it, being negated by it, recreating it.

Alexander Nemser has published poems in The New York Times and The Atlantic, and has a poem forthcoming in The Paris Review. He has just completed his studies at New College, Oxford.


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By Alexander Nemser