Russian Reading Update: Trying to enjoy Gorky’s Social Realism

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Gorky’s name comes up time and time again when you’re looking at Russian literature of this era. He was in with Stalin and is credited with promoting and saving countless writers during the first decades of Soviet rule. This is, of course, great, but it does make me concerned when someone is more famous for the writers they helped than for their own prose.

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‘Mother’ was pretty much as expected. It’s a serviceable, if somewhat heavy-handed novel depicting the nobility of the revolutionaries. Unlike Chernyshevsky’s Rakhmetov, these men and women are practical freedom fighters, distributing leaflets and constantly in and out of prison. Also, unlike Rakhmetov, they work together forming a supportive, friendly community in which everyone loves, respects and looks out for everyone else. The most single-minded of the group, Pavel, is the Christ-like revolutionary son; he inspires all around him, including his mother, Vlasova, who is slowly but surely converted to his cause.

I found this a difficult book to sympathise with. For a start, either the writing, or the translation, failed to engross me to the extent that I was able to ignore my issues with the content. Secondly, I do genuinely have issues with the content. This is the fault of my historical research. When you know even a little about the atrocities of the Revolution it is quite hard to be uncritical of the dogmatic views promoted in the novel. Gorky has set himself a difficult task, needing to show love for the people while promoting hatred of oppressors, but he’s unflinching in tackling this dichotomy: ‘None of them are human beings; they are used to stun the people and render them insensible. They are tools, the means wherewith our kind is rendered more convenient to the state. They themselves have already been so fixed that they have become convenient instruments in the hand that governs us. They can do whatever they are told to do without thought…’

 The characters all talk like this and the only ones given any speaking time all think like this too. That’s not to say there aren’t points of interest. I did like the way that the novel starts in a factory, supporting Orlando Fige’s point that the Russian socialists had real trouble with the fact that Russia wasn’t industrial enough to actually fit in with Marx’s theories. This is also the first book I’ve read to depict the hardship of workers’ lives in a factory town, and it does this well, though no better than other descriptions of the life of the Russian working classes in this period. It’s also interesting that many of the revolutionaries are middle-class intellectuals who have disowned their ‘oppressor’ parents. Showing how far things have moved since Turgenev’s ‘Fathers and Sons’, Gorky’s old mother becomes evangelical about the role of the young: ‘Our children are going, our blood is going for the truth; with honesty in their hearts they open the gates of the new road – a straight, wide road for all. For all of you, for the sake of your young ones, they have devoted themselves to the sacred cause. They seek the sun of new days that shall always be bright. They want another life, the life of truth and justice, of goodness for all.’

I know that Gorky wrote more than one novel, but this appears to be his most famous and I didn’t love it. I want to move on to other authors, the ones he protected and the ones who ran more risks with their novels. Gorky was a hugely important literary figure, but this was for much more than his own writings and so it’s time to leave his novels and move onto his incredibly legacy. Coming up: Bely, Zamyatin and Babel.

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19 Responses to Russian Reading Update: Trying to enjoy Gorky’s Social Realism

  1. cocoaugustina says:

    “Serviceable” is a great way to describe Gorky’s work. I think you make an excellent point in noting that we need to be cautious of a writer famous for saving other writers but could not save this own writing. Let’s hope Bely, Zamyatin, and Babel are less boring!

  2. roughghosts says:

    Reading your review makes me think of a show of Soviet propaganda artwork from the same era. You wouldn’t have wanted any of it in your living room!

    • I do have a fondness of the realist art works, though, you’re right, I’ve never thought of them as home decoration. Maybe Gorky is a bit to big, bold and shouty for a quiet September read…

  3. Violet says:

    Ouch. I think you’re selling Gorky a bit short. 🙂 He was a towering figure in Russian literature and far from being ‘in’ with Stalin, may actually have been poisoned on Stalin’s instructions, a few years after being brought back from exile. For Stalin, I think it was a case of ‘keeping your enemies close’ when he allowed Gorky to return to Russia.

    Gorky was a Revolutionary, so it stands to reason that “Mother” is full of Revolutionary rhetoric. He was one of the first writers to ‘tell it like it is’, and although his world might be hard to relate to from a modern-day perspective, his writing was extremely illuminating in its day. I like that women feature so heavily in the book, and I think that by giving us a glimpse of what life was like for the proletariat in Tsarist Russia, Gorky shows us why the revolution needed to occur. The ruling class would never have given up power voluntarily, and the people, especially women, could not continue to live in such abject misery and poverty.

    I’m sorry you didn’t like the book. I hope you give Gorky another chance. I might be a bit of Gorky fan, as you can tell. 🙂

    • Very well argued, Violet. And thank you for the added detail – I’d hate to give the impression that Soviet life was easy for Gorky, or that being close to Stalin was a safe spot!

      I don’t question Gorky’s motives, and I think his descriptions of urban squalor are powerful. For me though, they still lacked some of the punch (if that’s the right word) of Chekhov’s ‘Pesasants’. I can’t deny that he follows in Chernyshevsky’s footsteps in gender equality, but then I didn’t think much of C’s writing so it’s not the best comparison.

      Overall, I realise that it’s unfair to judge Gorky one a single book in (probably) not the best translation. I would have given him more time, only I’m just too impatient to get to the others. He’s not going anywhere though and hopefully the perfect translation is just around the corner. Then I’ll have another Russian writer to love!

  4. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I think you may be right in your assessment of his importance as a facilitator rather than a writer. I read his Life of a Useless Man a while back and thought it good but not outstanding. Maybe I need to revisit to re-evaluate.

  5. BookerTalk says:

    This is one of the big names in literature I’ve not explored. It’s sheer cowardice. Reading your assessment I’m now even less sure I want to give him a go – or at least not any day soon.

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