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.
‘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.