When his young father dies of cholera, and his mother Varvara has a miscarriage, no doubt triggered by grief, five-year-old Alexei is taken back to her family home: “Angry people rushed about in all directions like passengers about to disembark from a ship, ragged children swarmed all over the place like thieving sparrows, and the whole house was filled with a strange pungent smell”. This is his introduction to the house-cum-dyeworks presided over by his grandfather, a self-made man who flogs him for minor acts of mischief, sometimes to the point of losing consciousness, through a mixture of sadism and the genuine twisted belief that it will “do him good”. Recognising his intelligence, Grandfather also teaches him to read, tells him stories, works with him companionably in the garden, yet ultimately casts him out to make his way in a harsh world when he is still a child.
By contrast, his peasant grandmother, despite showing great presence of mind in a crisis, for the most part escapes harsh reality through a mixture of snuff, vodka, veneration of bejewelled icons and folk tales which stimulate his vivid imagination, also showing him the affection he needs for emotional support.
This account of Gorky’s childhood is so bleak in some respects that I could usually only manage to read a chapter at a time. Yet I also found it compelling in his ability to capture how an observant, inquisitive child, with a rudimentary sense of justice presumably gained from his kindly father, continuously tries to make sense of the world. Often, we cannot quite grasp what is going on because he cannot do so. Only gradually does he piece together the grim backstory of the dysfunctional Kashirin family.
Yet in the midst of a childhood often made tedious and unhappy, either by poverty or the oppression of adults who have themselves been warped by hardship or a lack of love, Gorky manages to show us the moments of unexpected beauty in a grim existence: “watching the black crows circling and wheeling in the red evening sky round the golden cupolas of the Church…diving down to earth and draping the fading sky with a black net”. There is also “the new kind of life, entertaining beyond description” which comes alive in the kitchen when Grandfather has gone to the Sunday evening service: races on the table between cockroaches harnessed to paper runners, followed by the “uninhibited but strange gaiety” of the songs and dancing contrasting with guitar laments, all fuelled by vodka as the samovar “softly hummed.”
We see a future writer’s continual fascination in the variety of people he meets – the long-suffering workers who slave for Grandfather; the motley crew of lodgers in the “large, interesting house” over a tavern which the old man buys when he retires; when poverty strikes, the wily band of urchins whom Alexei eventually joins in stealing wood – “wasn’t considered a sin”, to help their families. Most of these characters are a complex mix of good and bad. The few who seem completely beyond the pale belong to his mother’s family the Kashirins, namely the two warring uncles, Mikhail and Yakov, each desperate to get one over the other in extracting enough money from Grandfather to set up an independent dyeworks, but too incompetent to succeed.
“When I try to recall those vile abominations of that barbarous life in Russia, at times I find myself asking the question: is it worth while recording them” He answers for himself in the affirmative. Firstly, it is necessary to understand and face up to the truth, in order to be able to erase it in the future. Secondly, he is confident that life will always surprise us by the creative human powers of goodness that are for ever forcing their way up through “the bestial refuse”, awakening our “indestructible faith” in a better and more humane future.
This may appear over-optimistic and undermined by the lack of corruption and democracy still all to evident in Russia as I write this. Ironically, having been proclaimed the father of Soviet Literature, Gorky died in 1936 from poisoning at the instigation of his political enemies, unlike the modern dissident Navalny who survived Novichok poisoning.