In 1895, Russian journalist Alexei Maximovich Peshkov, a onetime shoemaker’s apprentice who had quit school at 10, adopted a new name: Maxim Gorky.
After that, literary fame came fast and furious for this self-taught, fresh-voiced grandson of a Volga boatman. Gorky — the name means “bitter” — could tell a story, remember everything he read or heard, and had the energy of 10 men.
“Gorky learned literature on the run,” wrote Russian critic Boris Eikhenbaum, “and entered it with a boldness instilled by nature itself.”
Behind him too was an attractive crazy quilt of professions — ragman, baker, stevedore, housepainter, gardener, fisherman, cook’s assistant on a ship, revolutionary activist. It was all grist for the romance that Gorky, 27, was to write into his stories and plays — and into a vision of his own proletarian origins.
“He invented a name, and the name began to live a life of its own,” said Donald Fanger, Harvard’s Harry Levin Professor of Literature Emeritus. He’s the author of a new book on Gorky that he hopes will refocus attention on a literary figure largely forgotten outside Russia — whose fame 100 years ago was enough to land his image on cigarette packs and postcards and make him a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature.
Fanger is a longtime scholar of prominent 19th and 20th century novelists, personalities who still have literary resonance today.
Interest in Gorky came to him late in his scholarly life, said Fanger, who finds that Gorky’s true genius does not reside in the stories, novels, and plays that drew praise in his lifetime.
“By and large, he’s not the artist that Tolstoy was, or Chekhov was, or Gogol was, or Dostoevsky was, or Turgenev was,” said Fanger.
Gorky’s genius, he said, was as a memoirist, a writer of vivid sketches about the many literary and nonliterary figures he had known in his peripatetic life.
Chief among these glittering polished fragments are his “Reminiscences of Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy,” an artful montage of scenes and conversations on the great man’s favorite subjects — “God, the peasant, and woman.” It captures the author of “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina” as no other literary portrait had done, said Fanger.
It was published in 1919, almost a decade after Tolstoy’s death, and translated into English two years later. Critic Alfred Kazin called it “surely among the most beautiful things ever written by one human being on the character of another.”
Fanger’s “Gorky’s Tolstoy and Other Reminiscences” (Yale University Press, 2008) offers a new translation of the Tolstoy memoir, which has been out of print for three decades, and adds a rich historical and literary framework for the reader.
Tolstoy’s death in 1910 was “a blow to the heart” for Gorky, who pictured him “lying in his coffin like a smooth stone at the bottom of a brook. …”
“I remember his eyes — they saw through everything — and the movements of his fingers, which always seemed to be sculpting something from the air,” wrote the grieving Gorky, a master of physical detail and a lifelong student of faces, accents, and mannerisms.
The book eventually grew to be more than just a revival of the Tolstoy memoir, said Fanger, who agreed to an interview in his sunny, book-lined study at Widener Library. He translated and added four related memoirs by Gorky, including one about Chekhov.
“Chekhov lived his whole life expending the capital of his soul,” wrote Gorky of his bashful and modest friend, who died in 1904. “He was always himself, inwardly free.”
As Fanger’s conception of the book continued to evolve, he added and translated samples from Gorky’s “Fragments From My Diary” (1924) — “polished fragments,” Fanger wrote, that “constitute a new and hybrid literary genre — fragmentary, momentary, immediate in their effect.”
The definitive modern exploration of Gorky remains to be undertaken, said Fanger, now that long-suppressed documents are being published in Russia and formerly taboo aspects of his personal and public life are at last open to investigation.
“I have the ghostly outline of a much larger view of Gorky, which sees him as a figure absolutely unique in his time, and yet supremely representative of it,” said Fanger. “He hasn’t been written about much in English. Even as a scholarly subject, he is way behind most Russian writers.”
To round out his book, Fanger selected and translated sketches of Gorky himself, written by four of his literary contemporaries. The one by critic and literary historian Vladislav Khodasevich, Fanger noted, “is as brilliant and as personally revealing as Gorky’s own memoir of Tolstoy is — wonderful reading.”
Another is Eikhenbaum’s shrewd analysis of Gorky’s uniqueness as a Russian writer, written on the eve of Gorky’s return to the Soviet Union in 1928.
Gorky was more than a writer. He was, in his time, a political and social activist, and he became something approaching a national institution.
Visitors and petitioners formed a crush in any house Gorky occupied, particularly in the few years following the Revolution when jobs and food were scarce. Gorky, a longtime friend of Lenin’s, “saved an enormous number of artists and intellectuals from starvation in those years — over two thousand in Petrograd alone,” said Fanger. In a city without electricity, streetcars, or food, he saw to the distribution of food, clothing, medicines, and fuel.
Lenin and Gorky used each other for their own purposes; the same was true of Stalin and Gorky, but with less success for the writer. When he moved permanently back to Russia at the beginning of the 1930s, he was given a mansion in Moscow, two dachas, and — it is rumored — a bottomless expense account.
He was also celebrated relentlessly. His native city of Nizhnii Novgorod was renamed “Gorky” in his honor, along with “scores of schools and factories,” writes Fanger in the book’s introduction. Gorky’s name was also added to the Moscow Art Theatre, the Academy of Sciences Institute of World Literature, and Moscow’s main thoroughfare.
But fame came at a price. In his last years, Gorky complained of virtual “house arrest” by Stalin, who had by 1935 gotten everything he wanted from the great writer.
It is still not clear how much Gorky understood his own situation, or the situation of his country, at that point. “He had an enormous gift for believing what he wanted to believe,” said Fanger, “and for not seeing what he didn’t want to see.”
He tended to spoil his fiction by framing it in a didactic way, but the memoirs are different, said Fanger. They avoid Gorky’s lifelong devotion to “the ‘truth’ that he believed could and should exist, the inspiriting ‘truth’ that makes you want to go and change the world.”
Gorky’s memoirs also tell us a great deal about the memoirist himself, said Fanger. “This amazing invented thing that goes by the name of Maxim Gorky may turn out to be his greatest, and most lasting, creation.”