Gorky's Tolstoy and Other Reminiscences: Key Writings by and about Maxim Gorky

Gorky's Tolstoy and Other Reminiscences: Key Writings by and about Maxim Gorky

by Maxim Gorky, Donald Fanger, Maksim Gorky

Maxim Gorky (1868-1936) enjoyed worldwide fame of a kind unmatched by that of any other writer in the first half of the twentieth century. Prodigiously gifted and prolific, riddled with contradictions, praised increasingly for political rather than literary reasons, he left a vast body of writing that contains acknowledged masterpieces alongside many currently

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Maxim Gorky (1868-1936) enjoyed worldwide fame of a kind unmatched by that of any other writer in the first half of the twentieth century. Prodigiously gifted and prolific, riddled with contradictions, praised increasingly for political rather than literary reasons, he left a vast body of writing that contains acknowledged masterpieces alongside many currently neglected works that still await impartial assessment.

Taken together, the pieces in this book (many of them based on fuller texts than those of previously published translations) present a surprising and unfamiliar Gorky—a figure who, once the clichés are stripped away from him, becomes ever more fascinating and enigmatic as man, as writer, and as historical figure. Among the volume’s selections are portraits of Gorky by four particularly astute observers: poet Vladislav Khodasevich, critics Boris Eikhenbaum and Georgy Adamovich, and novelist Evgeny Zamiatin.

Fanger’s generous annotations and brilliant introduction will make this book indispensable to every reader with an interest in Tolstoy, Gorky, modern Russian literature and politics, or the art of the memoir.

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Editorial Reviews

Hugh McLean
“Fanger’s Introduction is splendid, judicious, stimulating, and elegantly written. He explores and illuminates the many dark corners in the troubling and even tragic life of the extraordinary Gorky, so acute an observer, yet often so blind.”—­Hugh McLean, University of California at Berkeley
Caryl Emerson
“Was Gorky a dissident, a witness, a martyr, a collaborator, simply a survivor? His biography and reputation were badly in need of a new synoptic look, and Donald Fanger has crafted a fascinating multi-dimensional portrait of him, both as subject and object.”—Caryl Emerson, Princeton University
David Lodge
"This book is a treasure chest of brilliantly told and revealing anecdotes, about not only major writers like Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Gorky himself, but also fascinating lesser-known Russian writers, and a host of unforgettable characters—idealistic, desperate, grotesque, mad—from all levels of Russian life, whom Gorky recalled with extraordinary vividness and stylistic precision. It is an album of verbal snapshots which give the non-specialist reader like myself a real sense of what Russian society—not just literary life—was like during one of the most volatile periods of its history. Donald Fanger’s English translation is so wonderfully readable that it is hard to believe these pieces could be any more effective in the original Russian."—David Lodge, novelist, critic and Emeritus Professor of English Literature at the University of Birmingham, England
New Republic - Alexander Nemser
"[Gorky's] memoir of Tolstoy . . . 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."—Alexander Nemser, New Republic

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Yale University Press
Publication date:
Russian Literature and Thought Series
Product dimensions:
6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.00(d)

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Gorky's Tolstoy & Other Reminiscences

By Maxim Gorky

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2008 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11166-8

Chapter One

Lev Tolstoy

Since their first publication in 1919, Gorky's reminiscences of Tolstoy have attracted superlatives. In a letter to the author, the critic Kornei Chukovsky praised them as "the fairest and truest of all the things that have been written about [Tolstoy]," adding parenthetically: "And I have now read a whole bookcase full." The great theoretician and historian of Russian literature Boris Eikhenbaum-himself a brilliant analyst of Tolstoy's writings-concurred, stressing the importance of Gorky's integral image of Tolstoy, his rejection of the common tendency to approach Tolstoy in Tolstoy's own terms (the pre-crisis artist, the post-crisis saint). His conclusion: "Gorky liberates Tolstoy from 'Tolstoyanism' and makes him a truly powerful, gigantic, terrifyingly Russian figure." Yet another leading Russian scholar, Lidia Ginzburg, points to new grounds for appreciation when she finds Gorky's reminiscences of Tolstoy to be "among the best things Gorky ever wrote," as well as "the best thing ever written about Tolstoy as an individual."

To all these emphases Alfred Kazin adds still other, more universal ones, ranking Gorky's reminiscences as "surely among the most beautiful things ever written byone human being on the character of another," and calling attention to the double portraiture that provides so much of the force and tension of the work: "A masterpiece, set down in scattered notes that Gorky himself evidently did not mind losing at one time, so much had he revealed of himself in grappling with the fascinating mystery that was Tolstoy."

They were, unquestionably, the two most famous writers in Russia when they met for the first time in Moscow in January 1900. Tolstoy was seventy-two, Gorky thirty-two, and what Isaiah Berlin says of Tolstoy at thirty-two-that, though famous by then as a writer, he gave the impression of having "wandered [into literature] from another, less intellectual ... and more primitive world"-could with equal justice be said of Gorky at the same age. The previous year Chekhov had reported to Gorky in a letter that Tolstoy had praised him as "a remarkable writer." "You pique his curiosity," Chekhov explained, pointing to what would remain Tolstoy's dominant attitude toward his young colleague.

A few days after that first meeting, Tolstoy wrote in his diary: "Must note: Gorky was here. A very good talk. And I liked him. A real man of the people." As for Gorky, the detailed account he sent Chekhov in a letter of January 22, 1900, contains so many of the themes and perspectives that were to go into his memoir-their sincerity signaled inter alia by the awkward phrasing, the superabundance of intensifying adverbs, and the unresolved contradictions-as to warrant extended citation:

Well, I've been to visit Lev Nikolayevich. That was eight days ago and I still can't sort out my impressions. I was struck first of all by his looks: I had pictured him differently-taller, broader-framed. But he turned out to be a little old man and for some reason reminded me of the tales about that eccentric genius Suvorov. But when he started speaking I listened in amazement. Everything he said was astonishingly simple, profound, and, though sometimes I thought it completely untrue, terribly good. The main thing is that it was utterly simple. All the same, he is, when all is said and done, a whole orchestra, though one where not all the trumpets play in harmony. And that too is a very good thing, because it's very human-that is, characteristic of man in general. When you come right down to it, it's awfully stupid to call a man a genius. It's utterly incomprehensible-what is a genius? It's much simpler and clearer just to say "Lev Tolstoy"-that's both concise and utterly original, i.e., it's absolutely unlike anything else and is, moreover, somehow forceful, particularly forceful. To see Lev Nikolayevich is very important and useful, although I by no means consider him a miracle of nature. You look at him and it's terribly pleasant to feel that you are also a man, to realize that it's possible for a man to be a Lev Tolstoy. Do you understand?-you feel good for man in general. He treated me very well, but that, it goes without saying, is unimportant. What he said about my stories is also unimportant, but all of it, taken together, is somehow important-everything that was said, the way he said it, the way he sat, the way he looked at you. It was all very much of a piece, and it had a powerful beauty. I had never really believed he was an atheist, though I felt it, but now, having heard the way he speaks about Christ and having seen his eyes-too clever for a believer-I know that he is indeed an atheist, and a profound one. Don't you think so?

Tolstoy, in his first letter to Gorky (February 1900), tells him:

I am very, very glad to have gotten to know you, and glad to find myself fond of you. Aksakov used to say that some people are better (he said wiser) than their books, and others worse. I liked your writing but I found you better than your writing. So there's my compliment to you; its main virtue is in its sincerity.

There are indications that Gorky visited Tolstoy in Moscow in February or March, and at his estate at Yasnaya Polyana in the fall.

In April 1901 Gorky was arrested for revolutionary agitation among the students and shipyard workers in Nizhnii Novgorod. Tolstoy's intercession with the authorities led to his being released from jail and placed under house arrest-with the possibility, six months later, of visiting the Crimea for reasons of health. It was there, from mid-November of 1901 into April of 1902, that the meetings described in Gorky's memoir took place. Tolstoy was staying at Gaspra, the estate of Countess Panina; Gorky had settled in Oleiz, a scant mile away. They met frequently in these months, but never afterward.

In November 1910, when the first announcement of Tolstoy's death reached Gorky, he described his reactions in a series of letters:

I howled, overwhelmed with despair, and wept the whole day-never before so agonizingly, so inconsolably, so much.... Now I wait tensely for news from Russia about him, the soul of our nation, the genius of our people. There is a great deal in that soul that I find alien and downright inimical, but I had not realized how deeply and avidly I loved the man Tolstoy! I am outraged by the attempts that have already begun to make a "legend" out of him and found a "religion" on it-a religion of that fatalism which is so disastrous for us Russians, given how passive we are to begin with.

I howl shamelessly and uncontrollably as soon as I imagine him lying with his face to the sky, his hands folded on his chest, and those Mongolian cheekbones that will no longer frame his wide and wise smile ... I feel myself an orphan ... Our national genius is gone from our life.

The report that Gorky was reacting to proved premature; Tolstoy in fact died a few days later, prompting the unfinished letter that was to become the second part of Gorky's memoir nine years later.

Gorky is right when he declares in his memoir that Tolstoy's interest in him was primarily "ethnographic." He was the object of the great man's curiosity more than of his affection; a certain (inconstant) benevolence, together with respect for Gorky's experience and talent, seems to have been the best that Tolstoy could muster in the way of feeling for him. The worst was condescension, and Tolstoy was not above a certain feline toying with him; neither attitude was consistent, but either or both might erupt suddenly at any time. Gorky for his part was more consistent, evincing a "respect that transcended resentment and went out in love and awe to the great writer, seeking the meaning of his human strangeness." Personal feelings aside, each took a strongly negative view of the other's beliefs. On November 23, 1909, just a year before his death, Tolstoy wrote in his diary:

Read about Gorky after dinner. And, strange to say, a negative feeling towards him with which I am struggling. I justify myself with the fact that he is, like Nietzsche, a harmful writer: a major gift and the absence of any religious convictions at all-i.e., any concern with the significance of life-and together with that a cocksureness, supported by our "educated world," which sees him as its spokesman, that further infects that world.

Gorky reciprocated by angrily rejecting Tolstoy's religiosity, his pacifism, and his political positions. When each regarded the other in relation to what he thought Russia needed, each found much not simply to reject but to deplore.

Both, that is to say, nourished utopian visions.

The utopian tendency was only one of the things they had in common. Both suffered from a radical aloneness, and both fought a core nihilism; Gorky was simultaneously observing and projecting when he emphasized the latter in Tolstoy. Both were anarchists by temperament and instinct. And both, easily moved to tears, were (as Gorky writes of Tolstoy) "fundamentally, in the depth[s] of [their] soul[s], indifferent to people." The play of these primal affinities and repulsions, by turns subliminal and overt, is one of the things that give Gorky's account much of its crackling energy and visceral power.

Another, of course, is the form.

Gorky approached it tentatively, and with difficulty. He began, toward the end of 1917, to tell and re-tell acquaintances about his meetings with Tolstoy. These oral presentations, praised for their vividness by many who heard them, amounted to drafts of the eventual memoir, in which Gorky would vary emphases, adding new details and eliminating others. One scholar who heard him do so recalls one such account:

In the telling Gorky was repeatedly moved to tears, which he would hasten to wipe away as unobtrusively as he could ... When he had finished, we were all silent for a while; at length I, a starched and buttoned-up young man at the time, couldn't help exclaiming: "Alexei Maximovich, that was so interesting! Why don't you write it down?" "I've tried to do it several times," Gorky replied, "but it didn't work out."

In fact, he had made extensive notes on little scraps of paper after each of his meetings with Tolstoy, thrown them into a drawer-and then lost them for a long time. He had been rehearsing his oral accounts for over a year when a trove of these notes was rediscovered (though some-it is not clear how many-proved lost forever). "He wanted to polish them," according to a colleague, "but one time he brought them to the publisher, threw them on the table, and said, 'I can't do anything with them. Let them remain as they are.'" Viktor Shklovsky, however, found "the story about Lev Tolstoy as a thing made up of various scraps of paper, lost and found," though literally true, to be misleading: "The book is composed of bits and pieces, firmly joined together. I have had occasion to see the manuscript and I know how many times those pieces were rearranged in order to achieve that solidity." It was, in other words, a hybrid thing. Shklovsky calls it "an original montage of artistic reminiscences," and explains: "In a different time all these observations would have served only as material for a coherent work; they would have appeared in it transformed. But here they are printed, so to speak, naked. This is a writer's notebook, but one presented-and legitimately-as a finished work of art." Gorky had hit on a way to formalize the work while retaining the immediacy of the notes that constituted it, along with their open-endedness.

The result is a kind of sustained poem in prose, built, as all poetry is, on uncommented juxtaposition, on recurrent (and often clashing) patterns of motif (the "little old" protagonist, "thin," "gray," and ordinary, and the "exceptional" man, the "great artist," "sage," "wizard," "sorcerer," "trickster," and "god"), the whole studded with metaphors and suffused with intense feeling, both shown and implied. It also displays patterns of relationship among the centrally recurring characters-Tolstoy, Gorky, Chekhov, and Sulerzhitsky-which not only bring them to richer life in the documentary sense, but allow a reader to experience the whole as a kind of short novel in embryo. This double effect is enhanced when one reads Gorky's companion memoirs of Chekhov and Sulerzhitsky (translated below) alongside the central document. They are the characters, together with Gorky himself, who bring Tolstoy out of that aloneness which Gorky sees as his deepest trait. (Tolstoy's diary contains ample confirmation of the memoirist's intuition; for example, "Among all these people I am alone, utterly lonely and alone. And the awareness of this loneliness and the need to associate with all these people and the impossibility of doing so are enough to drive me out of my mind.")

And then there is the matter of Gorky's extraordinary self-revelation in this remarkable document-but that is a matter best left for each reader to grasp and construe for him- or herself.

M. Gorky: "Lev Tolstoy"

This little book has been assembled from the fragmentary notes I made when I was living in Oleiz and Lev Nikolayevich [Tolstoy] was staying in Gaspra, at first seriously ill and then recuperating from his illness. I thought these notes, casually jotted down on different scraps of paper, had been lost, but recently I found a number of them. I have appended an unfinished letter written in response to the news of Lev Nikolayevich's "flight" from Yasnaya Polyana and subsequent death. I print the letter just as I wrote it at the time; not a word has been changed. Nor have I tried to finish it; there are reasons which make that quite impossible. -M. Gorky



The thought that clearly and most constantly gnaws at his heart is the thought of God. Sometimes it seems to be not even a thought, but rather an intense resistance to something he feels to be stronger than himself. He speaks of it less than he would like to, but it is always on his mind. This is hardly a sign of age, or a presentiment of death. No, I think it comes from simple human pride. Also a little from resentment, because, being Lev Tolstoy, he finds it insulting to have to subordinate his will to some streptococcus. If he were a scientist he would, of course, construct hypotheses of genius and make great discoveries.


He has amazing hands-ugly, knotted with swollen veins, and yet full of special expressiveness and creative force. Leonardo da Vinci probably had hands like that. Hands like that can do anything. Sometimes when he is talking he moves his fingers, gradually contracting them into a fist which he will fling open just as he comes out with some well-chosen and weighty word. He is like a god, not Sabaoth or any of the Olympians, but some Russian god who "sits on a throne of maple under a golden lime tree"-perhaps not very majestic, but quite possibly more cunning than all the other gods.


He treats Sulerzhitsky with the tenderness of a woman. Chekhov he loves like a father-you feel the pride of a creator in this love-but what Suler evokes in him is simply tenderness, together with an interest and delight of which the old wizard seems never to tire. There may be something faintly ridiculous in this feeling, like an old maid's love for her parrot or lapdog or tomcat. Suler is like a wonderfully free bird that has flown in from some strange foreign land. A hundred people like him could change the face and soul of any provincial city-the face would get smashed but the soul would be filled with a passion for wild things and brilliant mischief. To love Suler is easy-there is a certain gaiety involved-and when I see how the women slight him it astonishes and infuriates me. All the same, it may be that their offhandedness is a cover for wariness. Suler is unreliable. There is no telling what he'll do tomorrow-maybe throw a bomb, or maybe join a tavern choir. He has enough energy in him for three lifetimes. He has so much of the fire of life that he seems to sweat sparks, like overheated iron.

But once he got seriously angry with Suler. Leopold, with his inclination to anarchism, liked to hold forth about the freedom of the individual; he did this often, and when he did L. N. always made fun of him. I remember that Suler once got hold of a little brochure by Prince Kropotkin that fired him up so much he spent the whole day telling everyone about the wisdom of anarchism and pontificating unbearably.


Excerpted from Gorky's Tolstoy & Other Reminiscences by Maxim Gorky Copyright © 2008 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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