MAXIM GORKY'S CHILDHOOD.* IT is a very painful story that
M. Gorky has to tell. From the first chapter, which describes the death of his father and the break-up of the home, to the last, there is little but a record of suffering, unkindness, cruelty, and brutality. When his father died Maxim and his mother went to live with the latter's people in a household which " simply seethed with mutual hostility ; all the grown people were infected and even the children were inoculated with it." Here Maxim lived for some years " the drab existence of an unwelcome relation." Later his mother married again, but Maxim continued to live with his grandparents. His mother's marriage was unfortunate, and to unhappiness in both households was added poverty. Trouble followed trouble, till at last M. Gorky tells us :-
" I found myself at Sormova, in a house where everything was new ; the walls were bare and hemp grew out of the chinks between • the beams, and in the hemp were a lot of cockroaches. Mother and my stepfather lived in two rooms with windows looking on to the street and I lived with grandmother in the kitchen, which had one window looking out on the roof."
Want came so near to them that the boy began to earn a little money " in the holidays and early in the mornings," by going into the yards and streets, collecting bones, rags, paper, and nails, and selling them to the rag-merchants. Later, he adds, " a more profitable game than rag-picking was the theft of logs and planks from the timber-yards . . . A small house- owner would give ten kopecks for a good plank, and it was possible to steal two a day." On the death of his mother, Maxim's grandfather said to him : " Now, Lexei, you must not hang round my neck. There is no room for you here. You will have to go out into the world." " And so," adds M. Gorky, in his closing sentence, " I went out into the world."
But if the story is almost repulsive from its wretchedness, it is told with extraordinary power. With a few words M. Gorky can draw a portrait or sketch an incident so that it lives before the reader, and though the portrait is often unpleasant and the incident one of violence, the skill of the artist cannot be denied. Thus we read of his wicked old grandfather, who used to beat Maxim till he was in a state of unconsciousness, that he was " a short wizened man, dressed in black, with a red-gold beard,
a bird-like nose, and green eyes." His mother, we are told, " was always silent. Her large well-formed body, her grim face,
her heavy crown of plaited shining hair ; all about her was compact and solid, and she appeared to me as if she were
• My Childhood. By Maxim Gorky. London Werner Laurie. [10s. 6d. net.]
enveloped in a fog or a transparent cloud, out of which she looked unamiably with her grey eyes." Uncle Peter was " wizened, neat, and clean. His face was creased like a square of very fine leather, and his comical, lively eyes, with their yellow whites, danced amidst these wrinkles like siskins in a cage. His raven hair, now growing grey, was curly, his beard also fell into ringlets, and he smoked a pipe, the smoke from which—the same colour as his hair—curled upward into rings too." But the most striking personality, and the one around whom what tenderness there is in the story centres, is that of his wonderful and eccentric grandmother. When we first meet her M. Gorky thus describes
her:— "Grandmother, sitting near me, was combing her hair and mutter- ing something with knitted brow. She had an extraordinary amount of hair which fell over her shoulders and breast, to her knees, and even touched the floor. It was blue-black. Lifting it with difficulty, she introduced an almost toothless wooden comb into its thick strands. Her lips were twisted, her dark eyes sparkled freely, while her face, encircled in that mass of hair, looked comically small . . . When she smiled the pupils of her dark, luscious eyes dilated and beamed with an inexpressible charm and her strong white teeth gleamed cheerfully. Apart from her multitudinous wrinkles and her swarthy complexion, she had a youthful and brilliant appear. ance. What spoiled her was her bulbous nose, with its distended nostrils, and red lips, caused by her habit of taking pinches of snuff from her black snuff-box, mounted with silver, and by her fondness for drink."
She had an endless store of tales about angels and devils, goblins and witches, in the recital of which " she rocked from side to side all the time, just as if she were in a boat." M. Gorky further says of her that, " connecting all my impressions by a single thread, she wove them into a pattern of many colours, thus making herself my friend for life, the being nearest my heart, the dearest and best known of all." We may quote in full the following somewhat curious comment by M. Gorky at the close of the book :—
" As I remember these oppressive horrors of our wild Russian life, I ask myself often, whether it is worth while to speak of them. And then, with restored confidence, I answer myself : ' It is worth while because it is actual, vile fact, which has not died out, even in these days—a fact which must be traced to its origin, and pulled up by the root from the memories, the souls of the people, and from our narrow, sordid lives. And there is another and more important reason impelling me to describe these horrors. Although they are so disgusting, although they oppress us and crush many beautiful souls to death, yet the Russian is still so healthy and young in heart, that he can and does rise above them. For in this amazing life of ours, not only does the animal side of our nature flourish and grow fat, but with this animalism there has grown up, triumphant in spite of it, bright, healthful and creative—a type of humanity which inspires us to look forward to our regeneration, to the time when we shall all live peacefully and humanely."
The translation is by Mrs. Gertrude M. Foakes.