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Sunday, 10 February 2013





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Assessing Gorky’s observations of Tolstoy

Biographies and autobiographies are a much sought after genre of books when the subject is one who has been highly acclaimed, and reading them can be valued by the reader for reasons as diverse as inspiration to gaining insightful knowledge to possible ‘gossip value’. Biographies can either be written during the lifetime of the person portrayed, or posthumously. Autobiographies while sometimes written by the own hand of the author can also be ‘ghostwritten’ and also dictated to another for transcription.

A Soviet publication

Among my reading during the past few years a rather remarkable piece of non-fiction writing which I came across was in a book named His Nameless Love: Portraits of Russian Writers.

The book is a publication from the soviet era dating to 1974, and had been published by Progress Publishers, in Moscow. A publishing label widely known in Sri Lanka for the role it played in disseminating around the world Soviet and also pre-Soviet literature, during the existence of the USSR.

The piece in question is by the renown Soviet writer Maxim Gorky who spearheaded the genre ‘Socialist Realism’ which was in certain respects a medium to further the political vision and doctrine of the Soviets through the art of fiction writing, which thereby can be contended to have been a form of propaganda art or literature.

Titled as Lev Tolstoi, the piece by Gorky is accredited as a translation to English by Ivy Litvinov. While it clearly isn’t an autobiography it doesn’t purport to be a biography in the standard sense of the term to the length that it captures the full extent of the life and work of the subject.

It is as the author, Gorky, clearly states at the outset, a series of ‘random notes’ and the author provides a sort of brief introduction to the reader on how to approach the writing.

Gorky’s introduction

Gorky’s note to the reader is as follows –“This book is composed of random notes made by me when living in Oleiz, Lev Tolstoi then being in Gaspra, at first seriously ill, later recuperating from his illness.

I considered these notes, jotted down carelessly on all sorts of scraps of paper, as lost, but lately discovered some of them.

Lev Tolstoi

I have included also an unfinished letter written by me under the impression of Tolstoi’s “departure” from Yasnaya Polyana, and his death. I give the letter exactly as it was written, without altering a word. And I have not finished it, for I cannot.”

Thus the author sets the premise on which his work stands and how best a reader should approach its contents.

It is a literary sketch or a series of literary sketches one could say, written in an essayistic form, with an impressionistic flair that captures the author’s sentimental threads when documenting his experiences with a figure who in the world of literature became a colossus during his lifetime, the great Lev Tosltoi whom we would better know as Leo Tolstoy. The writings of Gorky which have the form of journal entries, can be viewed as being biographical documentation of the life of Tolstoy not in the manner of chapters or sections of a biography which is set out with the intention of narrating to the reader chronologically the life and experiences of the subject, but as glimpses at the life of Tolstoy as it was lived during a given, specific period of the life of the great novelist.

It is in some sense a documented snapshot discursive of the author of War and Peace as captured by the subjective experience of another novelist, within a very specific time period.

The essayistic piece doesn’t, however, limit itself in terms of the limited time span it covers of the great author’s life regarding insight into his life by narrating only the actions that were observed by Gorky.

One rather remarkable element of impressionism that Gorky brings out in his writing about the great novelist he is in awe over, is that the more classical imagery and sentiments that deal with what is not starkly socialist in ‘ideological imagery’, gives voice to what the father of ‘Socialist Realism’ was captured by, when making imagery about the great writer Tolstoy.

An image of awe

The figure that was Tolstoy quite notably had evoked a sense of awe in Gorky that made him undeniably humbled. It is possible that Gorky felt he was in the presence of a repository reflecting the grandness of what is the old and classically Russian ethos that enriched the literature and art of tsarist times.

In his second ‘entry’ or ‘sketch’ Gorky says the following about Tolstoy –“His hands are marvellously –ugly, disfigured by swollen veins, and yet extraordinarily expressive, full of creative force. Probably Leonardo da Vinci had hands like that. Anything could be done by such hands. Sometimes, when talking, he moves his fingers, gradually flexing and suddenly unflexing them, while uttering some splendid weighty word. He is like a god, not a Sabaoth or a god from Olympus, but like some Russian god, “seated on a throne of maple wood, beneath a golden lime tree”, and though he may not be very majestic, perhaps he is more cunning than all the other gods.”

The impressions that the sight of the great Russian novelist’s hands triggered in the mind of Gorky thus invoked images that relate to a schema of fable and myth as well as contemplations about other colossal figures who found a place in world history as artists. The reference to da Vinci and the speculative comparison made by the writer shows how Gorky envisioned the status of one such as Tolstoy in being placed in the annals of world history.

There is no doubt that the experience of being in conversation with, being in the company of a man such as Leo Tolstoy had a profound impact on a writer such as Gorky who was much younger not only in years but also at the time, in his foundations as a writer. To Gorky it was surely a learning experience that was without comparison.

Giving ‘freedom’ imagery

The subjects they discuss in random, include, the fine arts, philosophy, religion and also intellectualism. On the subject of ‘Freedom’, not as a mere political tag or a conception but a broadly philosophical argument, Gorky says, by producing the words of Tolstoy, that the great man thought the ultimate sense of the word takes the nature of a void, a vacuum, a formless space.

What can be deduced as a fascinating argument, on account of how Gorky in that entry through the words of Tolstoy indicates that the great novelist was acquainted with the life of the Buddha, is that Tolstoy’s own conception of freedom may in a certain sense be likened to what is conceived as the Buddhist belief of nibbana or nirvana, which is non-becoming; the ending of the cycle of birth death and rebirth. The final idea behind the conception, the perception of what ‘Freedom’ would mean in its philosophical sense to Tolstoy is presented by Gorky in the words of the great man himself –“Freedom –that would mean that everything and everyone agree with me, but then I would no longer exist, for we are only conscious of ourselves in conflict and opposition.”

It is interesting to note how Tolstoy builds his conception of how the self, a person, gains self awareness of being an existent through what is met in opposition or confrontation. Man, perhaps, best defines himself through adversity, through conflict and friction, as unsavoury as it may sound, to many. And from the above words produced by Gorky quoting the words of Tolstoy one could say that the great novelist was getting to one of the core issues that affect mankind –‘freedom’, and how it would be read in the context of what it renders in its meaning to the larger question of what is means to be human.

A notable authorial interpretation to the reader on the author’s take on the subjects that Tolstoy discusses is found in a footnote given to entry number 6 of the work, where Gorky, being the communist that he was and thus a disbeliever in religion and spirituality, says to the reader –“To avoid misinterpretation I would state that I regard religious writings as purely literary; the lives of Buddha, Christ, Mohomed, as imaginative fiction.”

The significance of author interventions

By the above ‘intervention’ the author has clearly marked the lines on which the interpretation of the notes made by Gorky about Tolstoy should be read, and thereby protecting the integrity of the author’s own beliefs for fear of being misinterpreted, that to produce the words of someone else in documentation is to imply that all that is recorded is compatible to the author’s own beliefs! These are elements and angles that could be valuable food for thought to biographers and documenters in general.

Gorky shows his integrity as a documenter by not omitting that which is objectionable to his personal ideological beliefs and politics and thereby giving an account of only what is politically acceptable to him as opposed to doing justice to the subject, the interviewee. And what is noteworthy is that Gorky has also at the same time shown the limits of his liberal thinking to dismiss that which is politically not in line with his beliefs to be untrue –as the lives of great religious figures. The borders of his liberal thinking marks the territory of his communist mind, one may say.

Entry number 12 by Gorky gives a solemn account of how the author in his contemplations about the subject of his writings assesses what Tolstoy, towards the twilight of his life, could possibly have ‘culminated in’ as a man who had achieved much intellectuality in his life and grew in his understanding of man and the world. For the benefit of the reader I have produced the entry in its entirety as follows –“His illness has dried him up, has burned up something within him, and he seems to have become lighter, more transparent, more adapted to life, inwardly.

His eyes have become keener, his glance more penetrating. He listens attentively and seems to be remembering something long forgotten, or waiting confidently for something new, hitherto unknown. At Yasnaya Polyana he had appeared to me like a man who knew all there was to know, who had found answers to all his questions.”

There is something almost of a mystic’s quality that Gorky seems to attribute Tolstoy as he gradually sees the growing silence of the great man who becomes deeper entrenched in his own thoughts and that in his growing age there is possibly a wisdom that dawns which is meant for self realisation more than being churned to revelation for others. I wonder if Gorky was secretly not only in awe of what he observed in the ageing Tolstoy but also in envy of what he may have felt was beyond his reach and grasp of understanding.

Beliefs about the divine

Amongst the perplexities Gorky is met with in Tolstoy whom he is not only distanced by age but also the reality of class and background, is how Tolstoy opens himself up to try to understand God, or the higher power, that which is not material but spiritual or divine.

On this matter citing in several notes/entries how the subject of God is broached by Tolstoy, Gorky says the great man seems at times troubled by how he is divided in the belief in the existence of God. The author states in entry 17 the following on the matter –“His relations with God are indefinite, sometimes they remind me of “two bears in one lair.” ”.

The similes and metaphors Gorky devises in the course of his series of entries demonstrate the literary and artistic prowess of the socialist writer that embellishes the documentary account he writes. An analogy on the lines of conjuring images of animals and nature is found in entry 13, which states –“If he were a fish his home would certainly be the ocean, he would never swim in inland seas, still less in rivers.”

Readings and critical feedback

The opportunity to be in constant company with a writer of the stature of Tolstoy had given the chance for Gorky to get critical feedback, responses about his writings, which given the fledgling that the author would be, compared to Tolstoy, would no doubt have possibly given the young writer much insight about not only the craft of writing but also how the foundations of a writer from a more philosophical standpoint, ought to develop. In entry 16 the author says he read his story “The Bull” to Tolstoy and gives an account of the critical feedback which had been after a great deal of laughing. Tolstoy in that account by Gorky is said to have commended the young writer for knowing the “tricks of the language”. After giving also some critical remarks the entry ends with Tolstoy’s words, advice to Gorky –“Don’t give in to anyone, don’t be afraid of anyone –then you’ll be all right...”

A meeting of ideologies

On the subject of ‘Science’ Gorky produces the following short entry numbered as 18, which is presented as a citation of Tolstoy’s own words, possibly part of a larger dialogue – “Science is a gold ingot concocted by a charlatan-alchemist. You want to simplify it, to make it comprehensible to everyone –in other words, to coin any amount of false money. When the people realise the true value of this money they will not thank you for it.”

The above entry possibly may be seen as an insight into what sort of ideological basis Tolstoy would have held in comparison to his young visitor Gorky.

Gorky being a communist and presumably a strong adherent of ‘scientific materialism’ one of the building blocks of Marxist philosophy, would have prized science as the ultimate means to ascertain truth and being indisputable as the fundamental premise on which fact could be distinguished from fiction.

Perhaps what seems like a possible extract or part documentation of a larger conversation, which understandably Gorky may not have in all truth been able to write down, was an unrecorded point where the respective perceptions of the two writers may have met and found disputation.

The outlook about Gorky

It is fascinating that way, that we may be allowed to conjecture, decades after the two great writers had conversed on a topic such as ‘science’ in a land far away from ours that later formed the core of a State that no longer exists, what possibly could have been the larger context of that conversation and how it may have ended. The exchange of ideas surely would have seen a meeting of ideologies. And whether either of them emerged more opened to the other’s convictions or more strengthened in their own, is today anyone’s guess.What must be read of these notes which are at times journal like entries written and later collated by Gorky is that they also show the company Tolstoy was in along with Gorky. Gorky gives accounts of how in the course of his visits to the great novelist discussions took place with notable artistic figures, whom amongst was Anton Chekov, for whom says the author, Tolstoy had “a paternal affection”. And among these notes that give Gorky’s observations, his perceptions of Tolstoy is also what the author believed to be the great writer’s perception of him –Maxim Gorky, which he says in the following line that make up entry 15 –“His interest in me is ethnographical. For him I am a member of a tribe of which he knows very little –nothing more.”

As to whether what is said in entry 15 is entirely free of a perspective with no ‘prejudicial taints’ is something that must be asked by looking at the people in question with better contextualisation in terms of class. Tolstoy is of the Russian upper crust. An aristocrat by birth who held the peerage of ‘Count’. Gorky on the other hand is of the underprivileged class, which formed the common labouring masses.

The notes made by Gorky say that Tolstoy spoke of the ‘Muzhik’ (a term used for the peasant or the pastoral worker in tsarist Russia) as a subject that intrigued him and which he tried to understand in respect of what characterised their language and sense of aestheticism. Perhaps Gorky felt Tolstoy’s sense of aristocracy and outlooks didn’t accord him, Gorky, much of a status better than a ‘Muzhik’. But as to whether if the aristocrat novelist really did see Gorky in such terms of meanness can only be a matter of conjecture and argument, today.

Gorky, in forming his perception of what Tolstoy had thought of him, the private ‘appraisal’, done by the aristocrat of the commoner, could have been affected one may suggest by the disparity in the social ‘stations’ occupied by the two novelists, which Gorky could have been overly conscious of. It is possible, given the form of ideology and politics that Gorky followed and was an advocate of, he would have felt that there was certain inherence in the perceptions of the upper crust in their outlooks about the lower class.

The ‘elitism’ that Gorky would have read off Tolstoy would have engendered a feeling of distance and being ‘objectified’ by the more learned and privileged aristocrat. Seeing as how the notes were random writings that were later collated unaltered it is possible that the unflattering statement or sentiments of entry 15 could have been due to some emotional impelling.

Literary topics discussed

Among the topics of criticism and discussion about literary works, writers, music, artists and so on, Gorky notes how Tolstoy was critical of some writings of the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky who is famed most today for his novel Crime and Punishment. Tolstoy had found Dostoyevsky being too immersed in his own debilitated state of health and projected it into his writings to portray a sickly world. About Charles Dickens it is noted that Tolstoy had remarked that Dickens could ‘construct a novel like no one else’. And the interactions about literature and literary pursuits Gorky had with Tolstoy included readings from Gorky’s writings which at the time could have been ‘works in progress. As well as The Bull, which is mentioned before, the young writer had also read Tolstoy some parts of his work The Lower Depths. The critical feedback given had been mostly on character construction and their credibility, their realness to an audience. There is no doubt that the interactions had been very productive to Gorky in forming certain perspectives and insights on literary crafts related to genres as fiction and drama.

Unfinished letter

The unfinished letter that Gorky speaks of in his introductory note to the reader is a mixture of several aspects that relate to not just the author’s perspectives and feelings about Tolstoy but also what others, intellectuals had said about the great novelist as well as certain remarks and statements made by Tolstoy which were not in the entries.

The letter is in certain respects, a review, a retrospective appraisal of his experience of Tolstoy, which hides not the emotional state of Gorky that forms his literary outpouring, upon learning of the demise of the great novelist. An excerpt that shows just one instance of his sentiments in the letter, for the deceased Tolstoy is as follows –“A telegram has come, where it says in commonplace words –he is dead. It was a blow at the heart, I wept from pain and grief, and now, in a kind of half-crazed state, I picture him, as I knew him, as I saw him, I feel an anguished desire to talk to him. I picture him in his coffin, lying there like a smooth stone on the bed of a stream, no doubt with his deceptive smile –so utterly detached –quietly hidden away in his grey beard. And his hands at last quietly folded –they have completed their arduous task.”

An experience unmatched

He saw him as a teacher. He saw in him a sage who was trying to find respite from a world which demanded his energies of philosophising continue to give out to the world the wisdom it was capable of revealing. To Gorky the grand colossus of Russian literature Leo Tolstoy was an enigma, a beautiful half solved mystery.

The experience of associating with Tolstoy continually for a period of time at close quarters is revealed by the author to be one that was mixed of responses of attraction and dislike due to the variances of ideological stances the two writers held. But undoubtedly it left a lasting impression on Gorky. It was a life changing experience surely that may have shaped his foundations and played a part in his maturing, as a writer. And although we may only surmise as to what exactly could have been the depth of the impact that Tolstoy could have made upon the young Gorky of the time, the words left behind by the latter evinces that it was without a doubt an experience in his life that would have found no equal.



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