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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: L’amère espérance de Gorki

by By A.N.

Maxim Gorky’s Bitter Optimism

Translated by Monika Navarro

Translated Tuesday 31 January 2006, by Monika Navarro

Oeuvres, by Maxim Gorky, translated into French and presented by Guy Verret (dir.), Rose Lafoy, Jean Pérus, Marc Pradoux and André Stratonovitch. Éditions Gallimard, collection "Bibliothèque de la Pléiade". 1,808 pages, 67.50 euros.

What made Gorky’s greatness also explains the certain purgatory this writer seems to be gradually leaving behind him. An example of a committed writer, a tireless propagandist, he praised the future to such an extent that it blinded him to the present. He justified this trajectory, even vindicated it within a quite unknown work, "The History of the Canary who lied and the Woodpecker who liked the Truth". The canary, the author’s mouth-piece, says: "All I wanted was to arouse faith and hope, and that’s why I lied ... What’s the use of telling the truth if it falls on my wings like a stone?"

All Gorky’s spirit is maybe here in this image, within this constant misunderstanding that, behind his official character (founder and first president of the Zhdanovist Union of Soviet Writers, whose home town, Nijni-Novgorod is named after him) hides the romantic revolutionary who did all kind of jobs, learned so much, narrated, wrote articles and leaflets and then, one day, at the age of twenty-four, wrote a novel.

The name that Alexeï Maximovitch Pechkov chose does not reflect the incorrigibly optimist perceived in the West: Gorky means "bitter". As for his first name, it is the name of his father and brother, both of whom died during his childhood.

He described his childhood in the novel with the same title. The childhood of an orphan with a despotic grandfather and an affectionate grandmother, forced to leave school when he was 12 to earn his daily bread, actually by baking others’ bread. It took him long to write this novel, despite the exhortations of Tolstoï and Lenin, and even longer to release it. Certainly too similar to the many episodes which can be found within his novels and his news-reporting. In any case it contained the roots of his will to "ennoble mankind".

This was a choice that remained with him all his life and drove him to join the Marxists even though he didn’t share all their theories. Gorky retain a life-long humanistic religion, which came from Feuerbach and was then developed by the future Bolshevik People’s Commissar, Lounatcharski, who advocated the "deification of the superior human potential".

Before the October Revolution, as they were both in exile, Lenin and Gorky were violently opposed to each other regarding this matter, to the extent of founding two competing Bolshevik officers’ schools. Gorky’s relationship with Lenin, and later with Stalin, was always marked by disputes and reconciliations. As long as he had the strength - and he didn’t always have it - the writer refused to let anyone use him, nor to yield to thers’ views about his literary conceptions.

Already in the nineties he disregarded Chekhov’s and Tolstoy’s advice, both of whom wanted to act as mentors of the young and famous writer. Later on he laboured hard to return from voluntary exile in Italy and only went back to the USSR in 1933, after 12 years of intermittent camaraderie. Gorky’s role as "a bridge between the USSR and Occident, between emigrant and Soviet writers" certainly decreased, and he intended to play a role in the construction and praise of "the New Man".

He considered himself "mainly a journalist", and he persuaded himself that the the Solovki Islands Camps and the construction of the White Sea-Baltic Sea Canal were nothing but "rehabilitation enterprises", and that the men who were condemned after the first major trial, in 1928, were guilty "on irrefutable evidence". That didn’t prevent him from lending his prestige to the defence of persecuted writers - Zamiatine, Pilniak, Babel, the young writers of the Serapion Group - and specially from committing himself to peace and against fascism.

As for the aesthetics, he saw "socialist realism" - a notion that, he said, "no-one can really define" - as a way of breaking out of the banal platitudes of "proletarian literature" and remaining faithful to romanticism, as long as it is revolutionary. Illusions or contradictions, he only saw what he wanted to see, and ended up confused by the stereotypes he had always rejected.

The texts compiled within this collection, together with the lucid introduction by Jean Pérus and Guy Verret, show us a writer with a fluid and realistic style, who created complex characters, rich in contradictions, and a vision of a society that couldn’t be reduced to the imagery, positive or negative, that history had sown in bitter Maxim.

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