Maxim Gorky 1910
Source: English Review, Vol. 8, 1910, pp. 256-266;
Translation: David Weinstein
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2009). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.
He once invited me to his house, in the village of Kutchouk-Koij, where he owned a small white, two-storeyed house and a small strip of land. There, while showing me over his “estate,” he said to me with animation.
“If I had plenty of money, I would build here a sanatorium for the teachers of this country. It would be an immense edifice—bright, very bright, with large windows and high ceilings. I would have a beautiful library, purchase a small variety of musical instruments, a beehive, and cultivate a kitchen-garden and an orchard. Then one could hold conferences on Agrarianism, on Meteorology. The teacher must be omniscient, my friend—yes, omniscient!”
He suddenly became silent, and then began to cough. He eyed me sideways, and smiled the sweet, tender smile which drew people so irresistibly towards him and riveted their attention to what he said.
“I suppose it must be wearisome to listen to my fantasies? I love to speak of them. If you only knew how necessary the good, educated, intelligent schoolmaster is to the Russian people! Without the wide education of the people the State will crumble like a house of rotten bricks. We must ascribe with the utmost possible speed a position for the teacher. What do we see today? Instead of an artist passionately devoted to his vocation, he is a half-educated craftsman who makes the round of the villages to teach the children, with as much ardour as if he were on his way to exile. He is hungry, he is oppressed; he is scared by the idea of losing his earnings. And it is essential that he be the head of the village, that he be competent to answer all the questions of the peasant, so that the latter may recognise in him a force worthy of attention and respect; that no one dare lower him, abuse him, as every one does to-day: from the officer, the rich banker, the priest, the sergeant, the curate, the bailiffs, down to the functionary who carries the title of ‘Inspector of Schools,’ but who is more concerned with the carrying out of his instructions to the letter than with the betterment of education.
“It is foolish to pay heavily to the man who is called upon to educate the people, you see! Ed-u-cate the people! No; it must not be that such a man should go in rags for much longer, that he should tremble from cold in damp, unhealthy classrooms, that he should have rheumatism and consumption at thirty! It is a disgrace to us! For eight or nine months of the year, he lives like a hermit, without a solitary person with whom to exchange a word; he grows stupid in solitude, without books, without distractions; and if he should invite a few friends to his lodgings, he is instantly accused of ‘conspiring’ against the Government—that idiotic word with which the artful frighten the foolish! It is said that the man who accomplishes a great, noble mission is treated with contumely and contempt. Do you know that when I come across a schoolmaster I feel uneasy before him, because of his timidness and because of his tattered dress? It seems to me that I am myself the cause of his indigence. I believe it seriously.” He reflected for a while, and then began again in a husky voice:
“What a stupid and maladroit nation we are, to be sure!”
The shadow of a deep sorrow veiled his kindly eyes. Then, laughing at himself, he added:
“You see, I have given you an article wholly from a Liberal newspaper. But—I shall now give you some tea instead, to reward you for your patience.”
It so happened that he often spoke in that manner: with heat, gravity, and sincerity, then, suddenly, would fall to ridiculing his own remarks. And one felt that beneath the gentle, ironically-sad smile there lay the refined scepticism of a man who knew the cost of words, the price of dreams. And there was also much delicacy in that irony, as well as a modest kindliness.
We entered the house in silence. The weather was bright and warm; the waves playing under the rays of the sun beat against the foot of the mountain. A dog yelped with contentment. Tchekhof took me by the arm and said slowly, with a cough:
“It is sad and shameful but it is true: there are crowds of human beings who envy the dogs ….”
And he added soon after, smilingly:
“To-day I can only speak platitudes. I am getting old.”
Often, he would say to me:
“Do you know, Gorki, there arrived here a teacher the other day—ill, married, &c. &c. Is it not possible for you to help him? Meanwhile, I have already put him up.”
“Listen, there is a schoolmaster here who wished to make your acquaintance. He cannot leave his room, he is ill . . . You ought to go to his house. Would you care to?”
“Here are the names of teachers who ask for books to be sent them.”
One day, I met one of those “schoolmasters” at his house. He was sitting on the edge of a chair, blushing at his awkwardness, searching for words and perspiring frightfully. He tried to speak—now in a stiff grammatic manner, now with the artificial ease of the timid. He seemed to be animated by one desire, that of not appearing stupid in the, eyes of the author, and assailed. Tchekhof with a flood of questions which had never without doubt occurred to his mind before. The writer listened attentively to the disconnected, though scarcely amusing, utterance; in his sad eyes there shone at times a smile; the wrinkles on his forehead deepened, and in his strong, rich voice he answered in simple, clear, living words—words which led back his interlocutor to a more natural and reasonable state of mind.
I also recall a hungry-looking schoolmaster—tall, thin, with a yellowish face, and long nose inclining in a melancholy way towards his chin. He was sitting opposite to Tchekhof, and said in a gloomy voice, staring at him through his black eyes:
“The impressions of an existence of this kind ferment in the space of the pedagogic season a psychic conglomeration which absolutely stifles all possibility of treating objectively the ambient reality. Doubtlessly, the world is naught else but what our own imaginations make of it.”
Throwing himself thus into Transcendentalism, he strayed about like a blind man on a frozen river.
“Tell me,” said Tchekhof in a soft, caressing voice, “who then beats the children in your district?”
The schoolmaster rose quickly and answered:
“What say you? I? Never! Beat the children!!”
He looked furious.
“Calm yourself,” continued Anton with an assuring smile; “am I speaking of you? But I remember having read in the newspapers that some one had beaten the children in your district.”
The schoolmaster sat down, wiped his forehead and, with a sigh of relief, answered in a deep bass voice:
“It’s true. There has been such a case. If was Makarof. It was savage, but comprehensible. His wife is ill and he himself is consumptive. His pay is twenty roubles a month. He has a cellar for a school, a corner of which is his private residence. Under such conditions, one might slap the face of an angel of God and it could not be called a sin. And the schoolboys are not angels by a long way, I assure you!”
Strange sight! This man, who had just pitilessly submerged Tchekhof beneath a sea of learned words, this man began to utter simple syllables weighty as rocks, but ardent and permeated with sincerity. He showed in all its hideous reality the life led by the Russian countryman. And taking leave of his guest, the schoolmaster shook with his two hands the small, dry slim-fingered hand of Tchekhof, and said:
“I came to you as if I were going to the house of a superior person, with timidity and trembling. I swelled myself up like a turkey; I wanted to show you that I too am somebody! And I leave you as if you were a man who is near to me and who understands everything. Thanks! I carry away with me a fine thought: people of your kind are more simple and understand better, they are nearer the soul of the people than all those so-called superiors among whom we live. Good-bye! I shall never forget you.”
His nostrils quivered, his lips wore a frank smile, and he added:
“It is true: cowards are much to be pitied. May the devil take them!”
When he left, Tchekhof, looking through the window in the direction in which he sped, smiled and said:
“He is a fine fellow. He will not teach for long.”
“He will be flung into the street.”
Then he added in a soft, low voice:
“In Russia, the honest man is like the sweep with whom the nurses frighten the children to sleep . . .”
In Tchekhof’s presence, every man felt a desire to be more simple, more truthful, of being himself. Many a time have I seen how, in his presence, people would abandon the blatant garments of bookish phrases, fashionable words, and all the rest of the cheap futilities with which the Russian provides himself when wishing to pass for a European—as the savage adorns his body with all manner of glittering shells, and the teeth of fish. Anton Pavlowitch Tchekhof cared neither for the teeth of fish nor the feathers of the peacock; everything that was high-sounding, factitious, all things which man covets “to appear more important,” revolted him, he felt a desire to strip him of those vain adornments which deform his real face and soul. During the whole of his lifetime, Tchekhof was always himself, spiritually free, never paying the least heed to the behests of some, or to what others, less civil, claimed from him. He did not care for conversations on “high” themes with which the Russian amuses himself so freely, forgetful that it is ridiculous to speak of velvet costumes in which the future will he garbed when one is in want of ordinary attire for the present.
Possessing himself a beautiful simplicity, he loved everything that was simple, real, sincere, and he had a way of making others love the simple, too.
I remember an occasion when three elegant ladies came to see him, filling the room with the frou-frou of their skirts and their violent perfumes. They sat down ceremoniously before the host, pretending to feel deeply interested in politics, and began to “put questions.”
“Anton Pavlowitch, how will the war end, do you think?”
Tchekhof coughed, reflected an instant, and replied in a serious tone:
“In peace, without doubt!”
“Oh! evidently! But who do you think will win, the Turks or the Greeks?”
“It seems to me that the victory will be with the strong.”
“And who are the strong, according to your opinion?” asked all the three ladies at once.
“Those who have more supplies and are better armed.”
“How clever!” exclaimed the first lady.
“And whom do you like better, the Greeks or the Turks?” inquired the second lady.
Anton Pavlowitch gave her a kindly look, and replied with a smile:
“I like—marmalade. Do you?”
“Very much!” answered the lady ecstatically.
“Apricot marmalade!” added the first, smacking her lips.
And the third lady, with half-closed eyes, exclaimed:
“It’s so lovely!”
The three of them then began to speak with much volubility, manifesting an astonishing erudition in the art of making jam. One saw that they were happy to have been freed from the mental torture of feigning a deep interest for the Turks or the Greeks whom they had not given a single thought before. They then took leave of Anton Tchekhof.
“We shall send you some marmalade!”
“You have spoken well!” I remarked when the door had closed.
“Each one must speak his own language,” Tchekhof replied.
On another occasion, I chanced to meet at his house a handsome-looking young man, the deputy-attorney. He stood in front of Tchekhof and, shaking his curls, said with vivacity:
“In your novel The Ill-affected you pose a very complicated question. If I admit in Dennis Gregorief a criminal character, I must, unhesitatingly, cast him into prison in the interests of society. If, on the other hand, he is a brute who is incapable of appreciating the effect of his own actions, I merely pity him. But, in treating him as a subject acting without understanding, how can I assure society that he will not unscrew the nuts from the rails a second time in order to cause a catastrophe? That is the question! What am I to do?”
He paused, straightened his neck and stared at Tchelchof. His uniform was red, and the buttons glittered on his chest with as much assurance as the eyes in the ruddy face of the young defender of Justice.
“If I were a judge,” replied Tchekhof, “I should have acquitted Dennis.”
“I would have said: ‘Dennis, you are not yet a type of the thorough criminal; go, and try and become one.’”
The young man laughed, and checking himself said: “No; honoured Pavlowitch; the question that you have raised can only be resolved in the interest of the society which I am called upon to defend. Dennis is a brute, but he is also a criminal. That is the truth!”
“Do you like gramophones?” asked Tchekhof suddenly, in a feeble voice.
“Oh! yes! very much! astonishing discovery!” answered the young man quickly.
“And I cannot suffer them!” avowed Tchekhof sadly.
“Because they speak and sing without feeling. They distort everything to caricature. It is death. Do you take any interest in photography?”
It happened that the young man was a passionate amateur of that art. He began to speak of it enthusiastically, forgetting all about the gramophone, in spite of the resemblance of the “astonishing discovery” to himself, which Tchekhof had judged with such subtlety to be his favourite hobby. Again I saw beneath the uniform, the living, though rather amusing, man instead of an articulate automaton.
As soon as the young man had left, Anton Pavlowitch said sadly:
“And those are the kind of clowns who adjudge the lot of man in the name of Justice!”
After an instant’s silence, he added: “One must believe that the attorneys like sin greatly, especially the sin of the jumping frog!”
Tchekhof possessed the art of discovering the banality in all things and of attenuating it. It is an art accessible to him alone who makes high claims of life and who is animated by the desire of seeing his fellow men more simple, beautiful, agreeable. In him, platitude found always a pitiless and subtle critic.
Some one related in his presence that the editor of a popular daily—a man who continuously discoursed on the necessity of love and mercy towards others—had gravely offended a railway official, and that in general he treated with coarseness all those who were dependent upon him.
“It is quite natural,” said Tchekhof with a smile of constraint; “he is an aristocrat; he is educated, he has had a college education. His father wore straw-plaited slippers, but he himself wears patent-leather boots.”
And there was in the voice and the reflection something which at once pictured the aristocratic parvenu, the ridiculous nullity.
“He is a man of great talent!” he once said of a certain journalist. “His articles are marked in the corner of his conscience; they breathe the free humanitarian breath; but before his friends, the author treats his wife as an inferior, and at his house the servants’ room is damp, and the servants catch rheumatism through it.”
“Does N— please you, Anton Pavlowitch?”
“Yes, very much. He makes very agreeable company,” acquiesced Tchekhof, coughing. “He has read very much, he is a man of learning. He has borrowed from me three books which he has not yet returned. He is distracted. To-day he will tell you that you are a wonderful man, and to-morrow he will declare to all comers that you rob your servants and that you have stolen the silk slippers from the husband of your mistress—black slippers striped with blue. . . For he will give details.”
And when one complained to him of the dulness of the weighty “serious” articles published in the important reviews:
“Do not read those things; it is the literature of friends; it is arranged beforehand. It is written by Messrs. Red, White, and Black. One writes an article, the other replies, and the third reconciles the contradictions of the first two. It’s like playing cards with a corpse. No one asks: ‘Of what use is all that to the reader?’”
One day, a stout, well-dressed lady, brimming over with health, thought it her duty to speak to him á la Tchekhof:
“Life wearies me, Anton Pavlowitch. Everything is so grey: the people, the sky, the sea . . . Even the flowers wear a grey look. And I am bereaved of all desire, my soul floats in a kind of eternal languor. It’s like a malady.”
“It is a malady!” exclaimed Tchekhof with conviction, “it is a malady. In Latin it is called morbus feignibus.”
Luckily for herself, the lady evidently did not know Latin—or did she conceal her knowledge?
“The critics resemble the gadflies which prevent the horses from ploughing the fields,” said he one day. “The horse works, all his muscles are strained as the strings on a contre-basse, and, of a sudden, the accursed insect settles down on his neck, annoying and torturing him. It has to be driven away with a sweep of the tail. Why does the gadfly torture him? The gadfly hardly knows why itself; it is in the nature of things to give annoyance to others, and it must make itself felt, that its existence may not be ignored. ‘Do you see,’ it seems to say, ‘how I can drone about everything?’ I have been reading literary criticisms of my work for twenty years, but I cannot recall any precious indication or good advice. Only once has a remark uttered in that way struck me—it was by Skabitchevski. He had declared that I was dying in a hedge . . .”
In his sad, sweet eyes there shone nearly always a fine irony; but at times his look became cold and sharp. In those moments it seemed to me that this modest, delicate man could, when he judged it useful, oppose energetically a hostile force and vanquish it.
At times it also seemed to me that mankind inspired him with a feeling of doubt which bordered on despair.
“What a strange being is the Russian!” said he one day. “In him, not more than in a sieve, nothing remains. In his youth, he fills his soul with everything he can lay his hands on, and, at thirty, there is nothing left in him but shapeless débris, To live well, to live humanly, one must work, work with love, with faith! And in our land, work is unknown. The architect who has constructed two or three nice houses begins to play at cards for the rest of his days, or haunts the stage-doors of music-halls. When he has acquired a large practice, the doctor ceases to occupy himself with science, reads nothing save the Family Doctor, and, at forty, seriously declares that all illness is the result of cold. I have not met a single functionary who understands, much or little, the importance of his work; generally, he lives in the capital or in one of the chief provincial towns; he edits the circulars that are sent out here and there. But all these musty writings: can they deprive one of the freedom to do as he likes? The official is as much concerned about it as the atheist is for the tortures in hell. After he has achieved fame as a clever pleader, the advocate cares little for the defence of Truth; he is content with the study of the Rights of Property. He goes to the races, feeds on oysters and champagne, and passes for a connoisseur in the fine arts. The actor who has created two or three “parts” no longer cares to study any new rôles; he buys a large sombrero and thinks himself a genius. Russia is the country of all sorts of idle people who eat and drink to excess, who dream and idle away their days and nights. They marry so as to have some one to keep their house in order, and keep mistresses to maintain their prestige in society. They have a kind of dog-psychology: when they are beaten, they whine softly and hide in their kennel; when they are caressed, they laze on their back, paws in the air, and wag their tail.”
There was a cold and painful contempt in those words. But his soul was always full of pity, and when some one was blamed in his presence Anton Pavlowitch also interceded for the guilty:
“Why are you angry? He is old, he is seventy—”
“But he is yet young, he has done it more through folly than—”
And when he thus spoke, there was never a trace of disdain on his face.
In youth, banality is excusable and even amusing; but little by little it begins to percolate into you and fills your blood and brain with a grey cloud, and one becomes like an old, rusty signboard: one would say that there is something written on it, but what? One cannot tell. Already in his early works, Tchekhof knew how to distinguish the tragic even when hidden beneath a commonplace or comic exterior. It suffices but to carefully read his “humorous” works to observe how many cruel, repulsive, tragic things the author has allowed the reader to see beneath his quips and pleasant fripperies.
He has a sort of chastity, he does not allow himself to cry to his fellow men: “But wherefore are ye not more righteous?” For he hopes (moreover, in vain) that they will themselves understand now needful it is to lead a pure life. Detesting everything which is trivial and obscene, he has described the turpitudes of existence in beautiful, poetic language, with the smile of a humourist, and one can scarcely divine from their splendid exteriors the bitter phrases of inner reproach.
The good public, in reading The Daughter of Albion, were content to laugh, without knowing that the story hinged on one of the most abominable wrongs a lord, sated with luxury, could inflict upon an outcast. And on each page of Tchekhof I hear the deep sigh of the true human heart, the sigh of despair for the beings who, instead of being conscious of their natural dignity, are the prey to some evil power, and live as the fish in the sea. They believe in naught, save in eating each day to satiety, and feel naught, unless it be the fear of being beaten by some one stronger than themselves.
No one has seized as clearly and finely as Tchekhof the tragic side of life’s mediocrities. No one before him was able to draw with such pitiless realism the shameful picture of the dull bourgeois existence. Banality! that was his enemy. All his life he fought against it; he has ridiculed it with his biting, restless pen; he knew how to lay naked the rottenness of this or that at first sight, though everything seemed arranged in the most comfortable and luxurious order. And banality avenged itself in causing his body—the body of the poet—to be put in a waggon destined for the “Transport of Live Oysters.”
The grey, dirty stain of that waggon appeared to me as the immense smile of ironic triumph of the banality that had vanquished its tired enemy. As for the numerous “Memoirs” in the newspapers, I seem to see in them a hypocritic sadness, behind which I feel the foetid cold breath of that same banality, secretly ravishing over the death of its persecutor.
In reading Tchekhof, one feels the impressions of a dismal day towards the end of autumn, when the leafless trees, the dingy houses the dull people, stand out mistily against the humid air. Everything is strange, lifeless, pulseless, strengthless. The blue horizon is deserted, and the pale sky sends to the mud-covered, frozen earth a cold and anguishing breath.
Like the autumn sky, Tchekhof lit up with a cruel light the beaten tracks, the crooked alleys, the mean, squalid houses where pitiable creatures suffocate from weariness and idleness, dragging out a languorous, meaningless existence. There you have Douchetchka scampering to and fro as nimbly as a mouse; she is the good, kind wife who knows to love so tenderly. She can be struck in the face and she does not even budge, the mild slave! At the side of her stands the unhappy Olga of the Three Sisters. She, too, is lovable, and gives herself up without demur to the trifling caprices of the debauched wife of her worthless brother. Under her eyes are broken the lives of her sisters. She weeps, but can come to no one’s rescue; from her lips escapes no word of protest against banality.
Then you have Madame Ranievsky, the weeping woman, and the other old inhabitants of the Cherry-Tree, selfish as children and fatuous as dotards. They have forgotten to die at the opportune moment and moaningly linger on without seeing what is passing around them, without understanding anything. The wicked little student Trofimof speaks eloquently of the necessity of work, but he himself lazes about, and finds distraction from his ennui in brutally persecuting Varia, who sacrifices herself unselfishly to the well-being of that idler. Verscinine dreams of the beauty of life as it will be in three hundred years; he lives without seeing that around him everything is crumbling, that, under his eyes, Soleny, driven by folly and boredom, is ready to kill the miserable Baron Touzenbach.
Thus, there files before one a whole procession of serfs, enslaved to their own desires, to their stupidity, to their laziness, to their greed; slaves who are filled with terror before the face of life, who vegetate in troubled uneasiness and fill the air with their disjointed utterances on the future, for they feel that in the present there is no place for them.
At times, in this dull troop a shot is fired: it is Ivanof or Treplef, who have understood what they had to do and died.
Many among them dream beautiful dreams, tell themselves that in two centuries life will be beatific, but no one among them asks himself this simple question: “Who then will make life beautiful if all that we do is to dream about it?”
In the midst of that sad, weak crowd has passed a man highly intelligent and attentive to all things; he has examined the poor citizens of his native land, and with a saddened smile, with a tender but strong voice of reproach, with infinite despair on his face and in his heart, he has said to them in a firm, vibrating voice:
“You live very badly, gentlemen! It is shameful to live in that way.”