Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Maxim Gorky: Two Great Short Stories

"One Autumn Night" (10 pages, 1901)
"Her Lover" (9 pages,  1904)

One of the many benefits of short stories is they let you try out new to you writers without a huge investment of time.    Yesterday I was looking around on Manybooks (now my first go to web page for free E-books) and I ended up downloading a book from 1930 Best Russian Short Stories, edited and selected by Ignath Potapenko.   (I found nothing when I did a Google search on that name-if you know something about him, please leave a comment or E-mail me.)   In the introduction it is stated that it is the first substantial collection of Russian short stories in English. There are all the expected writers, plus a few writers I have not heard of (I will read and perhaps post on them soon) and there are two stories by Maxim Gorky.   I read both of these stories and I totally loved them.    They fit perfectly Frank O'Connor's  idea that short stories at their best are about sub-groups in society that have no one to speak for them.    Maxim Gorky was the voice of millions of Russians in late Czarist Russian who had been displaced as serfs and left with no where to go but roam the countryside or seek what work they could find in the big cities.  Gorky did not simply observe the poorest of the poor in Czarist Russia, he lived among them for many years.

Gorky with Stalin
Gorky (1868 to 1932-Russia) was orphaned at age 12.   He went to live with his grandparents.  His grandfather beat him regularly.   He ran away from the jobs he was given as soon as he could.  From age 21 to 26 the "tramped" all over eastern Russia, working at the roughest of jobs and sleeping where he could and eating what he could.    This experience radicalized Gorky and by age 30 he was supporting the causes of Marxist revolutionaries.   Gorky was taught to read by a cook he met and became an extreme autodidact in the literature of Russian and in anti-Czarist political writings.   Gorky became a journalist and ended up being arrested numerous times.   In 1902 he met and became a life time friend of Lenin.   He led a tumultuous personal and professional life, scandalizing even his  fellow revolutionaries with his womanizing.  He left Russia for a time to seek a warmed climate for health reasons but returned when Stalin invited him back.   He became kind of a pet of Stalin (a dangerous position!).   Stalin endorsed him as the voice of the people.   Long story short, he died under clouded circumstances, some say killed by the head of the Russian Secret Service because Stalin feared what he might say about him.   Stalin was one of the pall bearers at his funeral.   After his death he was turned into a great hero of the people and his stories were assigned reading in Russian schools and expressing a public dislike for them was for a long time a very bad idea.   (There are very interesting articles on Gorky here and here.)   

Gorky and Anton Chekhov
I think one reason he is not more read now is that western intellectuals and teachers were somehow put off by his being raised to the status of a saint of the people during the era of Stalin.   At one point in the USA to admit one liked the work of Gorky would be almost like endorsing communism.   Gorky was identified as the writer of the Bolsheviks when that was a code word for anti-American and anti-British politics.  

"One Autumn Night" is just a beautiful story which tells us a great deal about life among the sub-peasants in late Czarist Russia.  It also shows us Gorky's attitude toward women and lets see how women were thougt of in this period.   The story is narrated by an 18 year old man, basically a homeless tramp.   He is desperately seeking food on a freezing night in Moscow when he sees a young girl eating a thrown away by someone loaf of bread she found in the gutter.  She tells him it is only a little rotten and shares it with him.   They end up sleeping together (of course the narrator finds out she is also 18 and quite beautiful) without sex just for warmth.   It turns out she had fallen in love with a handsome man who had beaten her terribly over and over and has now thrown her out.   The attitude of the woman is amazing and is really a tribute, I think, to how women functioned at the very bottom of society.  It is a powerful statement about the courage and love of the women from the very bottom of late Czarist society. The ending is heartbreaking.   

"Her Lover" is a really hilarious (in a laughing past the grave yard kind of way) story about a young man living in a slum building in Moscow.   One of his neighbors is a very big woman, over six foot tall who has a very unsavory reputation.   The narrator is a prim and proper young man and he tries to avoid any type of contact with the woman.   One day she knocks on his door and asks him to write a letter to her lover for her, she cannot write herself.   At first he is incredulous and basically says how could a woman like you (he describes her in a very Russian image as "a great mastodon of a woman") possibly have a lover.   She tells him her story and she writes him a letter.   She ends up doing his laundry in exchange (the narrator is horrified when she at first she says she wants to do him a favor to repay his help when he thinks she is offering sex) and they become kind of friends but the man always looks down on her.  (It seems even among the Bolsheviks in 1900 in Moscow if a woman is not beautiful, she is not of much value.)   The ending is deeply ironic.

I will be reading more of Gorky's stories soon and will probably post on them also.   

You can download Best Russian Short Stories here in numerous formats, all free.   

The written output of Gorky was huge in all sorts of genres from theater to political hack work.   He is best known now for his short stories.   There are about thirty of them.   I hope to have read them all by year end 2012.   

Please share your experience with Gorky with us.  

Mel u


Б.Баясгалан said...

thank you for sharing these interesting short stories.

from Mongolia.

@parridhlantern said...

Many Books along with Project Gutenberg have some amazing finds, if you spend a little time on them, my last Russian find was "The 7 who were hanged" by Leonid Andreyev.

Mel u said...

Б.Баясгалан -you are quite welcome-as far as I know you are my first Mongolian commentator-if you can could you share suggestions for available in English works by Mongolian authors-preferably short stories-thanks

Parrish Lantern-I like the format of Manybooks better and it seems more like browsing in a store (but all the titles are free!) than most free book web pages-

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for mentioning Manybooks, I did not know that one yet, and I found there Le Grand Meaulnes in French, a book I so much loved and studied decades ago, and was eagerly looking for, but could not find on other free websites for ebooks easily and directly downloadable on a device. This service is so quick and easy, something like 5 seconds on my ipod touch! Thanks. And I also downloaded this volume of Russian short stories

Mel u said...

wordsandpeace=Manybooks is my favorite source now of free books-I like the format a lot-I am not saying it has more than any other place it is just where I look first-

Б.Баясгалан said...


There are so many good writers in Mongolia. Unfortunately people don't know them due to lack of translation.

I have hardly found just two short stories in English, so far. And i am not sure the translations are good or bad.

But if you
interest, you can get and read them from these links.

Thank you. AQUARIUM by Ulziitogs.doc Rock by Natsagdorj Dashdorj.doc

Mel u said...

Б.Баясгалан-thanks so much for your suggestions-I booked marked the stories-I am very intrigued by Natsagdorj Dashdorj-I was able to find translations online for two of his short stories-I will be reading and posting on them soon-thanks again-I am very open to more suggestions and to a joint venture posting on Mongolian short stories