Undoubtedly the greatest paradox in world literature, sort of a marvel: Russian workman Alexi Maximovich Peshkov with only a second-rate knowledge of the Psalter that too drummed into him during an agonising Oliver Twist childhood rises to become Maxim Gorky, a pseudonym he adopted as he began to write his first story. Despite world fame literary critics in an uncharitable display of snobbishness continued to call Gorky "the workman" who lived virtually on the banks of the river Volga.
Maxim Gorky, as it were, defied literary tradition and intellectual pomposity of the orthodox literati and even as a humble member of the proletariat in bourgeoisie Tsarist Russia wrote his way up to be acclaimed a unique, literary genius in the world of letters - what made him unique was he was self-made; characteristically it was an odd accomplishment - from virtual illiterate slavery and abject poverty to reach the summit of authorship unaided.
His life story reads like fiction, a story like a novel that inspires the hopeless to be hopeful, a fantastic journey of a writer from destitution to world recognition. He made himself, single-handed the great writer he became.
Some years ago before the break-up of the Soviet Union I was strolling down the Elizabeth Quay in the Colombo harbour. There was a Soviet ship docked and across its bow painted in bold letters was the ship's name GORKY.
I was pleasantly overwhelmed, for, it is not often that you witness a ship named after a writer - perhaps such an honour is reserved only to a politician in these modern philistine times.
Maxim Gorky wrote lyrical prose; it rings like music, sonorous on the pages of his work, interwoven with rustic Russian humour and wisdom; in places Gorky drops a philosophical gem, an odd remark that sometimes startles you and make you think about life of men and women of the world so cruelly contrived. But there is no pontificating - it sounds and reads as simple as the expressions of the Russian peasant in those pre-revolution days of poverty.
We read Gorky in the English translation. Even so it is breathtaking poetry, euphonic like a scintillating melody; if the translation is such you wonder what a marvel the original must be.
Gorky imbued the vicissitudes of life early in his childhood, experiencing at first hand its enormous hardships in poverty, growing up without parental love and care solely dependent on his beloved grandmother Akulina Ivanovna whose tender devotion and understanding he captures with such brilliance and affection in his first memoir titled Childhood which was followed by My Apprenticeship and My Universities. Gorky spent ten years - from 1913 to 1923 - writing the autobiographical trilogy which describes the author's childhood and youth from 1871 to 1888. Childhood translated into English by Margaret Wettlin was compared to Tolstoy's own life story under the same name.
But Tolstoy did not like Gorky and he did not conceal his dislike. Chekhov thought Tolstoy was jealous of Maximovich Alexi Tolstoy told Chekhov: "I don't know why but somehow I can never be myself with Gorky...Gorky's wicked. He's like a divinity student who has been forced to take monastic vows and has a grievance against the whole world. He has the soul of an emissary, he has come from somewhere to the land of Canaan, an alien land for him, and he keeps looking round, noting everything, as to report about it all to some god of his own. And his god is a monster, a wood-sprite or a water-sprite, like the ones country women fear."
Chekhov said "Gorky's a good sort." But Tolstoy disagreed, "No, no, don't tell me. He has a nose like a duck's bill, only unfortunate and bad-tempered people have such noses. And women don't like him, and women are like dogs, they always know a good man."
In 1908 Lenin was staying with the author in Capri and Gorky had said that he was finally writing an autobiography. Lenin after listening to the author's description of this childhood, youth and wanderings and especially about his grandmother told him earnestly: "You ought to write all that down, my friend, you really ought! It's wonderfully instructive, all of it, remarkable..."
After a long silence, Gorky replied: "I'll write it...some day..." Childhood was published as a separate book in Russia in 1915. An Armenian writer wrote to Gork: "In my opinion the whole book is a symbol of the life of the Russian people, of the oppression they suffer, in fact, not just the Russians, but all nations. For example, I myself am not Russian - I am an Armenian born and bred far from Russian life - and yet all you have described affects me as profoundly as anything in the life of my people. And believe me, you will be told the same by a French, English or other writer who has risen from his people or who knows it well. That it touches the whole of mankind is the most important virtue of your great book." ...
By Premil RATNAYAKE