Maxim Gorky is the most original and, after Tolstoy, the most talented of modern Russian writers. He was born in 1868 or 1869—he does not know exactly when himself—in a dyer's back shop at Nizhny Novgorod. His mother, Barbara Kashirina, was the daughter of the aforementioned dyer; and his father, Maxim Pyeshkov, was an upholsterer. The child was christened Alexis. His real name, then, is Alexis Pyeshkov, and Maxim Gorky is only his pseudonym. When he was four, he lost his father, and three years later, his mother. He was then taken by his grandfather, who had been a soldier under Nicholas I, a hard, authoritative, pitiless old man, before whom all trembled. And it was under his rude tutelage that the child first began to read. When he was nine, he was sent to work for a shoemaker, an evil sort of man who maltreated him.
 In Russian, Gorky means bitterness.
"One day," Gorky tells us, "I was warming some water for him; the bowl fell, and I burned my hands badly. That evening I ran away, my grandfather having scolded me severely. I then became a painter's apprentice."
He did not remain long in this position. From this time on, his unsatisfied soul was seized with the "wanderlust." First apprenticed to an engraver, and then as a gardener, he finally became a scullion on one of the boats that plies up and down the Volga. Here he felt more at ease.
On board, in the person of the master-cook, named Smoury, he unexpectedly met a teacher. This cook, who had been a soldier, loved to read, and he gave the child all the books that he had in an old trunk. They consisted of the works of Gogol, Dumas' novels, the "Lives of the Saints," a manual of geography, and some popular novels. Surely, a queer collection!
Smoury inspired his scullion, then sixteen years of age, "with an ardent curiosity for the printed word." A "furious" desire to learn seized the young fellow; he went to Kazan, a university city, in the hope of "learning gratuitously all sorts of beautiful things." Cruel deception! They explained to him that "this was not according to the established order." Discouraged, a few months later, he took a position with a baker. He who dreamed of the sun and the open air had to be imprisoned in a filthy and damp cellar. He remained there for two years, earning two dollars a month, board and lodging included; the food, however, was putrid, and his lodging consisted of an attic which he shared with five other men.
"My life in that bakery," he has said, "left a bitter impression. Those two years were the hardest of my whole life." He has thus described his recollections in one of his stories:
"We lived in a wooden box, under a low and heavy ceiling, all covered with cobwebs and permeated with fine soot. Night pressed us between the two walls, spattered with spots of mud and all mouldy. We got up at five in the morning and, stupid and indifferent, began work at six o'clock. We made bread out of the dough which our comrades had prepared while we slept. The whole day, from dawn till ten at night, some of us sat at the table rolling out the dough, and, to avoid becoming torpid, we would constantly rock ourselves to and fro while the others kneaded in the flour. The enormous oven, which resembled a fantastic beast, opened its large jaws, full of dazzling flames, and breathed forth upon us its hot breath, while its two black and enormous cavities watched our unending work....
"Thus, from one day to the next, in the floury dust, in the mud that our feet brought in from the yard, in the suffocating and terrible heat, we rolled out the dough and made cracknels, moistening them with our sweat; we hated our work with an implacable hatred; we never ate what we made, preferring black bread to these odorous dainties."
* * * * *
At this period of his life, he had occasion to study at first hand certain places where he received original information which he later used in writing "Konovalov" and "The Ex-Men," which have thus acquired an autobiographical value. In fact, he worked a long while with these "ex-men;" like them, he sawed wood, and carried heavy burdens. At the same time, he devoted all his spare time to reading and thinking about problems, which became more and more "cursed" and alarming. He had found an attentive listener and interlocutor in the person of his comrade, the baker Konovalov. These two men, while baking their bread, found time to read. And the walls of the cellar heard the reading of the works of Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Karamzine, and others. Then they used to discuss the meaning of life. On holidays, Gorky and Konovalov had for the moment an opportunity to come out of the hole—this word does not exaggerate—in which they worked, to breathe the fresh air, to live a bit in nature's bosom, and to see their fellow men.
"On holidays," Gorky tells us, "we went with Konovalov down to the river, into the fields; we took a little brandy and bread with us, and, from morning till evening, we were in the open air."
They often went to an old, abandoned house which served as a refuge for a whole tribe of miserable and wandering people, who loved to tell of their wandering lives. Gorky and his companion were always well received on account of the provisions which they distributed so generously.
"Each story spread out before our eyes like a piece of lace in which the black threads predominated—they represented the truth—and where there were threads of light color—they were the lies. These people loved us in their way, and were attentive listeners, because I often read a great deal to them."
Often, these expeditions were not without their risks. One day, two of the baker's workmen happened to drown in a bog; another time, they were taken in a police raid and passed the night in the station house.
It was also at this time that Gorky frequented the company of several students, not care-free and happy ones, but miserable young fellows like those whom Turgenev described as "nourished by physical privations and moral sufferings."
On leaving the bakery, where his health, very much weakened by the lack of air and by bad food, did not permit him to remain any longer, he joined those vagabonds, those wanderers, whose melancholy companion he had been, and whose painter and poet he was to be. In their company, he traveled through Russia in every sense of the word, now as a longshoreman, now as a wood-chopper. Whenever he had a copeck in his pocket he bought books and newspapers and spent the night reading them. He suffered hunger and cold; he slept in the open air in summer, and, in winter, in some refuge or cellar. The feverish activity of so keen an intellect in an organism so crushed had, as its consequence, one of the attempts at suicide which are so frequent among the younger generation of the Russians.
In 1889, at the age of twenty-one, Gorky shot himself in the chest, but he did not succeed in killing himself. Soon afterwards, he became gate-keeper for the winter at Tzaratzine; but the summer had hardly come before he began his vagabondage again, in the course of which he undertook a thousand little jobs in order to keep himself alive. On the road, he noticed those pariahs whom society does not want or who do not want society. And of these, in his short stories, he has created immortal types.
Life was still very hard for him at this time. He has given us a moving sketch of it in his story entitled: "Once in Autumn." The hero, who is none other than the author himself, passes the night under an old, upturned boat, in the company of a prostitute who is just as poor and just as abandoned as himself. They have broken into a booth in order to steal enough bread to keep them from starving. Gorky is sad; he wants to weep; but the poor girl, miserable as she is, consoles him and covers him with kisses.
"Those were the first kisses any woman ever gave me, and they were the best, for those that I received later always cost me a lot and never gave me any joy.... At this time, I was already preparing myself to be an active and powerful force in society; it seemed to me at times that I had in part accomplished my purpose.... I dreamed of political resolutions, of social reorganization; I used to read such deep and impenetrable authors that their thoughts did not seem to be a part of them—and now a prostitute warmed me with her body, and I was in debt to a miserable, shameful creature, banished by a society that did not want to accord her a place. The wind blew and groaned, the rain beat down upon the boat, the waves broke around us, and both of us, closely entwined, trembled from cold and hunger. And Natasha consoled me; she spoke to me in a sweet, caressing voice, as only a woman can. In listening to her tender and naive words, I wept, and those tears washed away from my heart many impurities, much bitterness, sadness and hatred, all of which had accumulated there before this night."
At daybreak, they say good-bye to each other, and never see one another again.
"For more than six months, I looked in all the dives and dens in the hope of seeing that dear little Natasha once more, but it was in vain...."
* * * * *
We find him again at Nizhny Novgorod at the time of the call for military recruits. Gorky was reformed, for, he says, "They do not accept those who are fallen." Meanwhile, he became a kvass merchant and exercised this trade for several months. Finally, he became the secretary of a lawyer, named Lanine. The latter, who had a very good reputation, took a deep interest in the poor boy whom life had treated so ill. He became interested in his intellectual development and, according to Gorky himself, had a great influence on him. At Nizhny Novgorod, as at Kazan, Gorky felt himself attracted by the circle of young people who discussed the "cursed" questions, and he soon was noticed by his comrades. They spoke of him as "a live and energetic soul."
Easy as life was for Gorky in this city, where he remained for a while, the "wanderlust" again seized him. "Not feeling at home among these intelligent people," he traveled. From Nizhny Novgorod, he went, in 1893, to Tzaratzine; then he traveled on foot through the entire province of the Don, the Ukraine, entered into Bessarabia, and from there descended by the coast of the Crimea as far as Kuban.
In October, 1892, Gorky found himself at Tiflis, where he worked in the railroad shops. That same year, he published in a local paper his first story, "Makar Choudra," in which already a remarkable talent was evident.
Leaving Tiflis after a short sojourn there, he came to the banks of the Volga, in his native country, and began to write stories for the local papers. A happy chance made him meet Korolenko, who took a great interest in the "debutante" writer. "In the year 1893-1894," writes Gorky, "I made the acquaintance of Vladimir Korolenko, to whom I owe my introduction into 'great' literature. He has done a great deal for me in teaching me many things."
The important influence of Korolenko on the literary development of Gorky can best be seen in one of the latter's letters to his biographer, Mr. Gorodetsky. "Write this," he says to his biographer, "write this without changing a single word: It is Korolenko who taught Gorky to write, and if Gorky has profited but little by the teaching of Korolenko, it is the fault of Gorky alone. Write: Gorky's first teacher was the soldier-cook Smoury; his second teacher was the lawyer Lanine; the third, Alexander Kalouzhny, an 'ex-man;' the fourth, Korolenko...."
From the day when he met Korolenko, Gorky's stories appeared mostly in the more important publications. In 1895, he published "Chelkashe" in the important Petersburg review, "Russkoe Bogatsvo;" a year later, other publications equally well known published, "Konovalov," "Malva," and "Anxiety." These works brought Gorky into the literary world, where he soon became one of the favorite writers. The critics, at first sceptical, soon joined their voices with the enthusiastic clamor of the people.
* * * * *
Gorky's wandering life has given his works a peculiar and universally established form. He is, above all others, the poet of the "barefoot brigade," of the vagabonds who eternally wander from one end of Russia to the other, carelessly spending the few pennies that they have succeeded in earning, and who, like the birds of the sky, have no cares for the morrow.
But this does not suffice to explain this author's popularity, especially among the younger generation. The "barefoot brigade" is not a novelty in Russian literature. We find it in the works of Reshetnikov, Uspensky, Mamine, Zhassinsky, and others. It is true that, up to this time, the vagabonds had been represented as the dregs of the people, as hopeless drunkards, thieves, and murderers. The writers who represented them were satisfied in rousing in their readers pity for the victims of this social disorder, victims so wounded by fate, that they have not even a realization of the injustice with which they are treated. And it is only in the works of the great dramatist Ostrovsky that we find any happy vagabonds, with a deep love of nature and beauty.
Gorky's vagabonds have, like Ostrovsky's, exalted feelings for natural beauties, but they possess, besides, a full consciousness of themselves, and they declare open war against society. Gorky lives the lives of his heroes; he seems to sink himself into them, and, at the same time, he idealizes them, and often uses them as his spokesmen. Far from being crushed by fate, his vagabonds clothe themselves with a certain pride in their misery; for them, the ideal existence is the one they lead, because it is free; with numerous variations, they all exalt the irresistible seduction of vagabondage:
"As for me, just listen! How many things I've seen in my fifty-eight years," says Makar Choudra. "In what country have I not been? That is the only way to live. Walk, walk, and you see everything. Don't stay long in one place: what is there out of the ordinary in that? Just as day and night eternally run after one another, thus you must run, avoiding daily life, so that you will not cease to love it...."
"I, brother,"—says, in turn, Konovalov,—"I have decided to go all over the earth, in every sense of the word. You always see something new.... You think of nothing.... The wind blows, and you might say that it blows the dust out of your soul. You feel free and easy.... You are not troubled by any one. If you are hungry, you stop, and work to earn a few pennies; if there is no work to be had, you ask for some bread and it is given to you. So you see many countries, and the most diverse beauties...."
Likewise, in "Tedium," Kouzma Kossiyak thus clearly expresses himself:
"I would not give up my liberty for any woman, nor for any fireplace. I was born in a shed, do you hear, and it is in a shed that I am going to die; that is my fate. I am going to wander everywhere until my hair turns grey.... I get bored when I stay in the same place."
In their feeling of hostility to all authority, and all fixed things, including bourgeois happiness and economical principles, some of Gorky's characters resemble some of those superior heroes of Russian literature, like Pushkin's Evgeny Onyegin, Lermontov's Pechorine, and, finally, Turgenev's Rudin, who, in their way, are vagabonds, filled with the same independent spirit in their respective social, intellectual, or political circles.
On the other hand, Gorky's wandering beggars are closely related to those "free men" to whom M. S. Maximov attributes a historic role which was favorable to the extension of the Russian empire. "Russia," he says, in his book, "Siberia and the Prison," "lived by vagabondage after she became a State; thanks to the vagabonds, she has extended her boundaries: for, it is they who, in order to maintain their independence, fought against the nomad tribes who attacked them from the south and the east...."
There is a marked difference between these two classes: men of the former look for a place on this earth where they can establish themselves; while men of the other class, those who are out of work, drunkards, and lazy men, have no taste for a sedentary life.
But if Gorky has not created the type of vagabond which is so familiar to those who know Russian literature, on the other hand, he has remodeled it with his original, energetic, and vibrantly realistic talent. His nomad "barefoot brigade," picturesquely encamped, is surrounded with a sort of terribly majestic halo in these vast stretches of country, a background against which their sombre silhouettes are set off. From the perfumed steppes to the roaring sea, they conjure up to the eye of their old co-mate the enchanting Slavic land of which they are the audacious offsprings. And Gorky also lovingly gives them a familiar setting, painted with bold strokes, of plains and mountains which border in the distance the glaucous stretch of the sea. The sea! With what fervor does Gorky depict the anger and the peace of the sea. It always inspires, like an adored mistress:
"... The sea sleeps.
"Immense, sighing lazily along the strand, it has gone to sleep, peaceful in its huge stretch, bathed in the moonlight. As soft as velvet, and black, it mingles with the dark southern sky and sleeps profoundly, while on its surface is reflected the transparent tissue of the flaky, immobile clouds, in which is incrusted the gilded design of the stars."
Thus, like a "leitmotiv," the murmuring of the water interrupts the course of the story. And the steppe, this steppe "which has devoured so much human flesh and has drunk so much blood that it has become fat and fecund," surrounds with its immensity these miserable wandering beings and menaces them with its storm:
"Suddenly, the entire steppe undulated, enveloped with a dazzling blue light which seemed to enlarge the horizon ... the shadows trembled and disappeared for a moment ... a crash of thunder burst forth, disturbing the sky, where many black clouds were flying past....
"... At times the steppe stretched forth like an oscillating giant ... the vast stretch of blue and cloudless sky poured light down upon us, and seemed like an immense cupola of sombre color."
The wind passed "in large and regular waves, or blew with a sharp rattle, the leaves sighed and whispered among themselves, the waves of the river washed up on the banks, monotonous, despairing, as if they were telling something terribly sad and mournful," the entire country vibrated with a powerful life that harmonized with the souls of the people.
In "Old Iserguile," Gorky writes: "I should have liked to transform myself into dust and be blown about by the wind; I should have liked to stretch myself out on the steppe like the warm waters of the river, or throw myself into the sea and rise into the sky in an opal mist; I should have liked to drink in this evening so wonderful and melancholy.... And, I know not why, I was suffering...."
Gorky's stories, always short enough, have little or no plot, and the characters are barely sketched. But, in these simple frames, he has confined the power of an art which is prolific, supple and profoundly living. Let us take, for example, "The Friends." Dancing Foot and The One Who Hopes are ordinary thieves, the terror of the villagers whose gardens they rob. One day, when they are especially desperate, they steal a thin horse which is browsing at the edge of the woods. The One Who Hopes gets an incurable sickness, and it is perhaps on account of his approaching death that he feels scruples at this crime. Dancing Foot expresses the scorn that the weakness of his companion inspires him with, but he ends by giving in and returns the animal. One hour later, The One Who Hopes falls dead in front of Dancing Foot, who is tremendously upset in spite of his affected indifference.
A dry outline cannot possibly convey the emotion contained in this little drama, where the low mentality of the characters is rendered with the mastery which Gorky usually shows in creating his elemental heroes. Among other works that should be noted are "Cain and Arteme," so poignantly ironical in its simplicity, "To Drive Away Tedium," "The Silver Clasps," "The Prisoner," and that little masterpiece, "Twenty-Six Men and a Girl," in which we see twenty-six bakers pouring out an ideal and mystical love on Tanya, the little embroiderer, who they believe, is as pure as an angel. One day, a brutal soldier comes to defy them, and boasts that he will conquer this young girl. He succeeds. Then the twenty-six insult their fallen idol; the tragedy is not so much in the insults that they hurl at her, as in the suffering they undergo through having lost the illusion that was so dear to them.
Let us note, incidentally, the existence of a sort of comic spirit in these works which relieves the tragedy of the situations. In spite of their dark pessimism, the actors in these little dramas have an appearance of gaiety which deceives. It is by this popular humor that Gorky is the continuator of the work of Gogol; this is especially noticeable in "The Fair at Goltva."
* * * * *
In studying Gorky, one is often struck by the homogeneity of the types which he has described. Open any of his books, and you will always meet that "restless" type, dissatisfied with the banality of his existence, trying to get away from it, and leaning irresistibly towards absolute liberty, far removed from social and political obligations.
Who are these "restless" people? Toward what end are they striving? What do they represent? First, they have an immense reserve force which they do not know what to do with; they have got out of the rut, the rut which they despise, but it is hard for them to create another sort of existence for themselves. Bourgeois happiness repulses them, while all sorts of duties are hateful to them. They consider the people who are contented with this sort of a life as slaves, unworthy of the name of man, and they show the same disdain for the peasants, for the leading classes, and for the workingmen. The simple farmer excites the scorn of the "barefoot brigade:"
"As for me," says one of them, "I don't like any peasants.... They are all dogs! They have provincial States, and they do for them.... They tremble, they are hypocrites, but they want to live; they have one protection: the soil.... However, we must tolerate the peasant, for he has a certain usefulness."
"What is a peasant?" asks another. And he answers the question himself: "The peasant is for all men a matter of food, that is to say, an animal that can be eaten. The sun, the water, the air, and the peasant are indispensable to man's existence...."
One might think that this hostility was the fruit of a feeling of envy provoked by the fact that the peasant seems to enjoy so many advantages. But, on the contrary, the "barefoot brigade" admits that the peasant subjugates his individuality for any sort of profit, and that he cannot feel the yoke which he has voluntarily taken in the hope of getting his daily bread.
These workingmen "who pitifully dig in the soil" are unfortunate slaves. "They do nothing but construct, they work perpetually, their blood and sweat are the cement of all the edifices of the earth. And yet the remuneration which they receive, although they are crushed by their work, does not give them shelter or enough food really to live on."
The enlightened classes are always characterized in Gorky's works by violent traits. The architect Shebouyev accords a sufficiently great, but scarcely honorable, place to the category of intelligent men to whom he belongs.
"All of us," he says, "are nonentities, deprived of happiness. We are in such great numbers! And our numbers have been a power for so long a time! We are animated by so many desires, pure and honest.... Why is there so much talk among us and so little action? And, all the while, the germs are there!... All these papers, novels, articles are germs ... just germs, and nothing else.... Some of us write, others read; after reading, we discuss; after discussing, we forget what we have read. For us, life is tedious, heavy, grey, and burdensome. We live our lives, but sigh from fatigue and complain of the heavy burdens we are carrying."
The journalist Yezhov, in "Thomas Gordeyev," expresses himself in the same manner, but even more decisively:
"I should like to say to the intelligent classes: 'You people are the best in my country! Your life is paid for by the blood and tears of ten Russian generations! How much you have cost your country! And what do you for her? What have you given to life? What have you done?...'"
The absence of all independence, of any passion even a little sincere, the complete submission of heart and mind to the old prescribed morality, the constant effort to realize mere personal ambitions—all of these are the reproaches that Gorky addresses to cultivated man, whose moral disintegration he proves has been produced by routine and prejudice.
In contrast to them, the vagabonds are the instinctive enemies of all slavery, in any form whatsoever. The complete independence of their personality means everything to them. And no material conditions, no matter how prosperous, will induce them to make the least compromise on this point. One of these "restless" types, Konovalov, tells how, after he had bound himself to the wife of a rich merchant, he could have lived in the greatest comfort, but he abandoned everything, the easy life, and even the woman, whom he loved well enough, in order to go out and look for the unknown. This is a common adventure on the part of Gorky's heroes.
* * * * *
What is the cause of this restlessness?
"Well, you see," explains Konovalov, "I became weary. It was such weariness, I must tell you, little brother, that at moments I simply could not live. It seemed to me as if I were the only man on the whole earth, and, with the exception of myself, there was no living thing anywhere. And in those moments, everything was repugnant to me, everything in the world; I became a burden to myself, and if everybody were dead, I wouldn't even sigh! It must have been a disease with me, and the reason why I took to drink, for, before this time, I never drank."
For the same reasons, in "Anguish," a workingman leaves his mistress and his employer, the miller. Where does this anguish come from? Perhaps it is the simple result of a psychological process which, Konovalov admits, is nothing other than a disease. It is very possible that, in impulsive acts, a psychiatrist would see something analogous to alcoholism, or the symptoms of some other anomaly.
Turgenev had already analyzed a similar case in "The Madman." When Michael Poltev is asked what evil spirit led him to drink and to risk his life, he always refers to his anguish.
"'Why this anguish?' asks his uncle.
"'Why?... When the brain is free, one begins to think of poverty, injustice, Russia.... And that's the end! anguish hastens on.... One is ready to send a bullet through one's head! There's nothing left to do but get drunk!...'
"'And why do you associate Russia with all of that? Why, you are nothing but a sluggard!'
"'But I can do nothing, dear uncle!... Teach me what I ought to do, to what task I ought to consecrate my life. I will do it gladly!...'"
Gorky's characters give the same explanation of their "ennui," and almost in identical terms. This disgust comes in great part from not knowing how to adapt oneself to life, nor how to become a "useful" man.
"Take me, for instance," says Konovalov, "what am I? A vagabond ... a drunkard, a crack-brained sort of man. There is no reason for my life. Why do I live on earth, and to whom am I useful? I have no home, no wife, no children, and I don't feel as if I wanted any. I live and am bored.... What about? No one knows. I have no life within myself, do you understand? How shall I express it? There's a spark, or force lacking in my soul...."
Another character, the shoemaker Orlov, in "Orlov and His Wife," especially reflects this pessimistic disposition. In the same way as Konovalov, he is born with "restlessness in his heart."
He is a shoemaker; and why?
"As if there weren't enough of them already! What pleasure is there in this trade for me? I sit in a cellar and sew. Then I shall die. They say that the cholera is coming.... And after that? Gregory Orlov lived, made shoes—and died of the cholera. What does that signify? And why was it necessary that I should live, make shoes and die, tell me?"
These creatures are under the impression that they are superfluous; therefore their pessimistic conclusions. All of them passionately want to be able to express the meaning of life in general, their life in particular, but the task is too much for them.
Gorky's heroes consider themselves "useless beings," but they never humiliate themselves. Their restlessness of spirit does not permit them to resign themselves to the reigning banality or to take part in it without protesting. At the same time, some of them are gifted with sufficient personality to possess an unshaken faith in themselves, in their strength, which keeps them from letting the responsibility of their torments fall back upon society.
Promtov, the hero of "The Strange Companion," makes these restless seekers the descendants of the Wandering Jew: "Their peculiarity," he ironically says, "is, that whether rich or poor, they cannot find a suitable place for themselves on earth, and establish themselves in it. The greatest of them are satisfied with nothing: money, women, nor men."
What, then, do these "greatest" want?
Their desires evidently take a multitude of forms, and have the most diverse shades; but the greatest number of them are impatient for extraordinary happenings, eager for exploits. Some of them declare that they would be willing to throw themselves on a hundred knives if humanity could be relieved by their doing so. But simple daily activity, even if it is useful, does not satisfy them.
The shoemaker Orlov leaves his cellar, as he calls it, and accepts a position in the hospital where they are taking care of cholera patients. His devotion makes him an "indispensable man;" he is reborn, and, according to his own words, he is "ripe for life." It seems as if his end were going to be attained. But not so. Restlessness seizes him again. Orlov questions the value of his work. He saves sick people from the cholera. Is he doing good? The greatest care is taken of these people, but how many people are there outside of the hospitals, one hundred times as many as there are inside, who are just as unfortunate, but, in spite of that fact, are not helped by any one?
"While you live," he declares, "no one will refuse to give you a drink of water. And if you are near death, not only will they not allow you to die, but they will go to some expense to stop you. They organize hospitals.... They give you wine at 'six and a half rubles a bottle.' The sick man gets well, the doctors are happy, and Orlov would like to share their joy; but he cannot, for he knows that, on leaving the threshold of the hospital, a life 'worse than the convulsions of the cholera' awaits the convalescent...." And again he is seized by the desire to drink, and to be a vagabond, and by a wish to experience new sensations.
* * * * *
These, then, are the vagabonds whom we can class in the category of the "restless." After these, come those whom the author terms the "ex-men," and whom he studies, under this title, in one of his longest stories. The ex-men are closely related to the "restless;" however, they differ from them in that they push their opinions to an extreme, for they are, more than the others, miserable and at bay against society.
"What difference would it make if it all went to the devil," one of them philosophizes—"I should like to see the earth go to pieces suddenly, provided that I should perish the last, after having seen the others die.... I'm an ex-man, am I not? I am a pariah, then, estranged from all bonds and duties.... I can spit on everything!"
Thomas Gordeyev's father develops another thesis; a rich and rational bourgeois, he tries to inculcate in his son from his infancy—a son who later augments the ranks of the "restless"—the most perfect spirit of egotism.
"You must pity people," he says, "but do it with discernment. First, look at a man, see what good you can get out of him, and see what he is good for. If you think he is a strong man, capable of work, help him. But if you think him weak and little suited for work, abandon him without pity. Remember this: two boards have fallen into the mud, one of them is worm-eaten, the other is sound. What are you going to do? Pay no attention to the worm-eaten plank, but take out the sound one and dry it in the sun. It may be of service to you or to some one else...."
The reader will note the absolute egotism in all of Gorky's types. The "restless" are interested only in their own misery, and they think that all men are like them; nor do they try to stop or bridle their passions.
Strong passions are one of the most precious privileges of mankind. This truth is well shown in the story: "Once More About the Devil." Here, the men have become shabby and insignificant since there has been propagated among them, with a new strength, the gospel of individual perfection. The demon stifles, in the heart of Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov, all the passions that can agitate a human soul,—ambition, pity, evil, and anger; this operation makes Ivan an absolutely perfect being. On his face there appears that beatitude which words cannot express. The devil has crushed all "substance" out of him, and he is completely "empty."
 This was preceded by a story called "The Devil."
One understands that Gorky's heroes cannot find what would be good for them, nor feel the least satisfaction in doing their fellow men a good service. They only dream of action; their sole desire is to affirm their individuality by "manifesting" themselves, little matter how. Old Iserguille is persuaded that "in life, there is room for mighty deeds" and, if a man likes them, he will find occasion to do them. Konovalov is most enthusiastic over Zhermak, to whom he feels himself akin.
 A celebrated brigand in the time of Ivan the Terrible who, in order to be pardoned, conquered Siberia in the name of the Tsar.
"I'd like to reduce the whole earth to dust," dreams Orlov, "or get up a crowd of comrades and kill off all the Jews ... all, to the very last one! Or, in general, do something that would place me high above all men, so that I could spit on them from up there, and cry to them: 'Dogs! Why do you live? You're all hypocritical rascals and nothing more....'"
These people demand a boundless liberty, but how obtain it? All of them dream of a certain organization which will let them feel relieved of all their duties, of all the thousands of petty things that make life hard, of all the small details, conventions, and obligations which hold such an important place in our society. But the time for heroic deeds has passed away, and the "restless" fight in vain against the millions of men who are determined to keep their habits and advantages.
Thus they are obliged to shake the dust off their feet and to leave the ranks in which they are suffocating. No matter what they do or what they try to do, their motto is, "each one for himself."
"Come," says a vagabond poetically to Thomas Gordeyev, "come with me on the open road, into the fields and steppes, across the plains, over the mountains, come out and look at the world in all its freedom. The thick forests begin to murmur; their sweet voice praises divine wisdom; God's birds sing its glory and the grass of the steppe burns with the incense of the Holy Virgin.
"The soul is filled with an ardent yet calm joy, you desire nothing, you envy no one.... And it is then that it seems as if on the whole earth there is no one but God and you...."
The material inconveniences of such an existence hardly affect Gorky's characters. Promtov, one of the prophets of individualism, says, in speaking of himself:
"I have been 'on the road' for ten years, and I have not complained of my fate to God. I don't want to tell you anything of this period, because it is too tedious.... In general, it is the joyous life of a bird. Sometimes, grain is lacking, but one must not be too exacting and one must remember that kings themselves do not have pleasures only. In a life like ours, there are no duties—that is the first pleasure—and there are no laws, except those of nature—that is the second. Without a doubt, the gentlemen of the police force bother one at times ... but you find fleas even in the best hotels. As a set-off, one can go to the right, or to the left, or straight ahead, wherever your heart bids you go, and if you don't want to go anywhere, after having provided yourself with bread from the hut of some peasant, who will never refuse it, you can lie down until you care to resume your travels...."
This is the final point at which all of the "restless" arrive, believing that there they will find what they have always lacked. Even the author himself shares their views up to a certain point:
"You have to be born in civilized society," he says, speaking of himself, "in order to have the patience to live there all your life without having the desire to flee from this circle, where so many restrictions hinder you, restrictions sanctioned by the habit of little poisoned lies, this sickly center of self-love, in one word, all this vanity of vanities which chills the feelings and perverts the mind, and which is called in general, without any good reason and very falsely, civilization.
"I was born and brought up outside of it, and I am glad of that fact. Because of it, I have never been able to absorb culture in large doses, without feeling, at the end of a certain time, the terrible need of stepping out of this frame.... It does one good to go into the dens of the cities, where everything is dirty, but simple and sincere; or even to rove in the fields or on the highroads; one sees curious things there. It refreshes the mind; and all you need in order to do it is a pair of sturdy legs...."
What then is the teaching that we get out of Gorky's works? For, faithful to Russian tradition, he does not practise art for art's sake. His "barefoot brigade" and his "restless" men are generally considered as representative of his own ideals. The principle of "Do what seems to you to be good"—a principle which is expressed by a wandering and free life—ought to be justified, one thinks. Critics have risen up against this ideal, trying to prove how incompatible the kind of existence that he conceives is with a solid political organization, and how far from reality the men are whom he represents.
Doubtless, in real life, people are not as original and not as heroic as Gorky represents them to be. And he himself agrees that their inventive faculties are very highly developed. He shows this in putting the following words into the mouth of Promtov:
"I have very probably exaggerated, but that's not of much importance. For, if I have exaggerated what happened, my method of exposition has shown the true state of my soul. Perhaps, I have served you with an imaginary roast, but the sauce is made of the purest truth."
The end that he is after, Gorky has shown us in his story, "The Lecturer," which contains his theories on literature. In the person of the lecturer, he addresses himself to the men who represent the majority of the Russian cultivated classes. He begins by analyzing himself carefully and discovers in himself many good feelings and honest desires, but he feels that he lacks clear and harmonious thought, a thing which keeps all the manifestations of life in equilibrium. Numerous doubts torment him, and his mind has been so moved with them, his heart so wounded, that, for a long time, he has lived "empty inside."
"What have I to say to others?" he asks himself. "That which was told them long ago, that which has always been told them, none of which makes any one any better. But have I the right to teach these ideas and convictions, if I, who was brought up according to them, act so often in opposition to them?"
With his usual sincerity, it is not to be wondered at that he answered this question in the negative, and, to cite the words of one of his characters, that he "refused to live in the chains which had already been forged for free thought, and to class himself under the label of an ism."
He has not thought it profitable to hide his doubts and has not feared to declare openly that none of the existing philosophies suit him, and that he is trying to follow his own path. All of his work is but the absolute image of his own uncertainties, of his passionate researches, and of his constant "restlessness."
At times people have believed that he was a disciple of Nietzsche. And, in truth, he has come under his influence, like so many other Russian authors. But he has gone on mostly by himself, aided by his acute sensibility, which has not, as yet, allowed him to adopt any one system to the exclusion of all others, or to formulate a system for his personal use.
"I know one thing," he says, "it is not happiness that we should hope for. What should we do with it? The meaning of life does not lie in the search for happiness, and the satisfaction of the material appetites will never suffice to make a man fully contented with himself. It is in beauty that we must look for the meaning of life, and in the energy of the will! Every moment of our lives ought to be devoted to some better end...."
However, he has very neatly set forth what he considers the task of the author. According to him, the man of to-day has lost courage; he interests himself too little in life, his desire to live with dignity has grown weaker, "an odor of putrefaction surrounds him, cowardice and slavery corrupt his heart, laziness binds his hands and his mind." But, at the same time, life grows in breadth and depth, and, from day to day, men are learning to question. And it is the writer who ought to answer their questions; but he should not content himself with straightening out the balance sheet of social deterioration, and in giving photographs of daily life. The writer must also awaken in the hearts of men a desire for liberty, and speak energetically, in order to infuse in man an ardent desire to create other forms of life.... "It seems to me," says Gorky, "that we desire new dreams, gracious inventions, unforeseen things, because the life which we have created is poor, dreary, and tedious. The reality which formerly we wanted so ardently, has frozen us and broken us down.... What is there to do? Let us try: perhaps invention and imagination will aid man in raising himself so that he may again glance for a moment at the place which he has lost on earth."
All of Gorky's characters curse life, but without ceasing to love it, because they "have the taste for life." Their complaints are only a means by which the author hopes to raise up around him "that revengeful shame and the taste for life" of which he so often speaks. Here is the artful Mayakine, who, indignant at the debasement of the younger generation, is ready to take the most cruel means in order "to infuse fire into the veins" of his contemporaries. Varenka Olessova, the heroine of a story, incessantly repeats that people would be more interesting if they were more animated, if they laughed, played, sang more, if they were more audacious, stronger, and even more coarse and vulgar. Gorky admires also the beautiful type, vigorous, with a rudimentary mentality, which meets with his approval simply because he sees in it a nature which is complete, untouched, and filled with a love of life.
Gorky suffers miseries inherent in the mere fact of existence, but he has found no remedy; he looks for consolations in the cult of beauty, in the strength of free individuality, in the flight towards a superior ideal. But he does not know where to find this superior ideal, which vivifies everything. This is perhaps the reason why people have thought they saw in his work the Nietzschean influence, which praises an insistence on individuality in defiance of current conventions, and gives us just as vague a solution as Gorky does.
But this enthusiasm for an ideal, vague as it is, this passionate appeal for energy in the struggle, has awakened powerful echoes in the hearts of the Russians, especially the younger of them. Gorky suddenly became their favorite author, and it is to this warm reception that he owes a great part of his renown. He has carried the young along with him, and they have put their ideals in the place which he had left empty.
If we now pass on to the first novels and dramas of Gorky, we shall be struck by the fact that, in spite of the talent shown in them, they are very inferior to his short stories. His former mastery is not found, except in his later novels, which we shall take occasion to mention presently.
"Thomas Gordeyev" contains some very fine passages, but is not very successful as a whole. Thomas's father is a merchant on the banks of the Volga; he is an energetic man who carries out all his ideas. Whatever he is engaged on, whether business affairs, or a debauch, or repentance thereof, he gives himself entirely to the impression of the moment. Like other men of his class, moreover, he lives a life which is a singular mixture of refinement and savagery. He spends his time in drinking and working, as much for himself as for his only son, Thomas, whose mother died in giving birth to him. The child grows up under the care of his aunt and shows a serious disposition toward study. Gradually, he feels the motives that make men act, and he questions his father about them.
Before dying, the latter says to his son: "Don't count on men, don't count on great events." In spite of the wealth which he inherits Thomas is not happy; he has no friends; his colleagues, the merchants, and especially his father's old friend, Mayakine, are repulsive to him on account of their cupidity and their unscrupulousness. Thomas does not love money and does not understand its power, two things that people cannot forgive him for. Besides, he does not know how to make use of the forces that are burning within him. After having vainly sought for moral relief in debauchery, he ends by proposing to strike a bargain with Mayakine so that he can be freed from responsibility and go out and look for happiness. He will give Mayakine his personal fortune if the latter will look after his business affairs. But the old roue, who hopes to get possession of the fortune in a surer way, refuses, and their conversation turns into a quarrel.
As he does not work, Thomas indulges in many extravagances in company with a journalist of very advanced ideas. Finally, one day when he is at a fete at which are present all the wealthy members of the merchant class, the young man, disgusted with their vices, rises to apostrophize them in the most bitter terms. They throw themselves on him, and he is arrested as a madman and put into an asylum. He comes out, only to abandon himself to drink.
In "The Three," Gorky tells us the life story of Ilya Lounyev, a poor creature, born in poverty, whose life is full of deceptions, misfortunes, even crimes. Several times, Ilya has tried to lead a decent life; but it is his sincerity that makes him lose his position with the merchant for whom he works. He has believed in beauty and in the purity of love, and he is deceived by the woman he loves. Gradually all the baseness of the world becomes clear to him. In a moment of jealousy he kills his mistress's lover, an old miser. Several months later he publicly confesses his crime, and, in order to escape from human justice, he commits suicide.
* * * * *
In his first two dramas, "The Smug Citizen," and "A Night's Refuge," as in his short stories, Gorky shows us his usual characters.
The Bessemenovs, comfortable, petty bourgeois, have given their children an education. Their daughter, Tatyana, becomes a school-teacher, but her profession does not please her. Peter, their son, has been expelled from the university, in spite of his indifference toward "new" ideas. The children are continually harassed by their father, who bemoans the fact that he has given them an education. Besides, another sadness troubles him: Nil, his adopted son, whom he has had taught the trade of a mechanician,—an alert and industrious fellow,—wants to marry Polya, a girl without a fortune. The father is beside himself, for, if Nil marries, he will never be in a condition to pay back the money that has been spent on him. But Nil protests: he is young, and, some day, he will repay his debt. He has not noticed that Tatyana is in love with him; and the young girl has not strength enough to live through the sorrow of seeing herself abandoned forever. She tries to commit suicide, but does not succeed. While Tatyana is bemoaning her fate, Peter has fallen in love with a young woman quite different from any of the members of his family. Helen understands how sad Peter's position is among these ignorant people, and she decides to marry him, for pity as much as for love. The father is no more satisfied with this match than he was with Nil's, and with death in his soul he is present at the dismemberment of his family. While Helen takes Peter, Nil goes off with Polya. The mother, a humble and kind woman, does not understand the cause of all this dissension and, while consoling the weeping Tatyana, she asks her husband: "Why are our children punishing us so? Why do they make us suffer?" This play is not dramatically effective and has never had a great success on the stage.
On the other hand, Gorky's second attempt, "A Night's Refuge," has been enormously successful. Here, the author takes us into the world of the barefoot brigade. Vasska Pepel, Vassilissa's lover, the proprietor of the night refuge in which he sleeps, loves the sister of his mistress, Natasha by name, a timid and dreamy young girl, who blooms like a lily in this mire. The old vagabond, Luke, advises the young girl to run off with Vasska, who wants to begin a new life. But Vassilissa, jealous and evil as she is, has noticed the coldness which her lover shows towards her. She avenges herself by striking her younger sister whenever she can. Her plan was, with the aid of Vasska, to kill her husband, Kostylev, and then to live openly with her lover. But when she sees Vasska ready to leave with Natasha, she starts a terrible scene, which ends in Vasska's killing Kostylev without meaning to. Vassilissa and her lover are arrested and Natasha disappears.
Although the characters of this play are vagabonds, they differ from most of Gorky's creations, whose fiery and enthusiastic souls usually discover a real beauty in the life they have chosen. Alcoholism, prostitution, and misery have shut off these people who live in the cellar. They have fallen so low, that conscience is a useless luxury for them. It belongs to the rich only. One of them, who is asked if he has a conscience, replies with sincere astonishment: "What? Conscience?" And when the question is asked again, he answers, "What good is conscience? I'm not a rich man." The life of these people is worse than a nightmare: to-morrow they will be cold, hungry, and drunk, just as they were yesterday. Sometimes, perhaps, they feel like struggling against their evil lot, but no one stretches forth a helping hand to them. They do not dare think of the future, and they would like to forget the past. One of them expresses his fear of life thus:
"At times, I'm afraid, brother; can you understand that?... I tremble.... For, what is there after this?" And this fear smothers all the energy in them. They are poor and scantily clothed, not only in the material sense of the word, but also in the moral sense. Money would not be necessary to save them, but a word of sympathy, of love, a word that would give them the courage really to live.
And it is here that old Luke appears. He treats the men as if they were children, and gains their confidence. In his words there is manifested a real experience of things and people. As he says, "They moulded me a lot," and that is why he became "tender." He knows just the right word for every one. He assures the dying woman that: "Eternal rest means happiness. Die, and you will have rest, you will have no cares, and no one to fear. Silence will calm you! All you have to do is remain lying down! Death pacifies and is tender. You will appear before God, and He will say to you: 'Take her to Paradise so that she may rest. I know that her life has been hard; she is tired, give her peace.'" And the sick woman, who has dragged out her existence so long, is consoled.
To the drunkard, a former actor who has fallen, Luke says: "Stop drinking, pull yourself together and be patient. You will be cured, and you will begin a new existence...." And he succeeds in awakening a hope of a better life in the soul of the poor comedian, while he himself, perhaps, hardly believes in the possible regeneration of his protege.
After Luke's departure, the temporary dreams of these miserable people vanish. One evening, when they are all gathered around a bottle of brandy, they strike up a song. A friend, a baron by birth, rushes into the cellar and announces that the actor has hung himself, and that his corpse is hanging in the court. A deathlike silence follows these words. All look at each other in fright. "Ah, the fool!" finally murmurs a vagabond, "he spoiled our song...." The hope in a better life that Luke had awakened in the actor made him kill himself, when he saw that he had not enough strength to realize this hope.
This drama is the quintessence of all that Gorky has, up to this time, written on the "ex-man," whom he has thoroughly "explored." And the figure of old Luke is one of his most original and lifelike creations.
His third important play, which, however, has never enjoyed the popularity of "A Night's Refuge," is called: "The Children of the Sun." The "children of the sun" are the elect of heaven, richly endowed with talent and knowledge. They live in a world of noble dreams, of elevated thoughts, enveloped though they are in the greyness of life. There pass before them long processions of tired and oppressed people. The latter, also, have been generated by the strong sun; but the light has gone out for them, and they travel on life's highway without joy or faith, among those who are proud of their beauty or learning. The "children of the sun" are the aristocrats of the soul. They have but one end: to make life beautiful, good, and agreeable for all. They continually think of making it easier, of soothing suffering, and of preparing a better future. Their mission is a large one. They are not idle, but are men who have the most elevated ends in view.
Between "the children of the sun" and "the children of the earth" there is a deep abyss. They do not understand each other. The "children of the sun" cannot admit the miseries and ugliness of daily life. They have compassion for the people who work below them. The "children of the earth" feel the superiority of the "children of the sun," but their narrow-mindedness, continually absorbed by the necessity of finding shelter and food, cannot rise to the preoccupations of so elevated an order. However, life brings these two worlds together in a common work; but their mere meeting on the ground of practical interests produces a collision.
A third category constitutes the intermediary link. This is made up of the university people, the representatives of the liberal professions. As "intellectuals," they cannot equal the "children of the sun," but they can understand them. They conceive the grandeur of their moral activity. At the same time, these men are close to the people. They are often obliged to mingle in the life of the people, and more than the "children of the sun," they are capable of enlarging their minds and ennobling their duties. But, while they know and understand the duties of the people completely, they are not yet strong enough to help them. This, then, is the general meaning of the play.
* * * * *
Although this play is cleverly constructed, with a last act which is pathetic and moving in its intensity, and produces a profound impression, on the whole, unfortunately, it has the general harshness of problem plays. Under its lyric vestments, its solid and massive character appears too often. Gorky, a born observer, inheritor of the realistic traditions of his country, could not help turning aside, one day, from this ideological art, visibly influenced by Tolstoy's dramas. The direct part that the romanticist has played in the political events of his country sufficiently proves that he has taken a different road from that taken by the apostle of Yasnaya Polyana. With maturity, he felt the need of hastening the denouement of the crisis in Russia, in actively participating in its emancipation. From that time on, he chose his heroes from a less singular environment. Instead of the philosophic vagabonds, the neurasthenic "restless" ones, and the ex-men, he chose the plebeian of the city and country, who is gradually awakening from a sleep of ignorance and slavery. A remarkable story, called "In Prison," all atremble with new sensations, inaugurates this new style. A victim himself of the intolerance of "over-men," Gorky has incarnated his own revolts and hopes in the soul of his hero, Misha, a brother of the revolutionary students who do not hesitate to sacrifice their life or liberty for a principle or ideal.
Written at the same time, the story called "The Soldiers" gives proof of an equally careful incorporation of the claims of the oppressed in a literary work.
The school-mistress, Vera, has conceived the daring project of teaching the soldiers who are quartered in the village. She gets some of them together at the edge of the neighboring woods and there she tries to show them the ignominy of the roles they play in times of uprisings. Angered by this unexpected talk, the soldiers threaten the young girl. But her coolness and sincerity finally make them listen to her with a respect mingled with admiration.
A third story, called "Slaves," in a masterful way retraces the catastrophes of the now historical journey of January 9, 1905, at the end of which, a crowd of 200,000 men, led by the famous pope Gapon, went to the Tsar's palace to present their demands to him, and were received with cannon shots.
These stories were followed by three works of great merit: "Mother," "A Confession," and "The Spy."
The novel "Mother" takes us into the midst of revolutionary life. The heroes of this book belong, for the most part, to that workingman and agricultural proletariat whose role has lately been of such great importance in the Russian political tempests. With marvelous psychological analysis, Gorky shows how some of these simple creatures understand the new truth, and how it gradually penetrates their ardent souls.
Pavel Vlassov, a young, intelligent workingman, is thirsty for knowledge, and is the apostle of the new ideal. He throws himself heart and soul into the dangerous struggle he has undertaken against ignorance and oppression. The Little Russian, Andrey, is all feeling and thought, and the peasant Rybine is inflamed by action. Sashenka is a young girl who sacrifices herself entirely to the Idea, and the coal-man Ignatius is driven by an obscure force to help in a cause which he does not understand. Finest of them all is Pelaguaya Vlassov, the principal character of the book, and Pavel's mother.
Old and grey, Pelaguaya has passed her whole life in misery. She has never known anything but how to suffer in silence and endure without complaint; she has never dreamed that life could be different. One day her father had said to her:
"It's useless to make faces! There is a fool who wants to marry you,—take him. All girls marry, all women have children; children are, for all parents, a sorrow. And are you, yes or no, a human being?"
She then marries the workingman Michael Vlassov, who gets drunk every day, beats her cruelly and kicks her, and even on his death-bed, says: "Go to the devil.... Bitch! I'll die better alone."
He dies, and his son Pavel begins to bring forbidden books into the house. Friends come and talk; a small group is formed. Pelaguaya listens to what is said, but understands nothing. Gradually, however, there begins to filter into her old breast, like a stream of joy, an understanding of something big, of something in which she can take part. She discovers that she too is a free creature, and, obscurely, there is formed in her mind the notion that every human being has a right to live. Then she speaks: "The earth is tired of carrying so much injustice and sadness, it trembles softly at the hope of seeing the new sun which is rising in the bosom of mankind." So the obscure and miserable woman gradually rises to the dignity of "The Mother of the Prophet." And when Pavel accepts, like the martyrdom of the cross, his banishment to Siberia, with a joyous heart she sacrifices her son to the Idea.
Her soul opens wide to the new truth that is lighting it. With the most touching abnegation, she tries to carry on the work of the absent one. But the police are watching. One day, when she is about to take the train to a neighboring town to spread the "good word" there, she is recognized and apprehended. Seeing that she is lost, the Mother, whose personality at this moment grows absolutely symbolic, cries out to the crowd:
"'Listen to me! They condemned my son and his friends because they were bringing the truth to everybody! We are dying from work, we are tormented by hunger and by cold, we are always in the mire, always in the wrong! Our life is a night, a black night!'
"'Hurrah for the old woman!' cries some one in the crowd.
"A policeman struck her in the chest; she tottered, and fell on the bench. But she still cried:
"'All of you! get all your forces together under a single leader.'
"The big red hand of the policeman struck her in the throat, and the nape of her neck hit against the wall.
"'Shut up, you hag!' cried the officer in a sharp voice.
"The Mother's eyes grew larger and shone brightly. Her jaw trembled.
"'They won't kill a resurrected soul!'
"With a short swing the policeman struck her full in the face.
"Something red and black momentarily blinded the Mother; blood filled her mouth.
"A voice from the crowd brought her to herself:
"'You haven't the right to strike her!'
"But the officers pushed her, and hit her on the head.
"'... It's not blood that will drown what's right.'...
"Dulled and weakened, the Mother tottered. But she saw many eyes about her, glowing with a bold fire, eyes that she knew well and that were dear to her.
"'... They will never get at the truth, even under oceans of blood!'
"The policeman seized her heavily by the throat.
"There was a rattling in her throat:
"... 'The unfortunates!'
"Some one in the crowd answered her, with a deep sigh."
* * * * *
"A Confession" is the story of a restless soul who untiringly searches for the God of truth and goodness. Found as a child in a village of central Russia, Matvey was first taken by a sacristan, and, after his death, by Titov, the inspector of the domain. In order to debase Matvey, whose superiority irritates him, Titov asks him to participate in his extortions. Having become the son-in-law of his adopted father, Matvey, on account of his love for his wife, accepts the shameful life. But the God in whom Matvey has placed his distracted confidence, seems to want to chastise him cruelly. After having lost, one after the other, his wife and child, he goes away at a venture. He enters a monastery where, among the dissolute monks, whose vices are most repugnant, his soul gradually shakes off the Christian dogma. On one of his pilgrimages, he gets to Damascus. Among the workingmen, where chance has taken him, he feels his heart opening to the truth, which he follows up with the determination of a real Gorkyan hero. The life of the people appears to him in its sublime simplicity. And it is in the midst of a dazzling apotheosis—which reminds one of the most grandiose pages of Zola's "Lourdes"—that he finally confesses the God of his ideal: it is the people.
"People! you are my God, creator of all the gods that you have formed from the beauty of your soul, in your troubled and laborious search!
"Let there be no other gods on the earth but yourself, for you are the only God, the creator of miracles!"
* * * * *
"The Spy" is a study of the Russian police. The novel treats of the terrible Okhrana, whose mysterious affairs have become the laughing-stock of all the foreign papers.
The principal character, about whom circle the police spies and secret agents, is a poor orphan, weak and timid, called Evsey Klimkov, whom his uncle, the forger Piotr, has taken into his house and brought up with his son, the strong and brutal James. Beaten by his schoolmates and by his cousin, the child lives in a perpetual trance. Life seems formidable to him, like a jungle in which men are the pitiless beasts. Everywhere, brute force or hypocrisy triumph; everywhere, the weak are oppressed, downtrodden, conquered. And in his feverish imagination, daily excited by facts which his terror distorts, Evsey delights in conceiving another existence, all made of love and goodness, an existence that he unceasingly opposes against the hard realities of daily life, with the stubborn fervor of a mystic.
Having entered the service of the old bookseller Raspopov, the young man does his duty with the faithfulness of a beast of burden. His home no longer pleases him at all; there, things and people are still hostile to him; but his uncle Piotr seems enchanted with his new position. Evsey spends his days in arranging and classifying the books which his master has bought. A young woman, Raissa Petrovna, keeps house for the book-dealer, and as every one knows, they live like man and wife. In this queer environment, the faculties of the young man become sharpened, and serve him well. It does not take long for him to find out what they are hiding from him. A few words addressed by Raspopov to a certain Dorimedonte Loukhine reveal to Evsey the part that is being played by his patron. Raspopov, who is an agent of the secret police, gives Dorimedonte—who, by the way, is deceiving him with Raissa—the names of the buyers of the forbidden books in which he trades. And here it is that the tragedy suddenly breaks forth.
Raissa, tired of being tormented by Raspopov, who accuses her of poisoning him, strangles the old man in a moment of cold anger, under the very eyes of Evsey. Thanks to Dorimedonte, this crime goes unpunished. Evsey, having become the lodger of the two lovers, now enters the Okhrana, at the advice of his new master. After a while, Raissa, haunted by remorse, commits suicide, and Dorimedonte is killed by some revolutionists.
All the interest of the book, however, is centered in the picture of the police institutions. From the chief Philip Philipovich to the agent Solovyev, Gorky presents, with consummate art, the mass of corrupt and greedy agents who wearily accomplish their tasks.
Among them, young Evsey leads a miserable and ridiculous existence. Bruised by an invincible power, he sees himself compelled to arrest an old man who has confided his revolutionary ideas to him; then a young girl with whom he is in love; finally, his own cousin, a revolutionary suspect.
Gradually his eyes are opened. He realizes that he cannot extricate himself from the position in which he has placed himself. Tired of leading a life which his conscience disapproves of, he thinks of killing his superior, who has driven him to do so many infamous deeds. He will thus get justice. His project miscarries; maddened, he throws himself under a passing train.
* * * * *
These three remarkable works, riddled by the Russian censor, so that the complete version has appeared only abroad, have recently been followed by two important stories: "Among the People" and "Matvey Kozhemyakine."
With his accustomed power, Gorky shows us, in the first of these stories, the spread of socialism among the agricultural proletariat. He depicts village life with its pettiness and ignominy. The village is for the most part a backward place, hostile to everything that makes a breach in tradition. The hatching of socialism goes on slowly. From day to day, new obstacles, helped on by the ignorance of the peasants, hinder those who are trying to carry out their belief. Even the village guard, Semyon, pursues them with his hatred.
But Igor Petrovich, the propagator of these new ideas, finds, in a few old friends and in a village woman who becomes his mistress, some precious helpers. Thanks to them, he gradually gets up a little circle of firm believers who gather in a cave in the woods. Every evening, they read, discuss, and dream of a better organization, out there in the cave. All would have gone well, if some of them had not betrayed the leader to the police. While being led to the city prison, the leader spoke to the soldiers who were escorting him:
"The soldiers trembled as they clicked their bayonets; they silently listened to the legend of the generous earth which loves those who work it. Again, their red faces were covered with drops of melted snow; the drops ran down their cheeks like bitter tears of humiliation; they breathed heavily, they snuffled, and I felt that they kept walking a little faster, as if they wanted this very day to arrive in that fairy land.
"We are no longer prisoners and soldiers; we are simply seven Russians. I do not forget the prison, but when I remember all that I lived through that summer and before that, my heart fills with joy, and I feel like crying out:
"Rejoice, beloved Russian people! Your resurrection is close at hand!"
* * * * *
"Matvey Kozhemyakine" very brilliantly returns to Gorky's early manner. In this book no symbolic character interprets the bold thoughts of the author. It is simply a novel of Russian provincial life. Its simplicity does not exclude vigor, and it reminds us at times of Balzac.
Young Matvey is the son of an old workingman who has become rich, thanks to his energy and dishonesty. He has grown up in a large house, adjoining a rope-yard, with his father and several servants. His mother, whom he never knew, left home shortly after his birth, and entered a convent in order to escape the torments of life. Later, Matvey's father marries a young girl, in order to provide a mother for his son, whom he loves dearly. But his new mother is not long in finding out the dreary life which she has to lead with the old man. In order to escape from the tedium of it, she listens to the interesting experiences of the wandering life of the porter Sazanov, and gives her unfaithful love in exchange.
Unexpected circumstances disclose this shameful adultery to Matvey. Instead of revealing it to his father, he generously guards the secret. He even goes so far as to protect her from the fury of a workingman, named Savka, whom Sazanov's success has rendered bold. Through gratitude, and later through love, in the absence of Kozhemyakine, she becomes the mistress of her step-son. On his return, the father, finding out about this "liaison," spares his son, but beats his wife to death, and himself, mad with fury, falls, struck with apoplexy.
All the newspapers in the world have attacked Gorky's way of living. As he is forced to remain away from his beloved country, the great writer has made his home in the little island of Capri, the air of which is propitious to his failing health. Moreover, its impressive scenery inspires his restless genius.
Drunk with liberty, taken up with beauty, always ready to help a man who is in political and social difficulties, Gorky, from the depths of his peaceful retreat, wanders out over the world of ideas in search of truth, as formerly he used to wander over the earth in search of bread.
Leonid Andreyev was born of a humble bourgeoise family in Orel, in 1871. "It was there that I began my studies," he says. "I was not a good pupil; in the seventh form I was last in my class for a whole year, and I had especially poor reports as to my deportment. The most agreeable part of my schooling, which I still remember with pleasure, was the intervals between the lessons, the 'recesses,' and the times, rare as they were, when the instructor sent me from the class-room for inattention or lack of respect. In the long deserted halls a sonorous silence reigned which vibrated at the solitary noise of my steps; on all sides the closed doors, shutting in rooms full of pupils; a sunbeam—a free beam—played with the dust which had been raised during recess and which had not yet had time to settle; all of it was mysterious, interesting, full of a particular and secret meaning."
Andreyev's father, who was a geometrician, died while he was still at school, and the family was without resources. The young man did not hesitate, however, in setting out for St. Petersburg, where he entered the university, hoping to gain a livelihood by giving lessons. But it was hard to secure what he wanted. "I knew what terrible misery was," Andreyev tells us; "during my first years in St. Petersburg I was hungry more than once, and sometimes I did not eat for two days."
His first literary productions date from this sombre epoch. Andreyev gives us remarkably graphic details of this misery. One day, he gave a daily paper a story about the tribulations of an ever-hungry student: his own life!
"I wept like a child in writing these pages," he confesses. "I had put down all of my sufferings. I was still affected by my great sadness when I took the manuscript to the editor. I was told to come back in a few weeks to find out whether it had been accepted. I returned with a light heart, keeping down my anguish in expectation of the decision. It came to me in the form of a loud burst of laughter from the editor, who declared that my work was absolutely worthless...."
Nevertheless, he energetically pursued his studies, which he completed at the University of Moscow. "There," he tells us, "life was, from a material standpoint, less unbearable; my friends and the aid society came to my assistance; but I recall my life at the University of St. Petersburg with genuine pleasure; the various classes of students are there more differentiated and an individual can more easily find a sympathetic surrounding among such distinct groups."
Some time after that, Andreyev, disgusted with life, attempted suicide. "In January, 1894," he writes, "I tried to shoot myself, but without any appreciable result. I was punished by religious penance, imposed upon me by authority, and a sickness of the heart which, although not dangerous, was persistent. During this time I made one or two equally unsuccessful literary attempts, and I gave myself up with success to painting, which I have loved since childhood; I then painted portraits to order for from 5 to 10 rubles....
"In 1897, I received my counsellor's degree and I took up that profession in Moscow. For want of time I did not succeed in getting any sort of a 'clientele'; in all, I pleaded but one civil case, which, however, I lost completely, and several gratuitous criminal cases. However, I was actively working in reporting these cases for an important paper."
Finally, two strangely impressionistic stories: "Silence," and "He Was...," published in an important Petersburg review, brought the author into prominence. From that time, he devoted himself entirely to literature.
* * * * *
Andreyev is considered, to-day, as one of the most brilliant representatives of the new constellation of Russian writers, in which he takes a place immediately next to Tchekoff, whom he resembles in the melancholy tone of his work. In him, as in Tchekoff, the number of people who suffer from life, either crushed or mutilated by it, by far exceed the number of happy ones; moreover, the best of his stories are short and sketchy like those of Tchekoff. Andreyev is then, so to speak, his spiritual son. But he is a sickly son, who carries the melancholy element to its farthest limit. The grey tones of Tchekoff have, in Andreyev, become black; his rather sad humor has been transformed into tragic irony; his subtle impressionability into morbid sensibility. The two writers have had the same visions of the anomalies and the horrors of existence; but, where Tchekoff has only a disenchanted smile, Andreyev has stopped, dismayed; the sensation of horror and suffering which springs from his stories has become an obsession with him; it does not penetrate merely the souls of his heroes, but, as in Poe, it penetrates even the descriptions of nature.
Thus, the "near and terrible" disk of the moon hovers over the earth like the "gigantic menace of an approaching but unknown evil"; the river congeals in "mute terror," and silence is particularly menacing. Night always comes "black and bad," and fills human hearts with shadows. When it falls, the very branches of the trees "contract, filled with terror." Under the influence of the disturbing sounds of the tocsin, the high linden-trees "suddenly begin to talk, only to become quiet again immediately and lapse into a sullen silence." The tocsin itself is animated. "Its distinct tones spread with rapid intensity. Like a herald of evil who has not the time to look behind him, and whose eyes are large with fright, the tocsin desperately calls men to the fatal mire."
 This passage is a sort of a variation on the theme that Poe has developed in a masterful way in his poem, "The Bells."
Most of Andreyev's characters, like those of Dostoyevsky, are abnormal, madmen and neurasthenics in whom are distinguishable marked traces of degeneration and psychic perversion. They are beings who have been fatally wounded in their life-struggle, whose minds now are completely or partially powerless. Too weak to fight against the cruel exigencies of reality, they turn their thoughts upon themselves and naturally arrive at the most desolate conclusions, and commit the most senseless acts. Some, a prey to the mania of pride, despairing because of their weakness and their "nothingness," look—as does Serge Petrovich—for relief in suicide. Others, who have resigned themselves to their sad lives, become passive observers, become transformed into living corpses whose sole desire is peace; such a one is the hero of "At the Window." Others still instinctively choke in themselves the best tendencies of their characters and are passionately fond of futile and senseless amusements, by means of which they enjoy themselves like children, until a catastrophe makes them "come back to themselves." This is the idea of the original story called "The Grand Slam." In "The Lie" Andreyev depicts the pathological process in the soul of a man who, crushed by the falsehood of his own solitary existence, becomes insane at the idea that truth is inaccessible to human reason and that the reign of the Lie is invincible. The hero of "The Thought" reveres but one thing in the world—his own thought. Wrapped up in this one idea, he admires the force and finesse of it, while his reason, detached from reality and having only him for an end, begins to weaken, becomes gradually perverted to the point where this man, harassed by a terrible doubt, begins to ask himself whether he is insane. In the long and pathetic story, "The Life of a Priest," we are shown the disturbance of the religious feelings of a country priest who, although he has an ardent and strong soul, is crushed by his moral isolation among the ignorant people of a miserable village. It is again this moral isolation that is analyzed in "Silence," in which story it is the cause of a domestic tragedy. The same cause provokes a rupture between a father and a son in "The Obscure Distance," and brings with it in some way the death of the neurasthenic student.
 In the English translation this book is called "A Dilemma."
In general, the stories of Andreyev, after passing through various catastrophes, lead the reader back to this theme,—the moral isolation of a human being, who feels that the world has become deserted, and life a game of shadows. The abyss which separates Andreyev's heroes from other men makes them weak, numb, and miserable. It seems, in fact, that there is no greater misfortune than for a man to feel himself alone in the midst of his fellow-creatures.
Finally, in "The Gulf," a somewhat imaginary thesis is developed, based on the terrible vitality which certain vile instincts keep even in the purest and most innocent minds, while the story "He Was..." shows us the inside of a clinic, in which there are two dying men whose illusions of life persist till the supreme moment.
* * * * *
If we carefully study a few of Andreyev's characters we can more easily understand his feelings and his style. Here is, for instance, Serge Petrovich, a student. Although he is not very intelligent, he is above the average. His mind is preoccupied with all sorts of questions; he reads Nietzsche, he ponders over many things, but he does not know how to think for himself. The fact that there are people who can find a way to express themselves appears to him as an inaccessible ideal; while mediocre minds have no attraction for him at all. It is from this feeling that all his sufferings come. So "a horse, carrying a heavy burden, breathes hard, falls to the ground, but is forced to rise and proceed by stinging lashes from a whip."
These lashes are the vision of the superman, of the one who rightfully possesses strength, happiness, and liberty. At times a thick mist envelops the thoughts of Serge Petrovich, but the light of the superman dispels this, and he sees his road before him as if it had been drawn or told him by another.
Before his eyes there is a being called Serge Petrovich for whom all that makes existence happy or bitter, deep and human, remains a closed book. Neither religion nor morality, neither science nor art, exists for him. Instead of a real and ardent faith, he feels in himself a motley array of feelings. His habitual veneration of religious rites mingles with mean superstitions. He is not courageous enough to deny God, not strong enough to believe in Him. He does not love his fellow-men, and cannot feel the intense happiness of devoting himself to his fellow-creatures and even dying for them. But neither does he experience that hate for others which gives a man a terrible joy in his struggle with his fellow-men. Not being capable of elevating himself high enough or falling low enough to reign over the lives of men, he lives or rather vegetates with a keen feeling of his mediocrity, which makes him despair. And the pitiless words of Zarathustra ring in his ears: "If your life is not successful, if a venomous worm is gnawing at your heart, know that death will succeed." And Serge Petrovich, desperate, commits suicide.
The hero of "At the Window" is quite different. This man has succeeded in building for himself a sort of fortress, "in which he retires, sheltered from life." Like Serge Petrovich, although not as often, he is tormented by restless thoughts, and, from time to time, he is obliged to defend his "fortress." But usually he is contented with watching life, that is to say, that part which he can see from his window. Nothing troubles the tranquillity of his mind, not even the desire to live like other men. One day, he speaks of his theories to a simple, uneducated young girl whom he thinks of marrying. She is astonished and stupefied by them. She perceives that he leads an insipid and morose life. Andrey Nikolayevich does not take into account or understand the stupefaction of the young girl.
"This then is your life?" she asks, incredulously.
"This is it. What more could you want?"
"But it must be terribly monotonous to live in that way, apart from the world."
"What good does one find in mankind? Nothing but tedium. When I am alone, I am my own master, but among men you never know what attitude to take to please them. They drag you into drunkenness, into gambling; then they denounce you to your superiors. I, however, love calmness and frankness. Some of them accept bribes and allow themselves to become corrupt; I do not like that.... I adore tranquillity."
Moreover, he does not marry the young girl. He gives her up because he is afraid of the incumbrances that housekeeping will bring.
In "The Grand Slam" four provincial "intellectuals" are locked up in the same fortress, and, by playing cards, they escape the terrible problems of a life which is inimical to them. Their existence has been passed among these cards, which, by a mysterious phenomenon, have become real living creatures to them. One of the players has dreamed all through his life of getting a grand slam, when, one evening, he sees he has the necessary cards in his hand. He has but to take one more card, the ace of spades, and his dream will be realized. But at the very moment when he is stretching forth his hand to take it, he falls down dead. His partners are terrified. One of them, a timorous and exact old man, named Jacob Ivanovich, is particularly struck. A thought comes to him; he quickly rises, after making sure that it was the ace of spades that the dead man was going to take, and cries:
"But he will never know that he was going to get the ace of spades and a grand slam! Never.... Never...."
"Then it appeared to Jacob Ivanovich that, up to this moment, he had never understood what death was. Now he understood, and what he saw was senseless, horrible, and irreparable!... The dead man would never know!"
The poignant irony of this story is not unusual with Andreyev.
It is again found in the short and symbolic story "The Laugh." A student, profiting by the fact that it is carnival time, disguises himself as a Chinaman and goes to the house of the girl he loves. The mute, immobile, and stupidly calm mask, and the whole "get-up" are so funny, that the unfortunate man rouses irresistible laughter wherever he goes. The young girl cannot help herself, and, while listening to his very touching and sincere declaration, which, at any other time, would have brought tears to her eyes, she bursts out laughing and cannot again become serious, although she realizes that a living and unhappy being is hidden under this impassive and foolish Chinaman's mask.
* * * * *
In "The Lie" we see a man who, by isolating himself from life, has lost the feeling of reality, and all capacity of discerning the true from the false. He suffers terribly from the feeling that something unknown is happening around him. This man, who would be ready to sacrifice everything, even his life, in order to know truth, guesses the lie that comes between him and the person who is dearest to him. He falls into a despair that soon turns to fury. In order to recover his calm, he begs the girl he loves, whom he suspects of having deceived him, to reveal the whole truth to him. But he cannot believe her protestations of innocence. One word bursts from his being, breaks forth from the depths of his soul: "Lies! Lies! Lies everywhere!"
"In looking at her beautiful pure forehead," he writes, "I dreamed that truth was there, on the other side of that thin barrier, and I felt a senseless desire to break that barrier and at least to see the truth. Lower down, beneath her white breast, I heard the beating of her heart, and I had a mad desire to open her breast so that I could read, at least once, what there was at the bottom of her heart."
He ends by killing that which he loved, and thinks that he is satisfied: he believes he has killed the lie.
In "The Thought" we see the gradual development of insanity during the period when it is doubtful, when the will is almost entirely annihilated and replaced by a fixed idea, and when conscience is not entirely abolished. Dr. Kerzhenzev kills his friend, obeying a mental suggestion, which now forbids him to do it, now urges him on. Then, like the "half-insane" or those sick people who feign madness in order more easily to attain their end, this man suggests to himself that he is in reality insane. This idea gets a hold on him after the murder and fills his soul with mortal terror, the exposure of which forms the most supremely pathetic part of the whole story. All this drama of a foundering intelligence, complicated by bizarre contradictions, is developed with a penetrating power of analysis.
Andreyev tells us that on the day of judgment the alienists are divided as to the insanity of Kerzhenzev. The story ends at this place. But the principal interest of the story does not lie in this or that solution of the problem, which is not mysterious, for the doctor is doubtlessly abnormal, and it is only as to the degree of insanity that there can be any question. The main interest lies in another direction, in the subtle analysis of this special mental condition, which is done with consummate art.
This story had the honor of occupying an entire meeting of the psychiatrists attached to the Academy of Medicine of St. Petersburg. According to the report of Dr. Ivanov, the assembly was almost unanimous in declaring the murderer insane. Another psychiatrist, who thought he saw proofs of an abnormal mentality in all the stories of Andreyev, pronounced the same verdict against Dr. Kerzhenzev, in a meeting of doctors.
* * * * *
"All of priest Vassily Fiveyisky's life was weighed down by a cruel and enigmatic fatality,"—it is thus that the story, "The Life of a Pope," opens. "As if struck by an unknown malediction, he had from his youth been made to carry a heavy burden of sorrows, sickness and misfortunes; he was solitary among men as a planet is among planets; a peculiar and malevolent atmosphere surrounded him. Son of an obscure, patient, and submissive village priest, he also was patient and submissive, and he was a long time in recognizing the particular rancour of destiny. He fell rapidly and arose slowly. Twig by twig he restored his nest. Having become a priest, the husband of a good woman, the father of a son and a daughter, he thought that all was going well with him, that all was solidly established, and that he would remain thus forever. And he blessed God."
But fate was always on the watch for him. It had showed him happiness only to take it away again. After seven years of prosperity, his little son is drowned one summer's day in the river. Death and nameless misfortunes again invade the home of Vassily. One does not live there any more, one prowls around gropingly in a mournful stupor. From morning till evening, his wife comes and goes, silent and indifferent to everything, as if she were looking for some one or something.
In losing his son, poor Vassily has also lost his wife, his helpmate and friend, for the unfortunate woman takes to drink. The faith of the priest holds in this terrible trial. But his misery increases immeasurably. The vice of his wife, his own sick weakness, excite the meanness of the people. Insults have to be borne in silence, tears hidden. At home, the priest's wife has no rest. She has the idea that she can have another son who will take the place of the dead one and be a balm to her broken heart. In her alcoholic desire, a prey to savage fury, she demands that her husband gratify her desire.