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Given our historical vantage point, it would be easy to dismiss Maksim Gorky as a sycophant and a patsy. Anyone who allowed themselves to be hoisted up as the leading light of Socialist Realism must surely be a talentless hack, no?
There is no question that Gorky was wittingly or unwittingly duped by Stalin after the former’s return to Russia in 1928. But prior to that Gorky had been an uncompromising champion of human rights and a vicious critic of Bolshevik rule.
Indeed, from our remove it is easy to forget that Gorky was the sort of larger than life figure in literature that comes along just once or twice in a generation, a person who is as significant as an individual as they are as a writer – e.g. Solzhenitsyn, Twain, Lawrence, Tolstoy.
The reality is that Gorky was an immensely talented writer whose work was respected by Chekhov, Tolstoy and many in the pantheon of Russian literature who were spared the hard ethical choices wrought by Bolshevism by the inescapable fact of their deaths.
Gorky’s writing brims with a gritty, hard-edged realism that is as powerful and unsettling today as it was 100 years ago. And in this new translation of Childhood, which many Russians count as their favorite among Gorky’s writings, Graham Hettlinger – whose translations of Bunin are brilliant – continues to prove his skill as one of our most gifted translators from Russian.
If you want to understand why Gorky was considered one of the finest writers of his day (and marvel at our literary amnesia), this excellent volume is a perfect place to start.
Reviewed in Russian Life: Jan/Feb 2011