Remembering Maxim Gorky, Who Painted Masterful Portraits With Words

Few writers in any language rivalled his virtuosity in the genre of literary portraits. 

Note: March 28, 2019 marks the 151st birth anniversary of Maxim Gorky.

On an early spring evening in 1923, Dr Alexander Alexin dropped in unannounced at the Moscow TB sanatorium. The patients and the convalescents were glad to see him because they were all very fond of the doctor. As always, Alexin began to tease everyone: why in the name of God had they shut the door on the fresh spring air outside?

He opened the door himself and joined the patients for dinner, chatting merrily and generally fooling around as he so loved to do. When the wind set the door to, he tried rising from his chair, felt his legs were giving way and muttered an imprecation before telling the incredulous onlookers: “This looks like a stroke.” He lost consciousness and died soon after. Indeed, Maxim Gorky (March 28, 1868-June 18, 1936) begins his portrait of Alexin with this line:

“Alexander Alexin died just as effortlessly as he had lived.”

In five or six short pages, Gorky draws a fascinating portrait of a brilliant Russian physician “whose attitude towards medicine was on the sceptical side, which is possibly why he was so good at healing”. Alexin’s features were rough-hewn, his clever and scoffing eyes held you in an intent gaze and the curt taciturnity of his speech seemed strangely to inspire confidence in his ability.

He never took himself seriously (though his more celebrated professional colleagues greatly admired his diagnostic intuition), but he never failed to take his many lovers seriously or treat them with respect.

“He read but little even in his own speciality, but liked to read music in his leisure hours …(lying ) on his sofa, with one boot off for some reason, (reading) some music by Beethoven, Mozart, Bach or from some Russian opera… silently or humming it.”

He loudly abused patients’ families for their stupidity, but would often slip a few rouble notes into the pocket of an indigent parent who had brought his child to the doctor’s clinic for treatment. Gorky rounds off his story in a memorable fashion:

“He had a servant named Grigori, a black-haired peasant from Tambov Gubernia, a clever fellow, who simply adored the doctor. He would come up to the surgery door of an evening, and ask, standing:

‘May I have a talk with you?’

‘Come in, you devil, and take a seat.’

Grigori would sit down on the foot of the sofa and begin some philosophical theme.

‘I don’t understand what reason God has for letting children die. I see no economy in that –”

And so we leave our unselfconscious hero and his valet immersed in their philosophical contemplations. We can almost see the mocking, but indulgent smile on the doctor’s face as we move on.

Even though Doctor Alexin remains one of Gorky’s lesser-known portraits, it encapsulates his portrait-making style. Gorky fleshes out his subjects with the minimum number of brush-strokes. He has known many of these (mostly) men from up close, often for many years, but his own presence in these stories is unobtrusive – indeed, minimal. He often recalls what Leo Tolstoy or Leonid Andreyev or Sergei Yesenin happened to discuss with him on a given day, but he rarely tells us how he himself responded to the question at hand.

This makes it possible for him to be completely non-judgemental. He does not show his hand, so to speak, and manages to present his subject just as he/she looked like to an intelligent observer who happened to be there on the scene himself.

This adds piquancy to the stories but also gives them a sense of authenticity so essential for genuine literary portraits. In his piece on Sophia Tolstaya, the wife of the great Russian novelist, Gorky makes it quite plain that he never liked her, and that she, too never seemed to regard Gorky kindly.

But this does not prevent Gorky from drawing a picture of her that puts Tolstoy’s wife in clear perspective. Amidst swirling denunciations of her ‘hard-heartedness’ and ‘insensitivity’ to her idiosyncratic husband’s special needs, Gorky’s was one of the few voices that paid rich tribute to the memory of the strong-willed, intelligent woman who had for 50 years zealously secured for the great writer a measure of comfort and peace essential to his continued creativity:

“Sophia Andreyevna was not the only one who could not understand why the great novelist should plough the soil, build stoves, make boots. Many of Tolstoy’s greatest contemporaries failed to understand this, too. But they merely enjoyed the wonder of it, whereas other emotions were forced upon Sophia Andreyevna.”

Gorky defends the honour of this remarkable woman with great passion:

“…a woman, after fifty difficult years of life with a great artist, an extraordinary and restless human being, a woman who was his only true friend throughout his whole life, and his active assistant in his work, is overcome by terrible exhaustion – a perfectly comprehensible fact……….Still later, abandoned by all, she died a solitary death, and if anyone remembered her it was only for the purpose of joyfully vilifying her.”

Gorky’s presence in his portraits is as a narrator, a storyteller, and his images are as plastic and naturally colourful as the characters that populate Twenty-six Men and a Girl, The Birth of a Man or My Universities.

Work on Anton Chekhov

No biographer of Anton Chekhov, however erudite or conscientious, has succeeded in presenting as true a picture of the man as Gorky managed in a matter of five thousand words or fewer. Gorky recounts an incident when Tolstoy happened to praise one of Chekhov’s stories with great emotion, tears glistening in his own eyes. Gorky then turns to Chekhov and records how he reacted to the great man’s encomiums:

“But that day Chekhov had a temperature, and sat with his head bent, vivid spots of colour on his cheeks, carefully wiping his pince-nez. He said nothing for some time, and at last, sighing, said softly and awkwardly: ’There are misprints in it.'”

It has been pointed out, rightly, that the Chekhov portrait had one or two factual inaccuracies – its mention, for example, of the writer’s dead body being carried in a vulgarly green rail wagon meant for ferrying oysters.

Also read: A Day at Chekhov’s Melikhovo

But in the end, what stays with the reader is the image of a man who instinctively shrank from pretentiousness and verbosity, was gentle, warm-hearted and kindly, but could be cutting in his contempt for hypocrisy. Gorky simply cites one or two instances such as this:

“‘A very gifted person’, he (Chekhov) said of a certain journalist. ‘His writing is always so lofty, so humane … saccharine. He calls his wife a fool in front of people. His servants sleep in a damp room, and they all develop rheumatism…’”

Seldom has a literary portrait been fashioned with such simple, but vivid colours:

“Reading the works of Chekhov makes one feel as if it were a sad day in late autumn, when the air is transparent, the bare trees stand out in bold relief against the sky, the houses are huddled together, and people are dim and dreary. Everything is so strange, so lonely, motionless, powerless. The remote distances are blue and void, merging with the pale sky, breathing a dreary cold on the half-frozen mud. But the mind of the author, like the autumn sunshine, lights up the well-trodden roads, the crooked streets, the dirty, cramped houses in which pitiful little people gasp out their lives in boredom and idleness, filling their dwellings with a meaningless, drowsy bustle.”

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy

The most important portrait that Gorky crafted was, of course, Leo Tolstoy’s. Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig and Romain Rolland had all written about Tolstoy themselves, and each of them spoke about Gorky’s portrait in the most glowing terms, Rolland calling it ‘a work of genius’. Published as a little book in 1919, it was, in fact, a collection of random notes and sketches made over nearly two decades. Most of the fragments, though, seem to belong to the winter of 1901-02 and the spring of 1902 when both Tolstoy and Gorky happened to be in Crimea. The exuberance of the Crimean countryside colours Gorky’s palette unmistakably:

“Here, in the southern landscape, so strangely varied for the eye of a northerner, amidst all this luxurious, shamelessly-voluptuous plant-life, sits Lev Tolstoy….. a small man, who is as gnarled and knotty as if he were of rugged, profoundly earthly roots. In the garish landscape of the Crimea, I repeat, he seemed to be at once in his right place, and out of place. A very ancient man, the master of the whole countryside, as it were – the master and maker, who after an absence of a hundred years, is back in an economy which he himself has set up. There is much that he has forgotten, and much that is new to him; things are as they should be, but not quite, and he must find out at once what is not as it should be and why.”

The power of Tolstoy’s personality, the endless fascination he exercised over anyone who happened to be in his presence, is captured in memorable detail every now and then. But Gorky never loses sight of his own strong disagreements with Tolstoy the moralist, the philosopher, the ‘nihilist’:

“One never stops marvelling at him, but one would not care to see him too often, and I could never live in the same house – not to mention the same room – with him. Being with him is like being on a plain where everything has been burnt up by the sun, and where even the sun is burning itself out, threatening endless dark night.”

Gorky also recalls the little things that show up the great man as an ordinary mortal with vulnerabilities and insecurities:

“How strange that he should like playing cards. He plays in deadly earnest, and sometimes gets very excited. And he holds the cards as nervously as if he had a live bird between his fingers, and not just bits of cardboard.”

Gorky writes about how Tolstoy often said the exact opposite of what he had said in a different context about the same thing, apparently without being aware of the irony. He narrates how the great man struggled with the philosophical categories he had taught himself to accept as gospel truth, the struggle being all the more fierce because, at the bottom, he was a ruthlessly rational man who saw through subterfuge and sham easily enough.

Knowing that Gorky was a non-believer, he avoided discussing God and afterlife with him, but once he happened to make an exception. Speaking about beauty, he claimed with his usual forcefulness that the highest and most perfect beauty was God. This is how Gorky remembers that episode:

“He had hardly ever talked to me about these things before and the importance of the subject, its unexpectedness, took me unawares and almost overcame me. I said nothing. Seated on the sofa, his feet pushed beneath it, he allowed a triumphant smile to steal over his beard and said, shaking a finger at me:

‘You can’t get away from that by saying nothing, you know.’

And I, who do not believe in God, cast a stealthy, almost timid glance at him and said to myself:

‘This man is like God.’”

 Anjan Basu freelances as a literary critic, commentator and translator. He can be reached at basuanjan52@gmail.com.