Monday, December 17, 2012

The Mother

Maxim Gorky

"What queer people you are!" said the mother to the Ukrainian one day. "All are your comrades--the Armenians and the Jews and the Austrians. You speak about all as of your friends; you grieve for all, and you rejoice for all!" 

"For all, mother dear, for all! The world is ours! The world is for the workers! For us there is no nation, no race. For us there are only comrades and foes..."

When I was searching a cover image to go with this review, I stumbled across another one on the LibCom website, which was published just three weeks ago. Though I'm reluctant to say it proves anything much, it's an extraordinary coincidence that both me and the writer of that piece were both drawn to this novel this autumn. Speaking for myself, I found I drew enormous strength to persevere in what Gorky called "treading the path of truth and reason", in the teeth of what has been an extremely bleak year for 'the left'. But it was no mere comfort blanket; I was everywhere confronted with the brutal reality of the system here and now in the descriptions of the system there and then, and challenged in my own assumptions on every page.

Gorky was born into something quite far removed from the privilege which nurtured Leo Tolstoy. Orphaned at nine, he ran away from home at twelve to find his grandmother, who raised him until she herself died. Gorky attempted suicide, before taking a series of itinerant jobs across Russia, which gave him a sharp insight into the struggles of life on the margins. It was these people he wrote about in his early years as a journalist, essayist and novelist.

The intensification of mass struggles in the earliest years of the twentieth century sharpened his focus even further, and he was drawn to the emerging workers' movement. The abortive 1905 revolution against the Tsar provided the inspiration for The Mother - a staggering work which pulls no punches in describing the abject lives of the dispossessed, yet never employs condescending pity in the way that petit bourgeois-raised Charles Dickens did, for example. For Gorky, the working class were full of fight, and perfectly capable of taking care of themselves given half a chance.

The writer showed great skill in painting a picture of a scene in a few lines, with each holding a huge weight of rich social significance. One awesome illustration of this comes early on, when Gorky describes how the main female protagonist watched over her young adult son Pavel after he'd been out drinking for the first time:
"But when she returned he was already asleep. She stood over him for a minute, trying to breathe lightly. The cup in her hand trembled, and the ice knocked against the tin. Then, setting the cup on the table, she knelt before the sacred image upon the wall, and began to pray in silence. The sounds of dark, drunken life beat against the window panes; an accordion screeched in the misty darkness of the autumn night; someone sang a loud song; someone was swearing with ugly, vile oaths, and the excited sounds of women's irritated, weary voices cut the air."
The mother begins the novel as a battered wife, surviving day to day on the urge to protect Pavel from his father's blows, and drawing vague comfort from prayers before Christian icons. Gradually she is drawn into the small revolutionary circle of Pavel's friends, and by the end she faces something like martyrdom at the centre of a rapidly growing network of comrades spanning from town to town and deep into the countryside. Through her, we know her people.

In the wrong hands, this kind of work could seem preachy and didactic. But even though obviously intended to draw people into the cause, Gorky had lived the life he was describing, and it was clearly everything to him. The many female characters are determined and strong-willed - an extreme rarity in its day, and not much more common today. But this is never forced or tokenistic - it is realistic. Some scenes - particularly those around the May Day parade - left me hardly believing that a mortal had written them, such was the brilliance of Gorky's ability to portray conflicting forces and warring emotions in just a few words.

As the LibCom reviewer put it:
"The situation is bleak and promises no immediate change; only through a long uphill struggle will oppression be overcome. But a faith, one not unlike that of primitive christianity, is what ushers the characters in this novel, the mother especially, to go onwards and fight and believe, and pour nearly every ounce of hope and joy into the struggle as it persists from day to day. The beauty of the future society, a society based on the sharing of the world's wealth in common, brightens the revolutionary mission the characters have taken upon themselves, at a great amount of risk."
Or in Gorky's glowing language: "Who can extinguish this love? Who? What force can destroy it? What force can opposite it? The earth has given it birth, and life itself longs for its victory. Life itself!”

Amen to that.
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