Aaron Lake Smith has a good piece for Lapham’s Quarterly about Maxim Gorky, focusing on his “troubled friendship” with Leo Tolstoy; it makes me want to read his 1919 reminiscence about the older writer:
His essay on Tolstoy is one of the most complex depictions of the love and hate that intertwine within a friendship that I have ever read (I wish all magazine profiles—of celebrities, politicians, writers—could be so good). Such portrayals run against the popular conception of Gorky as a black-and-white zealot who sought to erase all human complexity.
Nowhere is he more complex and self-honest than in this sketch, with its delicate handling of the class and power dynamics. Gorky’s evident awe and respect for his hero are undercut by his descriptions of Tolstoy’s rampant sexism—“He speaks about women readily and at length, like a French novelist, but always with the crudeness of a Russian muzhik, which in the beginning used to bother me extremely”—and unabashed cultural appropriation. Tolstoy informed Gorky, “I am more of a peasant than you, and can feel things the way peasants do better than you can.” In the essay, Gorky protested, “My God! He shouldn’t boast of that! He mustn’t!”
Gorky “never tires of marveling” at Tolstoy, but the elder writer also evokes
something close to hatred for me, much like an oppressive burden on my soul. His hypertrophied personality is a monstrous thing, a thing almost deformed…He has often struck me as a man who is fundamentally, in the depth of his soul, indifferent to people, being so much higher and more powerful than they that they all seem like midges to him, and their frantic concerns ludicrous and pitiable…It’s difficult to see him too often, and I could never live in the same house—let alone the same room—with him. That would be like trying to live in a desert where everything has been burned by the sun, while that sun itself is also burning down, threatening a dark night without end.
About his first meeting with Tolstoy, Gorky wrote: “It was as if I had met not the author of The Cossacks, ‘Strider,’ and War and Peace, but rather a condescending nobleman who felt constrained to speak to me like ‘an ordinary fellow,’ in ‘the language of the street,’ and this tended to upset my idea of him.” Sounds plausible to me. Thanks, Paul!