Gorky and Tolstoy.

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!


  1. Lucy Kemnitzer says

    Anybody who thinks of “Gorky as a black-and-white zealot who sought to erase all human complexity” has never read one single word Gorky ever wrote.

    Almost all of his writing is complex portraits of people, full of contradictions, and Gorky himself is always both fascinated and repelled by his subjects, and always full of redeeming love for even his most despicable characters.

    In one of his books–volume three of the Autobiography? he talks about meeting his pantheon (Tolstoy, Chekhov, and another man whose name I only knew from reading that, but who was apparently a big deal back then–) and it’s all like this, Gorky’s awkwardness, his uncertain sense of belonging at the writers’ table, his complicated reception.

    I need to reread all the Gorky–I have a bunch of them I found in used bookstores when I was young.

  2. Not really related, but I love this story about Chekhov and Tolstoy:

    Chekhov told me once, “You know, I recently visited Tolstoy in Gaspra. He was bedridden due to illness. Among other things, he spoke about me and my works. Finally, when I was about to say goodbye he took my hand and said, ‘Kiss me goodbye.’ While I bent over him and he was kissing me, he whispered in my ear in a still energetic, old man’s voice, ‘You know, I hate your plays. Shakespeare was a bad writer, and I consider your plays even worse than his.’”

  3. That’s a great story!

  4. another man whose name I only knew from reading that

    Andreyev? Based on the Hogarth Press Reminiscences.

  5. “Hypertrophied personality?” Has that bit of medical jargon more currency in Russian, or why did the translator phrase it like that?

  6. The Russian is “Его непомерно разросшаяся личность” [his inordinately grown-out/proliferated personality]; I think “hypertrophied” is a reasonable translation, considering that the original isn’t exactly the plainest of language either. But then I don’t feel “hypertrophied” to be quite as jargony as you apparently do.

  7. The choice of “hypertrophied” leaves little doubt as to the surenchere of the translator’s intent. Why employ a writer’s cudgel when you can wield a jargony scalpel. Would the prosaic “out-sized” or “over-sized” have been a more accurate translation?

  8. That would work too.

  9. The problem with “hypertrophied” is that it suggests the term is being used in a strictly clinical sense.

    And is “surenchere” in any use in English? It was unfamiliar to (non-francophone) me. Google only shows evidence of it in French over the first several pages, and Google Books N-grams does not show it in any English books.

  10. The problem with “hypertrophied” is that it suggests the term is being used in a strictly clinical sense.

    I don’t understand this. How could it possibly be used in a strictly clinical sense in the phrase “hypertrophied personality”? It’s clearly a metaphor, and it doesn’t strike me as a bad one. I have seen it so used before.

  11. The word cued my brain to try to parse it in a clinical sense, rather than a metaphorical one. That pushed the whole description into deep WTF territory.

  12. zebracoupe says

    I have seen hypertrophied used in this way – suggesting not just a state of being overgrown, but really being monstrously over grown – many times in non-medical contexts. I think the hint of the medical/pathological is what makes the metaphor so effective.

  13. For me, hypertrophy implies not just unproportional size (but not necessarily monstrosity in absolute measure), but also something that’s out of its owner’s control and has grown to the point of being counterproductive. An outsize ego can be an asset if you know what to do with it, a hypertrophied one less so.

  14. David Marjanović says

    Evolutionary biologists do use “hypertrophied” for normal, healthy conditions if something is greatly enlarged compared to other species.

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