Review Of Maxim
Gorky’s Chelkash And Other Stories
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/13/06
I recently picked up a Dover Thrift Edition of Maxim Gorky’s Chelkash And Other Stories. This slim book only contains three tales- the title tale, Makar Chudra, and Twenty-Six Men And A Girl. What struck me was that Gorky’s style was quite different from the pre-Chekhovians like Leo Tostoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Nikolai Gogol. This modernity is evident in the very first lines of the titular tale, which follows the title character- a vagrant, and his young ‘understudy’ Gavrila through a series of adventures that bonds the two men before fate rend them from each other. The basic crux of the tale is how far should a person go simply for money. But, look at this opening prologue before Chapter One, and imagine a 19th Century writer starting a tale like this:
Darkened by the dust of the dock, the blue southern sky is murky; the burning sun looks duskily into the greenish sea, as though through a thin gray veil. It can find no reflection in the water, continually cut up by the strokes of oars, the screws of steamers, the deep, sharp keels of Turkish feluccas and other sailing vessels, that pass in all directions, ploughing up the crowded harbor, where the free waves of the sea, pent up within granite walls, and crushed under the vast weights that glide over its crests, beat upon the sides of the ships and on the bank; beat and complain, churned up into foam and fouled with all sorts of refuse.
The jingle of the anchor chains, the rattle of the links of the trucks that bring down the cargoes, the metallic clank of sheets of iron falling on the stone pavement, the dull thud of wood, the creaking of the carts plying for hire, the whistles of the steamers, piercingly shrill and hoarsely roaring, the shouts of dock laborers, sailors, and customs officers-- all these sounds melt into the deafening symphony of the working day, that hovering uncertainty hangs over the harbor, as though afraid to float upward and be lost.
And fresh waves of sound continually rise up from the earth to join it; deep, grumbling, sullen reverberations setting all around quaking; shrill, menacing notes that pierce the ear and the dusty, sultry air.
The granite, the iron, the wood, the harbor pavement, the ships and the men--all swelled the mighty strains of this frenzied, impassioned hymn to Mercury. But the voices of men, scarcely audible in it, were weak and ludicrous. And the men, too, themselves, the first source of all that uproar, were ludicrous and pitiable: their little figures, dusty, tattered, nimble, bent under the weight of goods that lay on their backs, under the weight of cares that drove them hither and thither, in the clouds of dust, in the sea of sweltering heat and din, were so trivial and small in comparison with the colossal iron monsters, the mountains of bales, the thundering railway trucks and all that they had created. Their own creation had enslaved them, and stolen away their individual life.
As they lay letting off steam, the heavy giant steamers whistled or hissed, or seemed to heave deep sighs, and in every sound that came from them could be heard the mocking note of ironical contempt for the gray, dusty shapes of men, crawling about their decks and filling their deep holds with the fruits of their slavish toil. Ludicrous and pitiable were the long strings of dock laborers bearing on their backs thousands of tons of bread, and casting it into the iron bellies of the ships to gain a few pounds of that same bread to fill their own bellies--for their worse luck not made of iron, but alive to the pangs of hunger.
The men, tattered, drenched with sweat, made dull by weariness, and din and heat; and the mighty machines, created by those men, shining, well-fed, serene, in the sunshine; machines which in the last resort are, after all, not set in motion by steam, but by the muscles and blood of their creators-- in this contrast was a whole poem of cruel and frigid irony.
The clamor oppressed the spirit, the dust fretted the nostrils and blinded the eyes, the sweltering heat baked and exhausted the body, and everything-buildings, men, pavement--seemed strained, breaking, ready to burst, losing patience, on the verge of exploding into some immense catastrophe, some outbreak, after which one would be able to breathe freely and easily in the air refreshed by it. On the earth there would be quietness; and that dusty uproar, deafening, fretting the nerves, driving one to melancholy frenzy, would vanish; and in town, and sea and sky, it would be still and clear and pleasant. But that was only seeming. It seemed so because man has not yet grown weary of hoping for better things, and the longing to feel free is not dead in him.
Twelve times there rang out the regular musical peal of the bell. When the last brazen clang had died away, the savage orchestra of toil had already lost half its volume. A minute later it had passed into a dull, repining grumble. Now the voices of men and the splash of the sea could be heard more clearly. The dinner-hour had come.
The second story, Makar Chudra, follows a failed romance between two Gypsies- although the title character is merely an observer. While this story has its moments it is nowhere as good as the first story, nor the superlative final piece of the troika, Twenty-Six Men And A Girl. That story is one of Gorky’s most famous, and follows the lives of troglodyte-like pretzel bakers who have their grimy lives lightened by the daily morning appearance of a beautiful young girl who works for their company, Tanya. She treats the twenty-six pretzel bakers with respect and fun, something their rivals- the bun bakers- do not do. Then, one day, the bun bakers get a new boss- an ex-soldier, who schemes to seduce lovely Tanya. He makes a bet with the pretzel bakers that he can woo her. A while goes by and he seems to have made no headway. Then, one day he schemes to get Tanya to accompany him to a basement, and when the duo leave the bakers assume Tanya slept with him. They confront her, diss her, and she is shamed, and never visits their dreary lives again. Yet, there is no evidence that the soldier actually slept with her- it may have been a ruse simply to win the bet. Here is its end:
We laughed, roared, yelled. Other people ran up from somewhere and joined us. One of us pulled Tanya by the sleeve of her blouse.
Suddenly her eyes flashed; deliberately she raised her hands to her head and straightening her hair she said loudly but calmly, straight in our faces:
"Ah, you miserable prisoners!"
And she walked straight at us, walked as directly as though we had not been before her, as though we were not blocking her way.
And hence it was that no one did actually prevent her passing.
Walking out of our ring, without turning round, she said loudly and with indescribable contempt:
"Ah, you scum--brutes."
We were left in the middle of the yard, in the rain, under the gray sky without the sun.
Then we went mutely away to our damp stone cellar. As before-- the sun never peeped in at our windows, and Tanya came no more!
Gorky’s reputation has suffered in and outside of Russia due to his relationship with the 1917 Russian Revolution, but whether or not he was a good man is beside the point. These three tales, at least, display he was a talented writer, and a worthy successor to Anton Chekhov and his predecessors in the Russian short story.
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