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Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Mother: Gorky's Novel and Pudovkin's Movie

Максим Го́рький, Мать, 1906
no copyright infringement intended

Каждый день над рабочей слободкой, в дымном, масляном воздухе, дрожал и ревел фабричный гудок; и, послушные зову, из маленьких серых домов выбегали на улицу угрюмые люди ...
(Every day the factory whistle bellowed forth its shrill, roaring, trembling noises into the smoke-begrimed and greasy atmosphere of the workingmen's suburb; and obedient to the summons of the power of steam, sullen people poured out of little gray houses into the street ...)

The Mother - 1936 edition
with somber faces
their muscles stiff from insufficient sleep
Illustration by Sigismund Ivanowski
(Google Books: The Mother)
no copyright infringement intended

Recently I came upon an English translation of Gorky's The Mother: an edition from 1936 illustrated by Sigismund Ivanowski (who signed here as Sigmund de Ivanowski).

I found it on the web: a copy many times read, with annotations made here and there on the pages, which gave me a secret joy, like always when I am in the presence of old copies with annotations coming from other times. Reading a book can be a challenging task sometimes, and you get the feeling that you are no more alone. And sometimes you open the book at the same page as one or other of these unknown camarades de route did.

The Mother - 1936 edition
Title Page
(Google Books: The Mother)
no copyright infringement intended

First time I read The Mother in a Romanian translation, it was about fifty five years ago. (Or more?) I was in the high school, and by that time I had already read from Gorky the first two parts of his autobiography (My Childhood and In the World). I read the third part (My Universities) several years later. My Childhood had impressed me a lot, as it was so powerfully describing the painful experiences of a child my own age. And In the World had put this author in my gallery of very good writers: a few details from that book have remained alive in my memory throughout the years. And I had been told in my classes so much about this author that the titles of his works or the names of his heroes sounded somehow familiar, all those Makar Chudra, Klim Samgin, The Artamanov Business, The Petty Bourgeois, Foma Gordeyev ... Also at a very fresh age (maybe ten or eleven) I had seen one of his plays in a screen adaptation (Vassa Zheleznova), but I was too young to understand anything from it.

So this was my Gorkyan background when I started to read The Mother. It was hailed as the book that had inaugurated the Socialist Realist style. The Communist regime was very careful in building its official history, with founding texts and exemplary heroes (no matter how much authentic and how much fake, like any history in fact: not only religions have rituals and mythic moments, sacred books and sacred forebears). Gorky was one of these exemplary heroes, and The Mother was one of those founding texts. Another exemplary hero was for instance Dimitrov, with the Leipzig Trial and everything. I remember a movie about that trial: in one of the scenes Dimitrov was shown in prison, preparing his defense, having with him only two books. The Communist Manifesto was one, and the other was The Mother (the Italians have a saying, se non è vero, è ben trovato).

Maxim Gorki, Mama
(Romanian translation)
Editura Cartea Rusă, 1952
(anticariat online)
no copyright infringement intended

The novel didn't produce a too deep impression on me. Maybe because it was so hailed, which sounded a bit suspect, especially for the teenager I was. I was curious to find out what was all that hype with the first Socialist Realist book and so on, and I followed the plot without paying too much attention to the larger portrait (I was too young to know that the beauty of a story is a devil hidden in the details). A young worker becoming a committed revolutionary in the years around the First Russian Revolution, his mother at the beginning not understanding him at all, far away from his world of ideas, gradually opening herself to the revolutionary cause and staying on his side. I recognized in one replica the thesis of Proletarian Internationalism, dear to these people believing in a World Revolution to come: in one of his mobilizing discourses, the young revolutionary was telling that there were no more different nations like French, German, Russian and so on, but exploited and exploiters. Actually I read the book without leaving it up to the end, which was a sign that it was well written.

Then all this stuff with exemplary heroes and exemplary books became to fade, even the official propaganda was moving its focus in other directions, almost nobody was willing to accept anymore suspect fairy tales and weird dogmas, and life went on anyway, with or without big words about Socialist Realism and the like. But Gorky remained a solid cultural reference, and two of his plays (The Lower Depths and Children of the Sun) kept the scene for a very long time, on one of the most prestigious theatrical institutions in Bucharest: both directed by the great man of theater who has been Liviu Ciulei.

I read over the years both from Gorky and about Gorky. Some were considering him the absolute reference: Romain Rolland once said that Panait Istrati was a Gorky balkanique; and Lu Xun was proclaimed (in an issue of Horizons) no more no less than a Chinese Gorky. I remember some enthusiastic lines written by Geo Bogza, (unfortunately I remember them very vaguely, so don't blame me if I remember them totally wrong, something kind of Gorky came in the literature bringing with him the universe of the Russian steppes, the world of wanderers and dreamers, of vagrants and small thieves, of peddlers and gipsy sorcerers - and he entered the great gate of the literature coming directly from that world, with dusty boots and hoarse voice). But this was the world from My Universities and from Stories of the Steppe, maybe there, in those books, was Gorky the greatest! And let me add to this a very personal recollection, a good friend of mine was passionate about him, and in our discussions the world of Gorkyan heroes (those wanderers and dreamers) was present quite often.

Thus, a clear, neat presence of the Gorkyan universe, Gorkyan ethos, remained in my literary horizon. Maybe Gogol and Chekhov impressed me the most in the gallery of great Russian writers, but all the others are very solid references, each in his own right.

What about, particularly, The Mother? I was having the book again in front of my eyes, after so many tens of years. On one of its pages, the stamp of the University of Michigan Library (a book that I found in the catalog of the Widener Library at Harvard changed in important ways the course of my life, but that's another story).

The Mother - 1936 edition
Stamp of University of Michigan Library
(Google Books: The Mother)
no copyright infringement intended

I started by reading the foreword. It was written by Charles Edward Russell, a man of Marxian convictions, involved as such in the political activity (like Gorky), at times at odds with the Marxian leaders and their parties (again like Gorky who had bitter divergences with Lenin at some point - actually more than once; the official Stalinist propaganda kept these divergences secret, to present an exemplary portrait without any questionable details).

The forward was written with passion and talent, while based on a strong belief in the exceptionalism of everything Russian and especially Soviet Russian (and consequently the exceptionalism of Gorky's books and especially of The Mother). Understandably, it reflected the political credo of Charles Edward Russell, which made it a hagiography. It was not what a great author and a great book deserved. So I started to read the novel, convinced that I'd found in it much more than just the exemplary Socialist book.

The Mother - 1936 edition
Foreword by Charles Edward Russell
(Google Books: The Mother)
no copyright infringement intended

I was looking for some answers. A book read at different moments in one's life is each time understood differently. The universe created by the author remains the same, but at each age one looks at it with another perspective, let's say from another side, and thus, each time, the same book, the same universe, looks completely anew. Or maybe a great book teaches you at each age that lesson that's waiting for you to reach that number of years.

The Mother - 1936 edition
it seemed to Vlasova that
the officer was but waiting for her tears
Illustration by Sigismund Ivanowski
(Google Books: The Mother)
no copyright infringement intended

Was it a Socialist Realist book (as it was hailed), and if so, was it suffering of the inherent limitations imposed by the party ideology? Well, even if not all books of a great writer have equal value, the signet ring is in any of them. But: was Gorky's The Mother his masterpiece or rather not in the top of his output? And: how much could we retrieve in that novel Gorky's literary universe, the unique spirit of that formidable world of the steppes? And I think all these questions could lead to a single one: what was the place of The Mother in Gorky's universe?

Socialist Realism started from the Realism of the 19th century authors with the ambition to make a step further: the Realists had shown in their works all the social injustices, without thinking at a solution. Thus it was necessary to look for a way out from these social injustices, and this way out was the Socialist revolution. We could advance here in the discussion, of course: the Socialist revolution is not the only conceivable revolution, and generally a revolution is not the only conceivable solution. Plus the Realism of the 19th century is not the only conceivable artistic style. But let's remain to the Socialist Realism, as we're talking here about Gorky. The portrait of the present couldn't be but bleak (because it was Realist), while the revolutionary perspective couldn't be but luminous (which claimed other style than the Realism). It was a mix of traditional Realism and revolutionary Romanticism. In this respect Gorky's novel was undoubtedly Socialist Realist. Was this limiting the literary value of this book? In portraying injustices and being committed to a bright future, one can be genuine or fake. And in the moment when an author has to obey to a party dogma, all chances are that the author will be fake. But the revolutionary Romanticism of Gorky was genuine: the book was written in the aftermath of the 1905 Revolution, and guys like Pavel Vlassov were very real, with their commitment and spirit of sacrifice.

I love more the short stories of Gorky, his universe of the Russian steppes, where life is left to flow on its own, where Gorky is rather a listener to the stories told by his heroes, and fate makes the rule, that wonderful magical realism that leads toward legend, toward what's beyond this world. So I love less The Mother, but for better or worse it's his most influential book. And (despite my preferences for the short stories of the steppes) it's very well written, I read it again without leaving the pages till the end. And this time, at my old age, I was very attentive to the details of the picture, and I enjoyed them a lot (as the Spanish saying goes, más sabe el diablo por viejo que por diablo, which roughly means there is nothing like the old horse for the hard road). And these details of the portrait show the great author.

The English translation was not top-quality. However the awkward solutions here and there in choosing the English words and sentences were not spoiling the whole. The portrait was so powerful that I was having the strange sensation that the words were no more that important. Like it could have been any syntactic constructions, any words, there was something beyond.

It's here superb literary skill (crafted in his young years spent on the endless steppes of Russia), but it's more. It's his empathy for what happens, the big and the small things. Each of the personages is portrayed with great finesse, and (like in his stories) left on her or his own, so for each one comes a moment that's totally unexpected. Some are ambiguous, and remain so to the end, because life is ambiguous so many times, some come with their mysteries, and keep them for themselves, because life is all mystery sometimes, and some should remain for ever untold. And all this is flowing in front of the old mother, the very simple woman caught in the whirl of the revolution, trying to understand with her mind all that, empathizing with everyone, loving dearly all these young radicals and suffering for each one.

Here is the text of the novel:


Five movies were made based on Gorky's novel: in 1920 by Aleksandr Razumnyi, in 1926 by Vsevolod Pudovkin, in 1941 by Leonid Lukov, in 1956 by Mark Donskoy (starring Aleksey Batalov as Pavel Vlassov), and in 1990 by Gleb Panfilov. Also Bertolt Brecht put the novel on stage in 1932. Hanns Eisler created, based on the novel, a cantata for chorus, solo voices and two pianos in 1935.

From all this list, undoubtedly impressive by number and persons implied, I was able to watch only the silent made in 1926 by Vsevolod Pudovkin. Politics aside, it is a masterpiece, and I intend to write here also about other of his movies. He was one of the greatest Soviet filmmakers of the 1920's avant-garde (in the same line with Kuleshov, Eisenstein, and all the others), and this movie proves it brilliantly.

Мать, film poster from 1926
(source: wikimedia)
no copyright infringement intended

Pudovkin's movie has an architecture that is radically different from that of the novel. One is talking about very recent events, the other is framing the facts and personages into a paradigm. Both are strongly motivated politically, but the two political moments are very different: the novel is made in the aftermath of the 1905 Revolution, it's real time life, while the movie comes in the first years of Soviet power, preoccupied to build the official history of the revolution, in other words the founding mythology. While Gorky tells us a story of life flowing naturally, with personages of flesh and bones, Pudovkin demonstrates a paradigm, deals with a myth in the making. And in any myth the facts and personages are no more just facts and personages like anything else from real life: they are prototypes aiming to convey a sense. I'll give you only one example: the bridge over the river separating factory and the neighborhood. At Gorky it's just a bridge, nothing else. At Pudovkin it is a path you take to leave your submissive life and enter the revolutionary struggle. So it becomes a prototype within a paradigm, conveying a metaphysical significance.

Gorky's novel inaugurates the Socialist Realism: it means its approach is realist to the bone, so its style is traditional (following the traditional Realism of the 19th century, that were to be observed by all Socialist Realist artists). Does also the movie belong to the Socialist Realist style? I don't think so. I would say that by the contrary it belongs hundred percent to the avant-garde of the twenties, so it rejects totally the tradition. It is a Constructivist oeuvre, calling in mind maybe the Expressionist movies made in Germany in the same epoch. These artists of the twenties, totally committed politically, while thinking to build the new society based on their radically new form of art and throwing over the board all that was old, traditional, classic, Realism included. The thirties would stop them forcefully, they would have to obey to the party dogmas or go to hell (the first circle or beyond).

Here is the movie:

(from the video above the last 7 minutes are lost. Here is another video containing these minutes)

the last part of the movie
(video by Russian Club Music Chart)

(a few words about the cast: Vera Baranovskaya made a remarkable performance in the role of the mother; she would play one year later in the following movie made by Pudovkin, The End of St. Petersburg; Nikolai Batalov (1899-1937), who played in the role of the son, was also Soldier Gusev in Aelita (a fine role in a fine movie); it seems that he was not related to Aleksey Batalov, who played Pavel Vlassov in the movie of Mark Donskoy from 1956; and last but not least, Pudovkin himself in the role of a police officer- the guy really enjoyed the negative roles)

Vera Baranovskaya (1885-1935)
no copyright infringement intended

Maxim Gorky)

Vsevolod Pudovkin)

Sigismund Ivanowski)

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