Page 1 of 41
Translated by Hugh Aplin
Alma Classics Ltd
32-34 Paradise Road
Surrey TW9 1SE
The Mother first published in Russian in 1907
This translation first published by Alma Classics Ltd in 2015
Introduction, Translation and Notes © Hugh Aplin, 2015
Cover image © Hajar Khalid Al Akoor
Published with the support of the
Institute for Literary Translation, Russia.
Printed in Great Britain by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon CR0 4YY
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of the publisher. This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not be resold, lent, hired out or otherwise circulated without the express prior consent of the publisher.
Note on the Text
The Mother is a novel inextricably linked with politics. The events and characters it delineates were based on actual historical events and real people; it was written in the aftermath of, and as a response to, the first of Russia’s twentieth-century revolutions; and the best-known critical response to the work came from the most influential figure of the age, not a titan of the literary world, though, but a titan on a grander scale – Vladimir Ilyich Lenin himself. The historical and ideological significance ascribed to the book after 1917 ensured that it remained readily available throughout the years of the existence of the Soviet Union, not only in Russian, but in a host of other languages as well. The last quarter of a century has, however, seen a marked decline in interest in the work of Maxim Gorky in his native land, and this tendency has been reflected elsewhere too, affecting his novels, perhaps, in particular. Thus, while his dramatic works still appear on the Anglophone stage with some regularity, recent translations of his fiction into English are scarce. Given the quality and quantity of the Russian writing that was denied to the reading public at the time when Gorky’s was being tirelessly propagated, it is, of course, quite right and proper that a degree of balance should have been restored. And yet it would surely be wrong to allow the output of an author whose talent was highly regarded not only by men of politics, but by many great names of literature, to sink into the oblivion that was long the lot of scores of his fellow Russian writers.
The events on which the central elements of the narrative of The Mother are based took place in 1902, when a May Day parade in the small town of Sormovo, not far from Gorky’s birthplace of Nizhni Novgorod, was broken up violently by the army and its organizers arrested and put on trial. One of these, the standard-bearer for the march, was Pyotr Andreyevich Zalomov (1877–1955), a factory worker and active member of the Nizhni Novgorod branch of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, in whose activities Gorky, too, participated. The writer was already familiar with Zalomov’s mother, Anna Kirillovna Zalomova (1849–1938): the widow of a hard-drinking factory hand, she had been a visitor at the home of Gorky’s grandparents, her distant relatives, when he had lived there as a child, and in a letter of 1911 Gorky explicitly named her as the model for his eponymous heroine. Soviet scholars produced a huge amount of material on the question of the prototypes of Gorky’s characters in this novel, and Zalomov himself justifiably denied in his memoirs that he was the sole inspiration for the figure of Pavel Vlasov, but the contribution his story and his mother’s made to the creation of the fictional figures is evident nonetheless.
Gorky made his first notes for the novel as early as 1902, in the wake of the events at Sormovo, and was reading drafts to friends in 1903–4, but the full realization of his plans for a novel about proletarian revolutionaries came during a period of focused effort in 1906–7. By this time the 1905 Revolution had taken place, and Gorky had been arrested for his participation in demonstrations, as well as for his written attacks on the government. However, his global fame had ensured that a term of imprisonment had come quickly to an end, and upon his release he had gone abroad to engage in fundraising activities for the revolutionary movement. Thus it came about that Part One of the novel was written in the United States, while Part Two was completed after he had fallen foul of American society over his unconventional domestic circumstances and moved to the island of Capri in the autumn of 1906.
Rather more unconventional than a writer travelling abroad with a woman other than his wife, however, were the circumstances of The Mother’s publishing history. The novel made its first appearance in New York, when serialized in Appleton’s Magazine between December 1906 and June 1907, not in the author’s original Russian, but in Thomas Seltzer’s English translation. Oddly, Gorky’s agreement with the publisher, D. Appleton & Co., stipulated that the English version was to be considered the original and the Russian its translation. The “translation” into Russian was published serially in St Petersburg, with big cuts made by the censor and numerous alterations to various episodes made by the author himself, in six issues of The Collection of the Society ‘Knowledge’ in 1907–8. The book had by then already been published in the United States as a separate edition in English in April 1907, before appearing in June of the same year in Berlin, in both German and Russian, also with the authorial revisions made for the St Petersburg Russian edition. The novel was shortly to make its first appearance in London under the title Comrades – with many other unauthorised alterations besides the change of title – and further translations into numerous languages soon followed; but it was published in full in Russia only in 1917 – indeed, the publication in Knowledge had led to the issues containing The Mother being sequestrated, and the prosecution in absentia of the author.
This, however, was not yet the end of The Mother’s publishing history, for in the post-revolutionary period Gorky carried out a further major revision of the novel. The result of this work, whereby about a quarter of the previous version was cut, was the appearance in 1923 of the text of the novel that has been the standard one ever since, and which has been translated for this volume. Gorky made changes to various elements of the text, with the apparent central aim of producing a more concise narrative, in particular excluding superfluous descriptive detail and reducing the length of his characters’ discourse.
Although the first edition of The Mother predated the formulation of the Soviet Union’s officially approved aesthetic by a quarter of a century (as did even the final edition by a decade), the work has frequently been cited as the original novel of Socialist Realism. It is not hard to understand why: in brief, Socialist Realism demanded that a work of art depict life in a recognizably realistic manner and illustrate some aspect of man’s progress towards the ideals of socialism, and Gorky’s novel can be seen to fulfil each of those criteria. The ideological value of The Mother was therefore clearly recognized by one of its earliest readers, Lenin. He was lent the typescript of the second version by its Berlin publisher and, when meeting Gorky at the Fifth Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in London in May 1907, was able to express his views to the author, who would subsequently record his memories of the encounter:
“With his amazingly lively eyes sparkling affectionately, he immediately started talking about the shortcomings of
the book The Mother: it transpired that he had read it in manuscript, borrowed from I.P. Ladyzhnikov. I said I had been in a hurry to finish the book, but did not have time to explain why I had been in a hurry – Lenin gave an affirmative nod of the head and explained it himself: it was a very good thing that I’d made haste, the book was a necessary one, as many workers were participating in the revolutionary movement without political awareness, spontaneously, and now they would read The Mother with great benefit to themselves.
“‘A very timely book.’ That was his only compliment, but for me an extremely valuable one. Then he enquired in a businesslike way whether The Mother was being translated into foreign languages and to what extent the book had been damaged by Russian and American censorship…”
The haste with which Gorky had been forced to write by the terms of his initial American contract in September 1906 was undeniable: following the immediate submission of Part One, only just over three months had been allowed for the completion, translation and submission of Part Two. His plans for Part Two had been consequently much reduced in the execution, and his intention to carry the story through to October 1905 abandoned, as was the subsequent idea of writing a second, complementary novel, referred to variously in correspondence as Pavel Vlasov, The Hero or The Son.
Thus The Mother has always had a great deal to do with politics, and yet has perhaps surprisingly little detailed political content. True, various strands within the revolutionary movement are illustrated by, for example, the differences between Vlasov and his comrades and Rybin, but the novel does not concern itself at all with such vital questions for the time as, for example, the organization of revolutionary work. Yet, since the narrative is recounted through the consciousness of Vlasov’s mother, who can certainly be considered one of those Lenin referred to as lacking political awareness, this is perfectly reasonable. The eponymous heroine’s response to her son’s fellow revolutionaries is emotional – indeed, at times sentimental – and in many cases maternal; she comes to espouse her son’s cause, not through a belief in any detailed ideology, but through her belief in him personally and her desire to ensure that the work for which he must suffer should not have been in vain. And her maternal concern extends to the other young men and women with whom he associates, “the children”, as she calls them, whom she envisages marching through the world towards a better society and a better life. The naivety of the passages where her feelings and thoughts in this vein are expressed is at times reminiscent of the faith in youth’s ability to change the world that so coloured the 1960s and can again be justified artistically by the heroine’s simplicity. Through her son and his comrades she is ushered into a new world of truth and goodness that contrasts starkly with the violence and brutality of the patriarchal domestic regime of her late husband and, by extension, of the patriarchal regime of the autocracy. The mother’s initially strong religious faith gradually evolves into a more generalized trust in the victory of goodness, now represented less by the church than by the revolutionaries she had once feared. Nonetheless, the themes of faith, self-sacrifice and rebirth that run through the novel combine with the central mother-son relationship to lend The Mother a strong Christian resonance. It would be intriguing to know what Lenin thought of this feature of Gorky’s work and, indeed, of the inspiration found by its young revolutionary in the image of Christ on the road to Emmaus.
Readers of The Mother may well recall Gorky’s autobiographical work Childhood, with the juxtaposed figures of the cruel grandfather and saintly grandmother who bring up the future writer. For in the novel, too, a contrast can be drawn between the kindness emanating from the maternal figure, influenced by the teachings of Christ, and the harshness that predominates beyond her limited sphere of influence in the world ruled by men. It is certainly notable that the fathers depicted, mostly tangentially, in The Mother are largely unsympathetic and often rejected by their offspring (or their wives), while the characters share a general longing for maternal love and all find warmth and solace in the company of Vlasova, the mother.
The selfless goodness of almost all the novel’s revolutionaries was not, of course, reflected in the real world of socialist revolution – the “realism” of Socialist Realism was perhaps its most unrealistic feature – and Gorky’s relationship with the world of politics became an often strained and difficult one after 1917, when the struggle for power pushed aside all romanticized socialist ideals. A consistent creator in his fiction of heroic idealists, Gorky actually wrote no further novels about politics after The Mother, a fact which in itself suggests his true creative aspirations lay elsewhere, perhaps even in this most politically influential of fictional works. Despite the novel’s history, then, maybe The Mother is not so much about politics at all.
– Hugh Aplin, 2015
Every day above the workers’ settlement the factory siren quivered and roared in the smoky, oily air, and, obedient to the call, out into the street from the small grey houses there ran, like frightened cockroaches, morose people who had as yet been unable to refresh their muscles with sleep. They walked in the cold gloom down the unpaved street towards the tall, stone cells of the factory, and it awaited them with indifferent certainty, lighting the muddy road with dozens of greasy square eyes. Mud squelched underfoot. The hoarse exclamations of sleepy voices rang out, coarse abuse tore angrily through the air, while towards the people floated other sounds – the heavy commotion of machines, the grumbling of steam. Morose and stern loomed the tall black chimneys, rising above the settlement like fat sticks.
In the evening, when the sun was setting, and its red rays shone wearily on the houses’ window panes, the factory would toss the people out from its stone depths like waste slag, and again they would walk down the streets, smoke-begrimed, black-faced, spreading the sticky smell of machine oil through the air and with their hungry teeth shining. In their voices now there was the sound of animation and even joy – the penal servitude of labour was over for the day, and waiting at home were dinner and rest.
The day had been swallowed by the factory, and the machines had sucked as much strength as they needed from men’s muscles. The day had been expunged from life without trace, each man had taken one more step towards his grave, but he could see not far ahead of him the pleasure of rest, the joys of the smoky tavern, and he was content.
On days off people would sleep until about ten o’clock, then the solid and married ones would dress in their best clothes and go to hear the Liturgy, criticizing youngsters on the way for their indifference to the church. From church they would return home, eat pies and go back to bed again until evening.
Tiredness which had accumulated over years deprived men of their appetite, and in order to eat they would have a lot to drink, irritating their stomachs with the sharp burning of vodka.
In the evening they would stroll lazily around the streets, and anyone who had galoshes put them on, even if it was dry, and if they had an umbrella they carried it with them, even though the sun might be shining.
Meeting with one another, they would talk about the factory, about the machines, and criticize the foremen: they talked and thought only about things connected with work. Solitary sparks of clumsy, impotent thought barely glimmered in the boring monotony of their days. Returning home, they would quarrel with their wives and often beat them, not sparing their fists. The youngsters sat in taverns or organized parties at each other’s homes; they played accordions, sang smutty, ugly songs, danced, used foul language and drank. Exhausted by labour, men got drunk quickly, and in every breast an incomprehensible, morbid irritation was awakened. It demanded an outlet. And grasping tenaciously at every opportunity to discharge this alarming feeling, people threw themselves upon one another over trifles with the animosity of beasts. Bloody fights broke out. At times they ended in serious mutilation, occasionally in murder.
Most of all in people’
s relations there was a sense of watchful malice, and it was just as chronic as the incurable tiredness of their muscles. People were born with this sickness of the soul, inheriting it from their fathers, and it accompanied them like a black shadow to the grave, prompting them during their lives to a series of deeds, repellent in their aimless cruelty.
On days off, youngsters would arrive home late at night in ripped clothing, covered in dirt and dust and with battered faces, boasting with malicious delight of the blows inflicted upon their comrades, or else insulted, in a rage or in tears of resentment, drunk and wretched, unhappy and offensive. Sometimes lads were brought home by their mothers or fathers. They would seek them out, drunk and insensible, somewhere beside a fence in the street or in the taverns; they would curse them with foul words and use their fists to beat the soft bodies, diluted with vodka, of their children, then put them to bed, more or less solicitously, only to wake them early in the morning, when the angry roar of the siren flowed in a dark stream through the air, for work.
They cursed and beat their children hard, but the drunkenness and fights of the youngsters seemed to the old men a perfectly legitimate phenomenon – when the fathers were young, they too had drunk and fought, they too had been beaten by their mothers and fathers. Life had always been thus: evenly and slowly, year after year, it kept on flowing away somewhere in a turbid stream, and it was all bound together by strong, ancient habits of thinking and doing one and the same thing day in, day out. And no one had any desire to try to change it.
Outsiders would occasionally come to the settlement from elsewhere. At first they attracted attention simply because they were strangers, next they aroused a slight, superficial interest with stories about the places where they had worked, and then their novelty wore off, people grew accustomed to them, and they became insignificant. From their stories it was clear: the life of a worker was the same everywhere. And if that was the case, then what was there to talk about?