Hours Spent in Prison/Maxym Gorky
His real name is Alexy Pieschkov, but he is only known by his nom-de-plume: Gorky (bitter). Bitter indeed were the days of his childhood.
He was born in 1869, in the town of Nijni-Novogrod, in the workshop of a painter-varnisher.
His grandfather was an officer in one of the regiments in Siberia, and treated the soldiers so cruelly, that even the Tsar, Nicolae I.—who was notorious for severity—dismissed the veteran from the service.
By his action this tyrant forced Gorky's father to leave the parental home in Tobolsk.
Arriving at Nijni-Novogrod he occupied himself with a trade, and afterwards married the daughter of a rich merchant, who was the grandfather of Gorky on his mother's side.
Gorky's maternal grandfather was formerly a common "burlak" (a workman drawing the vessels on the river Volga). By wit and a strong will he became possessed of a fortune, which facts Gorky records in his novel "Tom Gordiejev." But soon afterwards his grandfather lost the whole of his fortune; while Gorky's parents themselves remained without a roof. They took their son away from the school, where he had passed only five months, and subsequently apprenticed him to a shoemaker, with whom, he did not however, long remain, and finally the instinct of rambling and the pains of poverty drove him to the Volga, which river, from this time, exerted an influence on the whole of his life, as well as on his imaginative powers.
His first venture was as a kitchen-boy on a vessel. During the voyages he manifested a liking for books, and it happened that the cook, his superior, had a big box full of volumes. This chef (Smurij) and Gorky used to read together these books. This anomalous study served to feed Gorky's romantic and poetic tastes, while practical life accustomed him to realism.
When Gorky was sixteen years old, he wished to study, and, having left the marine service, went to Kazan, where, however, in consequence of the many difficult conditions imposed on the means of instruction in Russia, he could not enter any school.
Having no employment he found himself very soon among barefooted tramps, the outcasts, and scum of mankind, who often had no home. These wretched people were ready to do anything in order to earn money. Such then were for the time being Gorky's teachers, with them he suffered hunger, frost and poverty.
Later on, he engaged himself to a baker. His master was fond of books, thus resembling the cook (Smurij). With his employer he used to read and meditate, looking up to heaven! Gorky has immortalised this baker in his novel "Konovalov."
Accompanying him Gorky walked in the fields, and both of them would often enter a cottage, where different kinds of poor men, tramps, and burlaki gathered together. They, after having been treated with vodka (whisky), would commence narrating the events of their own lives, for the most part a summary of what they had seen and heard in the wide world. These reminiscences rent the hearts of the listeners more than printed stories could ever have done.
Gorky carefully collected all these materials, and made good use of them in his book "White People."
At one of these gatherings all present were arrested by the police and placed in the police cells; where young Gorky made the acquaintance of some students, who had been irregularly arrested and who afterwards sought his society. In university circles he imbibed different ideas and thoughts from those fermenting in the hearts and brains of his former associates.
While sheltered in the cottage with these miserable people he had been given vodka (whisky) to drink, and now ushered into these higher circles he was fed by abstractions. It is easy to understand the awe reigning in his young mind, when, after some philosophical meeting, he had to take refuge at night in the dark cellars of the bakery.
Finally, his brain half turned, and his heart torn with so many longings which he failed to gratify, our hero decided to take away his life. He was but nineteen years old when he tried to blow out his brains with a revolver. "I am revived," he says with humour, "and have decided to sell apples."
Soon after this experience literary zeal began to awake within him.
In 1892 he published in the provincial newspapers his first narrative, which attracted the attention of Korolenko, who took an interest in the author.
Thanks to Korolenko the newspapers opened their columns for Gorky. During the first six years he was almost entirely unknown. Criticism began to occupy itself with him only in the year 1898, when appeared his "Narratione."
At first critics received him doubtfully, but afterwards burst into panegyrics. In the year 1899 Gorky arrived at St. Petersburg, and in that capital a banquet was given in his honour, and when he appeared on the platform his audience quite lost all self-control, and at the close made him a great ovation, covering him with flowers.