Philip Vasilyevich's Story

Library of Alexandria
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I WAS sitting in the town park on a bench under the trees, the wind shook angrily the black, wet branches over my head and, tearing off the last leaves, carried them away down the hill to the wide, turbid river, and the river exhaled damp, [illustration omitted] cold breaths toward the sky.
Beyond the river, in the yellow velvet of withered grass, a small lake was glimmering; the dull autumn sky reflected itself in it mournfully; the pale disk of the moon was wasting away in the sky. The sun had long set behind the dark wall of the distant forest and the purple strip of the setting sun, amidst the thick, dark-blue clouds, seemed like a stream of fire in the mountain straits.
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Publisher
Library of Alexandria
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Pages
21
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ISBN
9781465600264
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Language
English
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INTRODUCTORY NOTE.

OUT of the darkest depths of life, where vice and crime and misery abound, comes the Byron of the twentieth century, the poet of the vagabond and the proletariat, Maxim Gorky. Not like the beggar, humbly imploring for a crust in the name of the Lord, nor like the jeweller displaying his precious stones to dazzle and tempt the eye, he comes to the world,—nay, in accents of Tyrtaeus this commoner of Nizhni Novgorod spurs on his troops of freedom-loving heroes to conquer, as it were, the placid, self-satisfied literatures of to-day, and bring new life to pale, bloodless frames.

Like Byron's impassioned utterances, "borne on the tones of a wild and quite artless melody," is Gorky's mad, unbridled, powerful voice, as he sings of the "madness of the brave," of the barefooted dreamers, who are proud of their idleness, who possess nothing and fear nothing, who are gay in their misery, though miserable in their joy.

Gorky's voice is not the calm, cultivated, well-balanced voice of Chekhov, the Russian De Maupassant, nor even the apostolic, well-meaning, but comparatively faint voice of Tolstoy, the preacher: it is the roaring of a lion, the crash of thunder. In its elementary power is the heart rending cry of a sincere but suffering soul that saw the brutality of life in all its horrors, and now flings its experiences into the face of the world with unequalled sympathy and the courage of a giant.

For Gorky, above all, has courage; he dares to say that he finds the vagabond, the outcast of society, more sublime and significant than society itself.

INTRODUCTION

By G. K. CHESTERTON

It is certainly a curious fact that so many of the voices of what is called our modern religion have come from countries which are not only simple, but may even be called barbaric. A nation like Norway has a great realistic drama without having ever had either a great classical drama or a great romantic drama. A nation like Russia makes us feel its modern fiction when we have never felt its ancient fiction. It has produced its Gissing without producing its Scott. Everything that is most sad and scientific, everything that is most grim and analytical, everything that can truly be called most modern, everything that can without unreasonableness be called most morbid, comes from these fresh and untried and unexhausted nationalities. Out of these infant peoples come the oldest voices of the earth.

This contradiction, like many other contradictions, is one which ought first of all to be registered as a mere fact; long before we attempt to explain why things contradict themselves, we ought, if we are honest men and good critics, to register the preliminary truth that things do contradict themselves. In this case, as I say, there are many possible and suggestive explanations. It may be, to take an example, that our modern Europe is so exhausted that even the vigorous expression of that exhaustion is difficult for every one except the most robust.

It may be that all the nations are tired; and it may be that only the boldest and breeziest are not too tired to say that they are tired. It may be that a man like Ibsen in Norway or a man like Gorky in Russia are the only people left who have so much faith that they can really believe in scepticism. It may be that they are the only people left who have so much animal spirits that they can really feast high and drink deep at the ancient banquet of pessimism. This is one of the possible hypotheses or explanations in the matter: that all Europe feels these things and that only have strength to believe them also. Many other explanations might, however, also be offered. It might be suggested that half-barbaric countries, like Russia or Norway, which have always lain, to say the least of it, on the extreme edge of the circle of our European civilization, have a certain primal melancholy which belongs to them through all the ages. It is highly probable that this sadness, which to us is modern, is to them eternal. It is highly probable that what we have solemnly and suddenly discovered in scientific text-books and philosophical magazines they absorbed and experienced thousands of years ago, when they offered human sacrifice in black and cruel forests and cried to their gods in the dark. Their agnosticism is perhaps merely paganism; their paganism, as in old times, is merely devil-worship. Certainly, Schopenhauer could hardly have written his hideous essay on women except in a country which had once been full of slavery and the service of fiends. It may be that these moderns are tricking us altogether, and are hiding in their current scientific jargon things that they knew before science or civilization were.

They say that they are determinists; but the truth is, probably, that they are still worshipping the Norns. They say that they describe scenes which are sickening and dehumanizing in the name of art or in the name of truth; but it may be that they do it in the name of some deity indescribable, whom they propitiated with blood and terror before the beginning of history.

Aleksey Peshkov overcame indigence, violence, and suicidal despair to become Maksim Gorky, one of the most widely read and influential writers of the twentieth century. Childhood, the first book in Gorky's acclaimed autobiographical trilogy, depictshis early years, when after his father's death he was taken to live in the home of his maternal grandfather, a violent and vindictive man who both provided the child with a rudimentary education and subjected him to savage beatings. With remarkable freshness and candor, Gorky immerses his reader in a young child's world, recreating in dynamic prose a boy's bewilderment at the senseless cruelty that surrounds him, his solace in the quiet beauty of the natural world, and his often funny, guileless observations of the many vivid characters who enter his early life. At the center of this story stands Gorky's grandmother, Akulina Kashirina, one of Russian literature's most remarkable heroines. Her tender love for her grandson serves as a vital antidote tothe brutality that threatens to consume him. Her buoyant faith in a merciful, loving, but limited God provides the young Gorky with a life-affirming alternative to the vengeful, omniscient deity his grandfather worships ardently. Although often unsettling in its portrayal of the poverty and ignorance that gripped nineteenth-century Russia, Childhood is ultimately a heartening account of a young boy's formative struggle to overcome the limitations of a decaying and corrupt society, and the remarkable old woman who enabled him to succeed and instilled in him an abiding, fierce compassion for Russia's destitute and defenseless. Childhood is freshly and beautifully translated by Graham Hettlinger, lauded for his translations of Ivan Bunin.
This happened in 1892, a famine year, at a point between Sukhum and Ochemchiry, on the shore of the Kodor River, so near the sea that through the gay babble of the clear waters of the mountain stream the muffled thunder of the billows was distinctly heard.
It was an autumn day. Yellow cherry-laurel leaves were circling and glistening in the white foam of the Kodor like nimble salmon fry. I was sitting on some rocks near the bank and reflecting that the sea-gulls and cormorants, too, must be mistaking the leaves for fish, and that was why their cries were so fretful over there to the right, behind the trees where the sea was rumbling.
The chestnut trees overhead were decked out in gold; at my feet lay piles of leaves which looked like the palms of hands that had been cut off. On the opposite bank the hornbeam boughs were already bare, and hung in the air like a torn net; caught in it, as it were, a red and yellow mountain woodpecker hopped along, tapping the bark with his black beak, while adroit titmice and dove-colored nuthatchesÑvisitors from the distant northÑpecked the insects he drove out.
To the left, above the mountain peaks, hung smoky, heavy, rain-laden clouds; they cast shadows over the green slopes dotted with boxwood, ñthe dead tree.Ó Here in the hollows of old beeches and lindens is found that ñheady honey,Ó the intoxicating sweetness of which nearly caused the downfall of the soldiers of Pompey the Great long ago, having overcome a whole legion of iron Romans. The bees make it from laurel and azalea blossoms, and tramps get it out of the hollows and eat it, spreading it on what the natives called lavash, a thin flat cake made of wheat flour. That is exactly what I was doing, as I sat under the chestnut trees. Stung all over by angry bees, I was dipping pieces of bread into a kettle full of honey and eating, while I admired the lazy play of the weary autumnal sun.
 De profundis ad te clamavi. In this phrase, with his penchant for epitome, the late James Huneker summarized the masterpiece of Russia’s single living master of the drama, Maxim Gorky, as he saw it in Berlin under the German title of “Nachtasyl” or “Night Lodging.” “Na Dnye” is the Russian—literally “On the Bottom.” Partly because “The Lower Depths” is a more faithful rendering of the original than “Night Lodging” and partly because it implies so vividly the play’s keynote as the shrewd Huneker detected it beneath a guise alien to both Russian and English, the title adopted by Laurence Irving for the British version has been preferred for its introduction to American audiences by the company which discovered it and first set it on its stage in Moscow, December 31 (our calendar), 1902.

In “The Lower Depths” more than in any other single play throughout its history, the Moscow Art Theatre concentrates its dramatic ideals and methods, its esthetic theory and practice, and through the production of this play it most emphatically justifies its artistic faith in spiritual or psychological realism as a dramatic medium of expression. The plays of Tchekhoff, of course, serve the same ends, but no single one of them does so quite as richly as does Gorky’s masterpiece. At the hands of Stanislavsky and his associates, “The Lower Depths” draws much of its convincing power from its unusual use of and dependence on the channels of expression which are peculiar to the art of the theatre. It is almost wholly independent of drama as literature. Less than any play I know, is it possible to imagine its potential effect in the theatre from a reading of its printed lines. In my book, “The Russian Theatre,” I have thus analyzed this factor: “‘The Lower Depths’ is not so much a matter of utterable line and recountable gesture as it is of the intangible flow of human souls in endlessly shifting contact with one another. Awkward but eloquent pauses and emphases, the scarcely perceptible stress or dulling of word or gesture, the nuances and the shadings of which life is mostly made and by which it reveals its meaning—these, and the instinctive understanding of the vision of the playwright by those who seek to interpret him, are the incalculable and unrecordable channels through which ‘The Lower Depths’ becomes articulate at the Moscow Art Theatre.”

Just as this theatre discovered or, rather, rescued Tchekhoff as a dramatist, so it first stood sponsor for the author of “Foma Gordeyeff” as a playwright. During the first half of the season of 1902-1903, two of his plays were produced—“Smug Citizens” and “The Lower Depths.” The latter was recognized at once as a work of supreme merit and moment. Tchekhoff himself had written to its youthful author five months before its première: “I have read your play. It is new and unmistakably fine. The second act is very good, it is the best, the strongest, and when I was reading it, especially the end, I almost danced with joy.” At the première, the rival dramatist’s verdict was publicly ratified, for Gorky was called before the curtain twenty times, and the press was unanimously enthusiastic. The play has held its place in the repertory of the Moscow Art Theatre ever since, and eight of its most important rôles are still played by those who created them, just two decades ago.

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