Originally published in 1906, 324 pages. Available for free on Project Gutenberg.
Maxim Gorky, pseudonym of Alexei Maksimovich Peshkov, Soviet novelist, playwright and essayist, was a founder of social realism. Although known principally as a writer, he was closely associated with the tumultuous revolutionary period of his own country. The Mother, one of his best-known works, is the story of the radicalization of an uneducated woman that was later taken as a model for the Socialist Realist novel, and his autobiographical masterpiece.
Maxim Gorky was a famous Russian novelist who hung out with Tolstoy and Chekhov and Uncle Joe himself, writing novels about the revolution to come.
He must have been awfully disappointed by the revolution that came. Or maybe not.
"Those——"—here he flung out a terrible oath—"those people don't know what their blind hands are sowing. They will know when our power is complete and we begin to mow down their cursed grass. They'll know it then!"
Mother, written in 1906, was an early work of "Socialist Realism." This is Russian for "boring political soapboxing."
"This is the way it ought to be!" said the Little Russian, returning. "Because, mark you, mother dear, a new heart is coming into existence, a new heart is growing up in life. All hearts are smitten in the conflict of interests, all are consumed with a blind greed, eaten up with envy, stricken, wounded, and dripping with filth, falsehood, and cowardice. All people are sick; they are afraid to live; they wander about as in a mist. Everyone feels only his own toothache. But lo, and behold! Here is a Man coming and illuminating life with the light of reason, and he shouts: 'Oh, ho! you straying roaches! It's time, high time, for you to understand that all your interests are one, that everyone has the need to live, everyone has the desire to grow!' The Man who shouts this is alone, and therefore he cries aloud; he needs comrades, he feels dreary in his loneliness, dreary and cold. And at his call the stanch hearts unite into one great, strong heart, deep and sensitive as a silver bell not yet cast. And hark! This bell rings forth the message: 'Men of all countries, unite into one family! Love is the mother of life, not hate!' My brothers! I hear this message sounding through the world!"
The titular character is referred to as "the Mother" for her association with her charismatic revolutionary son. An old woman widowed by a drunken, wife-beating lout in a factory town, she is initially confused by her son Pavel's cause, but she's willing to support him no matter what. She acts as a mother figure to his comrades, and helps him distribute socialist literature, even going "undercover" after Pavel is sent to prison. She becomes good at outwitting the Czar's police, and meanwhile hosts a parade of revolutionary youth coming in and out of her house, giving speeches about how socialism will make all men equal and how justice will come.
"They destroy lives with work. What for? They rob men of their lives. What for, I ask? My master—I lost my life in the textile mill of Nefidov—my master presented one prima donna with a golden wash basin. Every one of her toilet articles was gold. That basin holds my life-blood, my very life. That's for what my life went! A man killed me with work in order to comfort his mistress with my blood. He bought her a gold wash basin with my blood."
Mother accomplishes its purpose in depicting life in pre-revolutionary Russia — it's a miserable, oppressive place, and viewed as a snapshot in time (and keeping in mind that Gorky didn't know what the USSR would become), one can read the book as a naively optimistic work. The long speeches, the descriptions of indignities and injustice, supply the motivation that turned peasants into Bolsheviks — it makes revolution perfectly understandable, even with historical hindsight we know how badly they usually turn out.
One can also read in this book Gorky's talent for capturing the nuances of oppression and humiliation, the thousand torments that might turn even a barely-literate working-class woman into a revolutionary.
She had already been three times in the prison to ask for a meeting with Pavel, and each time the general of the gendarmes, a gray old man with purple cheeks and a huge nose, turned her gently away.
"In about a week, little mother, not before! A week from now we shall see, but at present it's impossible!"
He was a round, well-fed creature, and somehow reminded her of a ripe plum, somewhat spoiled by too long keeping, and already covered with a downy mold. He kept constantly picking his small, white teeth with a sharp yellow toothpick. There was a little smile in his small greenish eyes, and his voice had a friendly, caressing sound.
"Polite!" said the mother to the Little Russian with a thoughtful air. "Always with a smile on him. I don't think it's right. When a man is tending to affairs like these, I don't think he ought to grin."
"Yes, yes. They are so gentle, always smiling. If they should be told: 'Look here, this man is honest and wise, he is dangerous to us; hang him!' they would still smile and hang him, and keep on smiling."
"The one who made the search in our place is the better of the two; he is simpler. You can see at once that he is a dog."
"None of them are human beings; they are used to stun the people and render them insensible. They are tools, the means wherewith our kind is rendered more convenient to the state. They themselves have already been so fixed that they have become convenient instruments in the hand that governs us. They can do whatever they are told to do without thought, without asking why it is necessary to do it."
That said, after the umpteenth speech about how terrible the "masters" are, we get the point. The climax of the novel is Pavel's trial and exile, followed by Nilovna picking up where her son left off. Viva la revolucion! The story itself has no twists or turns, it's just a vehicle to deliver the author's message, and the characters are all there to deliver lines. The literary qualities of The Mother might be more apparent in the original Russian, but I found it a tedious 330-page political tract.
Verdict: Is this a book you must read before you die? I'd say as a sample of a particular period of history and the literature it produced, it has its value. This isn't a post-revolutionary Soviet novel, so it's a vivid if biased view into the time in which it was written. But as a work of literature, I would not inflict this on anyone who isn't perversely fascinated with the Bolshevik revolution. 3/10.
I read this book as part of the books1001 challenge.
My complete list of book reviews.