My Childhood by Maxim Gorky – Reviewed by Guy Portman
My Childhood is the first volume of Russian author Maxim Gorky’s autobiographical trilogy. The book begins with the young Maxim viewing the dead body of his father, who has just died of cholera. Maxim is then sent to live with his grandparents. With an errant mother, abusive grandfather and quarrelling uncles, Maxim’s childhood is a tumultuous experience; its one saving grace being an affectionate grandmother, who becomes his closest friend.
This is a precarious existence where life mirrors the bleak, cold landscape. There is little security and limited education and opportunities for the superstitious peasants, with their reverence for icons and saints. The pensive, intelligent and courageous Maxim is exposed to death, and is subjected to violence and illness.
My Childhood is a harrowing account of a turbulent and cruel childhood that never resorts to self-pity. Gorky proves to be an acute observer and adroit recorder of the wide spectrum of human behaviour that he witnesses.
The book, which offers a rare insight into peasant life in late Tsarist rural Russia, is very different to other accounts of the time, such as the writings of the aristocratic Tolstoy and Turgenev, not only in the life it describes, but also in its simplicity of style, which is in stark contrast to the ornate, voluminous prose of Gorky’s contemporary countrymen.