Friday, 3 November 2017

Book Review: The Artamonov Business by Maxim Gorky
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It‘s only natural (or it should be) that parents want the best for their children and that they try at least to open up for them as many opportunities for a better future as they can. Depending on the social and economic background, starting a business to provide for generations to come may seem a good idea, but a parent’s dream can all too easily turn into the child’s or grandchild’s nightmare if the nature, interests and ambitions of the founder don’t really correspond with those of the descendants or the business environment changes considerably. Set in Russia during the five decades before the Bolshevik revolution of November 1917, the classical family saga The Artamonov Business by Maxim Gorky shows three generations of factory owners as they rise to wealth producing linen and move step by step towards doom because the younger generation lacks entrepreneurial spirit and flexibility to adapt to the requirements of rapidly changing times.

Maxim Gorky (Максим Гoрький) was born Alexey Maximovich Peshkov (Алексeй Максимович Пешкoв) in Nizhny Novgorod, Russian Empire (today: Russia), in March 1868. Having to work as from eight years old he wandered about Russia, became a journalist adopting the pseudonym Gorky (tr. “bitter”) in 1892 and published novels too, e.g. Foma Gordeyev (Фома Гордеев: 1899; also translated as The Man Who Was Afraid), before the three-volume collection Очерки и рассказы (1898/99; Sketches and Stories) established him as a writer. In the following he produced a huge body of novels, short stories, essays, memoirs, poems, and plays that earned him several nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Although under watch of Tsarist authorities for supporting the Marxist social-democratic cause and exiled in Capri, Italy, between 1906 and 1913, he brought out novels like Mother (Мать: 1907), The Life of a Useless Man (Жизнь ненужного человека: 1907; also translated as The Spy), The Confession (Исповедь: 1908), and The Life of Matvei Kozhemyakin (Жизнь Матвея Кожемякина: 1911). Openly critical of Lenin, he returned into Italian exile in Sorrento from 1921 to 1928 writing his masterpiece The Artamonov Business (Дело Артамоновых: 1925; also translated as Decadence) and beginning the (unfinished) novel series Life of Klim Samgin (Жизнь Клима Самгина). Maxim Gorky died in Moscow, Soviet Union (today: Russia), in June 1936.

In 1862 or 1863 Ilia Artamonov moves to the small Russian town of Dromov on the river Oka to start The Artamonov Business, a linen factory, with the money that his generous master gave him after serfdom was abolished and he a free man. With him are his sons Peter, hunchbacked Nikita and adopted Alexey. With great vigour and with rough, not to say arrogant manners that forbid opposition, Ilia goes about his business that includes marrying Peter to the mayor’s daughter Natalia and making the girl’s widowed mother his lover. The construction of the factory goes on as planned and soon the family settles down in the new house on its premises. Thanks to Ilia’s commitment the business thrives and the factory steadily grows, but while workers and farmers respect him townspeople stay reserved. In four years Natalia gives birth to two girls and she is pregnant again, when Ilia has an accident and dies leaving the factory to his three sons. Peter and Alexey take charge of the family business and keep it running, even growing although neither is in it with his heart. Nikita, however, prefers to become a monk in a monastery because he can no longer bear being near Natalia whom he loves. More children are born to Peter and Natalia, most importantly the sons Ilia and Yakov, but their marriage has long ceased to be happy. Peter takes to having affairs and drowning boredom and fear in alcohol. Alexey marries intellectual Olga whom his father would never have accepted as daughter-in-law and they have a son called Miron. Both Peter and Alexey send their children to boarding school in town where they get in touch with forbidden ideas that also spread among workforce. Politically active Alexey too sympathises with them, while Peter presages doom…

A superficial reader may consider The Artamonov Business just another – less lengthy – family saga like Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks or John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga, but more importantly the novel impressively illustrates Russian history during the nearly sixty years between the abolition of serfdom by Tsar Alexander II in 1861 and the bloody turmoil of the Bolshevik revolution in November 1917. Based on first-hand experience the author shows in great detail and with the help of an intriguing plot the impact that the country’s quite retarded though quick-paced arrival in the industrial age had on Russian society, notably on the lower classes that were unprepared for such fundamental change and on economic upstarts like the Artamonovs who took advantage of it. Despite the fact that the not actually winning protagonists belong to the newly rich bourgeoisie and not to the poor working class, the novel is clearly a work of social realism infused by Marxist or at least social-democratic values that certainly pleased Communist leaders like Stalin. Nonetheless, the final scenes almost imperceptibly criticise the pointless violence and destruction that the October revolution brought all across the country. The impressive imagery and powerful, yet simple language make the novel a pleasant read.

Although The Artamonov Business by Maxim Gorky is a novel published in the Soviet Union less than ten years after the October revolution, it turned out to be agreeably modern and much less saturated with Communist ideology than I had expected knowing that Stalin admired the author’s work. Nonetheless, it follows the usual pattern of Soviet literature depicting the bourgeois Artamonovs as degenerate and basically evil, while the factory workers get the role of the innocent and good. I don’t appreciate such bias in a novel, but I still enjoyed this one because on the whole plot as well as characters feel fairly (though not entirely) realistic and because I came across a couple of awe-inspiring descriptions of Russian landscape. Maxim Gorky definitely was a writer of great skill and would have deserved the Nobel Prize in Literature. Consequently, I gladly take the opportunity to recommend this classic from the Soviet era.

Since Maxim Gorky died more than 70 years ago, several of his novels and short stories can be downloaded for free and legally from sites like Project Gutenberg, ManyBooks or Feedbooks just for instance. All English translations of The Artamonov Business, however, still seem to be copyrighted.

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  1. I have never read Gorky but it seems I cannot read any other Russian literature without his name coming up. Have you read anything else by him?

    1. Yes, there's no way round Gorky, if you want to get acquainted with Russian literature. It's the first of his books that I read, but I think I still have a leather-bound bibliopile edition of selected short stories by Gorky lying arond somewhere... Thanks for commenting so regularly although as late I don't often have time to reply.


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