Once Upon the River Oka-Amur: Maksim Gor′kij and Andrei Makine

Ruth Rischin, San Francisco

Among Gor′kij’s short fiction written during his voluntary exile in Germany, the story “O pervoj ljubvi” (“About My First Love,” 1923) stands out as a work markedly different even from his other autobiographical works of the 1920s. Set in Nižnij-Novgorod during the 1890s at the very time of the narrator’s literary apprenticeship, the story tells of his “other” apprenticeship of those years. Infatuated with an older woman just back from Paris, the narrator at first leaves his hometown to distance himself from her and her Polish lover, only to discover that his feelings are requited. When upon his return, the woman consents to move in with him, he imagines that the squalor of their quarters (all that a neophyte writer can afford) will be transformed by love-making and his soul will be set afire.

In its unabashed painterly evocations of the female nude; in its lyrical expression of a quest to break away from the vulgarity of daily existence in the Oka River town; and in its restrained contrast of Russian and Western culture, the story merits consideration within the Modernist corpus created by Russia abroad. It also reveals a nuanced didacticism uncommon for Gor′kij. Indeed, Nina Berberova wrote that Gor′kij’s fiction of these years reveals “the rise of all his creative powers and the weakening of his moralizing persona.” Published in Krasnaja nov′ (1923.6) as part of Gor′kij’s Avtobiografičeskie rasskazy, “O pervoj ljubvi” was overshadowed by the more conventional “Moi universitety” (Lenin’s “favorite”) and in the literary creativity of Russia abroad, it soon was eclipsed by Bunin’s autobiographical prose of the 1920s. Beginning with the response in the West to Gor′kij’s prose tract, “O russkom krest′janstve” (“On the Russian Peasantry,” 1922) the relentless focus on issues of Gor′kij’s politics rather than on the dimensions of his art, has further deprived “About My First Love” of a chance to be judged on its artistic merit.

Seven decades separate Gor′kij’s autobiographical prose and the novel Au temps du fleuve Amur [Once Upon the River Love, 1994], by Siberian-born, Andrei Makine, written and published in Paris. The careful reader cannot help but note striking correspondences between the Gor′kij short story and the Makine novel. In the Gor′kij, the narrator (the young Peškov) sets off to distance himself beyond the Oka from what he fears may be his first, perhaps never to be requited, erotic attachment. In the Makine, the narrator treks eight hours from Nerlug, his hometown along the river Amur, in order to experience love—vicariously—through imported French films that provide the Saturday fare at “The Red October.” In the Gor′kij and the Makine, the lure of what lies beyond the river is conflated with the lure of the unknown—woman. In the Makine, this quest motif is encapsulated in the very name Jean-Paul Belmondo [beautiful world] to whose sex-and-adventure films the narrator and his two chums become addicted. The woman with whom Gor′kij’s narrator takes up, represents an import to Nižnij of a boulevard cynicism that mildly discredits Western mores, whereas the cinematic heroines about whom Makine’s young heroes dream, represent an equally parodic assessment of the West. Each young man ultimately is led to discover another “jouissance,” as writer and film-maker, respectively.

No mention, however, of Gor′kij is to be found in the literature about Makine in his adoptive France or in the United States. Makine, in his official statements, acknowledges Turgenev, Bunin, and Proust alone as his masters. This absence of Gor′kij in Makine’s rendition of his literary apprenticeship, stands to reason. Given the prevailing severity toward Soviet culture and politics by the current French literary establishment, a turnabout from its earlier accepting gestures, Gor′kij, as a literary model of any kind, would be unacceptable. The young, non-native French writer, initially spurned by the gatekeepers of the French publishing establishment, would have to hew to a clean literary genealogy.

All the more reason to demonstrate in Makine’s art a thorough reading of Soviet prose in the very years when Gor′kij not only was contributing to >Krasnaja nov′, but was encouraging the young Vsevolod Ivanov, many of whose works on the Civil War were set in Siberia.

In this paper I examine Gor′kij’s fiction of the 1920s, with an emphasis on “O pervoj ljubvi” as a work that Makine read and to an extent re-made in his Au temps du fleuve Amur, and I then go on to single out issues in narratology that ultimately divide the two. I conclude by suggesting that Gor′kij’s writings were important for Makine in his subsequent novel, Le testament [Dreams of My Russian Summers]—that the depiction of the invincible grandmother, Charlotte, who dominates the Makine novel, has a literary antecedent in Gor′kij’s memorable portrait of Akulina Kaširina. This paper therefore serves as the introduction to a longer essay devoted to the impact of Soviet prose of the 1920s on the art of Andrei Makine.