Once Upon the Oka-Amur: Gor’kii and Makine

Ruth Rischin, San Francisco State University

Among Gor’kii’s short fiction written during his voluntary exile in Germany, “O pervoi liubvi” (1923) stands out as markedly different from his other autobiographical works of the 1920s. Set in Nizhnyi-Novgorod in the 1890s, years of the narrator’s literary apprenticeship, it tells of his infatuation with an older woman who has lived in Paris, from whom he runs away, only to discover that his feelings are requited. When she consents to live with him, he imagines that the squalor of their quarters will be transformed by love and that his writer’s soul will be set afire. In the expression of the narrator’s quest to rise above the vulgarity of his provincial existence; in the comparisons of Russian and Western culture; in the evocations of the female nude; this story merits consideration with the Modernist corpus then being created by Russian writers abroad, revealing as well, a nuanced didacticism uncommon for Gor’kii. Published in Krasnaia nov’ (1923:6), “O Pervoi liubvi” was overshadowed at home by the more conventional “Moi universitety” and abroad, by Bunin’s autobiographical prose of the 1920s. Beginning with the response in the West to “O russkom krest’ianstve” (1922) this story lacked interest because it lacked ideological immediacy.

Seven decades separate Gor’kii’s autobiographical prose and the novel Au temps du fleuve Amur by Siberian-born Andrei Makine (Paris, 1994). The careful reader cannot help but note striking correspondences between the Gor’kii short story and the Makine novel. In the first, the narrator (the young Peshkov) escapesfrom love beyond the Oka. In the Makine, the narrator treks eight hours from Nerlug, on the Amur, to experience love—vicariously—through French films screened Saturdays at “The Red October.” Thus, in both, the lure of what lies beyond the river is conflated with the lure of the unknown. The woman with whom Gor’kii’s narrator takes up represents an import to Nizhnyi of a boulevard cynicism that mildly discredits Western mores, whereas the heroines about whom Makine’s Siberians dream, represent an equally parodic assessment of the West.

No mention of Gor’kii appears in the literature about Makine. In his own statements, he acknowledges Turgenev, Bunin, and Proust as his masters, perhaps understandable, given the prevailing severity toward Soviet culture and politics by the French literary establishment. All the more reason to demonstrate in Makine’s art a reading of Soviet prose of the very years when Gor’kii not only was contributing to Krasnaia nov’ but was encouraging the young Siberian Vsevelod Ivanolv, who set many works in in his native region. In this paper I examine “O pervoi liubvi” as a work that Makine read and to an extent remade in his Au temps du fleuve Amur, and I then go on to single out issues in narratology that ultimately divide the two.