Maxim Gorky, like Leo Tolstoy, was primarily an autobiographical author, and the material here is considered amongst the greatest of his writings. Not only do they give the astonishingly varied life of Gorky from childhood through youth, but they also provide us with an unforgettable picture of one of the most crucial generations in Russian life and history – the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The autobiography begins at the age of five and ends with Gorky secure in his position as one of the leading Russian writers. From the beginning, the story is organized as a quest for knowledge and understanding, of oneself and the world one lives in. This quest brings Gorky into contact with the harsh realities of life in late 19th century Russia - the life that was to constitute his “universities”. We follow him as he turns from one job to another in an effort to make a living for himself - rag picker, errand and stock boy, junior clerk, bird catcher, cabin boy on a Volga steamer, apprentice in an icon factory, baker, watchman and freight handler at railroad stations. We move with Gorky in his life of wandering from one part of Russia to the next, and, in the course of the journey, we meet some of the most extraordinary characters in literature. The people that crowd the pages of his life history are as interesting as they are varied. Peasants, artisans, scholars, writers, teachers, policemen, government officials - they passed in and out of Gorky’s strange, sad life, leaving each one of them a vivid imprint on his keen mind. Through them he learned to build for himself a philosophy of life, and with the memory of them he painted for us those stark, vital pictures which make the unforgettable character of his book. Each character is sharply individualized, mountingly alive, fascinating. There is Gorky’s grandmother with her strength, her idealism, her superstition, her sympathy. Herself a folk bard, she passed on to Gorky the impulse to hearten others and a rich store of folk song and folk story. There is Smoury, the chef of the Volga steamer, whom Gorky was later to call one of his outstanding teachers. There is also Olga, the woman with whom Gorky had his first love affair; eccentric, irresponsible, flirtatious, but charming and kind. In his portrait of these and many other fascinating characters in the book, Gorky has given us his greatest - and one of the greatest life stories in literature.
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