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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 27, No. 5. 1964.

Russian Writers, Forced Outlook?

Russian Writers, Forced Outlook?

From Gorky To Pasternak (Six Modern Russian Writers) by Helen Muchnie (Methuen), 438pp, 50/-. Reviewed by Murray Rowlands.

Three Russian writers met at Yalta in 9101; Chekov, Tolstoy and Gorky, each of whom was an epitome of the changes from time past and into the future that would take place in Russia.

Tolstoy is immediately bought in by Helen Muchnie to provide a comparison with the man who has, more than any one, shaped the official attitude to the writer today, Maxim Gorky.

Tolstoy was an individualist, suspicious of any theory which made generalisations about society. He could give to whatever he wrote about a sense of completeness which Chekov, lacking Tolstoy's inward and complex vision was unable to do.

Gorky's position in regard to Tolstoy is paradoxical, for he revered "the old master" while at the same time attacking him for advocating non-violence as a means of overcoming social ills, which he did in an article in the "London Times" in 1905.

The year itself climaxed in the first revolution in Russia and is regretfully called by Professor Muchnie a "watershed between the old Russia and the new." Gorky was conscious of his social environment and of his position in the vanguard of the social revolutionaries, a type of man who, Gerhensohn writes, "recognises as the only object worthy of his interest and concern something that lies beyond his personality—the people, society, government."

"Despotism." Professor Muchnie claims, "has forced this extraverted attitude on to the Russians in not only politics and sociology, but in metaphysics, theology, ethics, education and jurisprudence." Gorky's measuring rod to each of these Helds of learning was how much it would help the needs of the "peasants and workers."

Yet Gorky, to Muchnie, always unwittingly aided totalitarianism and although she somewhat grudgingly praises his more autobiographical stories, "Childhood" for instance, and his play "Lower Depths" (his only really successful play), the reviewer is left with a doubt that an ideological bias has coloured her opinion to some extent. However whether he was a "time server" as the Russian emigre believes, or "a hero" as most Soviet citizens believe, the man, full of revered observations, eagerness and intellectual naivity is always larger than his works.

Blok, unlike Mayakovsky and Gorky, had not been prepared by circumstances to be a revolutionary. He was born into the highest sphere of the Russian intelligentsia. His "Verses to a Beautiful Lady" are described by Professor Muchnie as translations of spiritual wanderings and complex emotions. "Blok could convert all the emotions of a complex religious psyche into a poem about the revolution." In this stanza Blok uses a folk lament;

"Fly away, you bourgeois, like a sparrow
Blood will I drink
For my sweetheart.
My black browed ....
Rest, O Lord, the soul of thy servant Misery."

With Mayakovsky. Sholokhov, Leonov and Pasternak, the writer has written a brief autobiographical background and then continually relating back to the writer's life, made a critical assessment of each in turn. The reviewer in the New Statesman considered the book too weighted down by Professor Muchnie's concern to trace the philosophical beginnings of "socialist realism."

For myself, Miss Muchnie's observations seem to grow in stature with reflection but considering Leonov and Sholokhov are still alive some of her judgements are venturesome. Her appraisal of Pasternak for instance is one of unqualified greatness. The major part of her long chapter on Pasternak is of the Pasternak of "Zhivago, rather than the poet, who I think has a right to be more deeply regarded."

This is an essential book for those who would understand the move for liberation of the Arts in the Soviet Union. However, Mayakovsky the "positivist" is at the last, before his suicide, cynical.

It Is not hard to die in our world.

Harder is it by far to make our life.