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Book Review and Recommendation: My Universities, a book by Maxim Gorky

My Universities is the third and the last part of Gorky's autobiographical trilogy. I was very much impressed with this book. Honestly, I can't recommend it enough. One thing is certain, Gorky is a fantastic thinker and writer. In fact, the more I read Gorky, the more I like him. My Universities was a chance read, I have to admit. I found a vintage copy at home (probably one of my husband's books) and I read it in one sitting. Had I planned my reading, I probably wouldn't start with the last of his autobiographical books. No regrets, though. My Universities is a very powerful piece of writing and I enjoyed reading it. This book provides a painful insight into Russian society of the time. Moreover, it allows the reader to observe Gorky's formative years, his personal evolution and the emergence of his personality. 

Chronologically, this book covers Gorky's teenage years. Encouraged by a kind but native Jewish friend, Gorky travels to his friend's home city in hope of being admitted to an University. When Gorky arrives at his home, he meets the mother of his friend who is trying to cook a lunch from bad meat. The mother seems suspicious of Gorky's chances. Soon Gorky realizes that the mother is not being mean, just realistic and that her bad mood is a reflection of their financial problems. It seems that Gorky's kind friend was too optimistic on his behalf. There is no chance Gorky will be able to study at University level, so to avoid living at the expense of the above mentioned friend and his impoverish mother, he finds a job.

Throughout his job changes, Gorky continues to study in his own way, by reading as many books as possible. Unable to study formally, Gorky relies on self- education and debates with all the smart people he can find. Gorky befriends students and some interesting thinkers and revolutionaries. Some of them even admire him, calling him a talented self-taught youth, and some want to help him, but Gorky continues to work, not wanting to be a burden to anyone. The jobs Gorky tries are both tiresome and depressive, 14 hour jobs that leave him little free time, from hard physical labour to being forced to witness theft, none of the work experience is pleasant but he endures it. Gorky struggles trying to bring together his philosophical aspirations and the dire reality he is surrounded with. Gorky questions everything, including himself- even going through a nerve crisis.

 The title of the book is very appropriate. The hard experiences Gorky went through- that was his University, his Universities. He studied the hard school of life- and he did learn a few things. I found his thinking very interesting. At times, Gorky's narrative is quite depressive, in the sense that our narrator often gets disappointment seeing the flaws in every system & person (himself included), he is intelligent enough to see the flaws in all ideas, even in new and revolutionary ones. That makes Gorky feel very lonely, I would say. He is neither a 'worker' nor a 'student', at times it seems Gorky doesn't belong anywhere. 

His candid narrative was pessimistic at times, but at the same time I found it reassuring, perhaps because Gorky dares to ask so many questions. Surely, where there are so many questions, one can hope to find some answers? I think that Gorky's unique albeit lonely position gave him a rare insight into human soul. The descriptions of society are mostly quite naturalistic. At times satirical, and at times tragic, the talk of society is never light. Make no mistake, there is a lot of sadness in this book. The book ends unfinished, but that it is to be expected since it is a memoir. All in all, it is a very interesting book. Recommended to all fans of Gorky as well as to those who want to read some good quality philosophical prose.

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