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The Life of Klim Samgin (1987)

The Life of Klim Samgin is perhaps the most dramatic, deep and fateful novel by Maxim Gorky. In 1980s Victor Titov made it into a film.

I have written about the film The Life of Klim Samgin previously in the Russian Los Cuadernos, but I don’t think I have actually mentioned it in English. Certainly, not in the way I am about to mention it now.


Meanwhile, The Life of Klim Samgin is perhaps the most dramatic, deep and fateful (even for its author) novel by Maxim Gorky. It was set out to describe the all-embracing internal tragedy of its protagonist, Klim Samgin, the offspring of the family of intellectuals, who was unable to find a place for himself in Russia’s political climate at the turn of the 19-20th cc. However, by depicting Samgin’s excruciating journey in search of a middle ground between continuous doubt and a burning desire to belong but also to dominate, Gorky somewhat unwittingly but very convincingly narrated the drama of many Russian intellectuals who upheld the revolutionary ideals, only to be repelled by the realisation thereof.

This personal journey of tremendous difficulty is precisely what makes the figure of Samgin rather appealing, especially in the liberal climate. He appears to be the one who constantly questions the world around him, wearing the mask of a dashing individualism all the while. His sense of self-worth doesn’t fail to engage the reader, as neither does his constant doubt which is in sync with how we understand an individual; with how we define our attitude to the Revolution; and even with the image of ‘a mysterious Russian soul’.

At the same time, as one reads the novel or watches the film, one can’t help feeling pity for Samgin. At one point at the very beginning of his story we see one of the characters describing an intellectual as this: “he doesn’t see the sadness of his role – the role of a child who is daydreaming while crossing the street, oblivious to the fact that in a moment he is to be crushed by the heavy cart of History, navigated by the experienced yet not very delicate whips“. As the life of Klim Samgin unravels, we understand that it is this very child, invested with a mission which he only vaguely comprehends. Often he is the hostage of events, a pawn not only for his parents or friends, but most importantly – for the people, the powers, and History, too.

I really love meditating about a few phrases that J.-P. Sartre dropped on the final page of Words. Culture neither saves nor justifies anyone; but it is the mirror for the mankind. The Life of Klim Samgin, conceived by Gorky as the vast chronicle of the Russian life and history from 1877 until 1917, can be seen exactly as this kind of a mirror that, predictably, is still of much use.

It was of very much use when back in the 1980s the now late Russian director Viktor Titov took to make a film based on Gorky’s novel. From comparing the text and the film, I can say that this was indeed a titanic work, and it is obvious that Titov had worked on the script for a very long time. Gorky’s novel was left unfinished, but even so it consists of four parts, and what a good student of the novel and the script quickly notices is that the script easily creates a succinct version of very many pages. While this is not surprising, in the context of the film that very closely follows Gorky’s language, this is an important trait. The whole work came out as a 14-episode TV series, every episode lasting just over 1 hour. In effect, it is a series of 14 features, joined together by unfailing directing, the brilliant and critically acclaimed work of the crew, and the outstanding performance of the cast.

The film was finished by 1987, and I believe it was in 1988/89 that I saw it for the first time on TV. Just like The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson were my gateway into writing, so The Life of Klim Samgin opened the treasures of world’s literature – and of the home library. I was so impressed by the film that I felt compelled to go and search the bookcases for Gorky’s books. Surprisingly or not, I was able to find one of the volumes from Gorky’s collected works, quite an old book with yellowy pages; one of Klim Samgin‘s parts was included in that volume. I didn’t read it then, but I found a few more old books there, and this was a fortuitous and important discovery, considering that I wasn’t even 10 years old.

Many years later I rediscovered the leading actor in this film, Andrei Rudensky. It was pretty amazing to suddenly read an interview with him in one of Moscow’s magazines. It was in 2003, and it brought many reminiscences of my childhood, including the one I’d just mentioned, about the home library. Moreover, although by 2003 it’d be 15 years since I watched the film, I realised that I remembered it quite well.

This meant that The Life of Klim Samgin left a much deeper impression that I could myself imagine. Turned out, he was about my age now when he was working on The Life of Klim Samgin, and it was his cinema debut. Considering that he had to portray his character from the age of 17 until the age of 40, this was certainly an outstanding achievement for him both personally and career-wise.

If you are interested reading more about Maxim Gorky and have a look at the selection of his work, here is the start: Maxim Gorky – Biography and Works.



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