Deal Me In Short Story Reading Challenge 2014: Story #4
This week I drew the King of Clubs and checking my roster of stories was led to this one. Though it’s still early in the year, Maxim Gorky’s story, “Twenty-six and One” has been my favorite of the four stories I’ve read thus far. I also read Gorky as the final story of DMI2013, and enjoyed immensely his story “One August Night.”
I also like stories that have a somewhat mysterious title. “Twenty-six and one?” What could this be about? A successful season of Gorky’s favorite football team? No, of course not that. The twenty-six and one are people. The twenty-six being the “employees” of a bakery, who spend an existence of dull drudgery in the semi-basement workroom, kneading dough for biscuits day after day, month after month, year after year. Among of the twenty-six is also our story’s narrator. And who is the “one?” She’s a lovely sixteen year-old chambermaid who lives in the same building the houses the bakery. Every day she visits the “little prisoners” – as she affectionately refers to the workers – stepping down the four steps into their cellar and playfully demanding “give me biscuits!”
This is Tanya, the one thing that makes their dreary existence bearable. Gorky describes the situation this way: “…though our hard labor turned us into dull oxen, we nevertheless remained human beings, and like all human beings we could not live without something to worship.” It seemed to this reader that the environment which Gorky has depicted has reached something of an equilibrium. Though unhappy or even miserable, the workers would never leave their precious Tanya. In their conversations while at work, they often discuss other, “low” women in rude and disgusting terms, but “of Tanya we never spoke ill.”
This equilibrium may have lasted years. May have. A catalyst for change is introduced, however, when one of the other employees (not from the twenty-six, but in a higher, “white bread baker’s” position) is fired and his replacement turns out to be a somewhat dashing former soldier. The former soldier wears a “satin vest and a watch with a gold chain” and, though a bit of a dandy, is friendly to the twenty-six (not condescending like the other white-bread bakers). In conversation with the twenty-six the soldier admits “How lucky I am with women, eh? It is very funny. Just a wink and I have them.” One can guess in what direction this story might go, no? The soldier’s successes thus far have been with the tawdry “embroidery girls” who also work in the building. Upon listening to the soldier boast of his conquests, the baker that supervises the twenty-six’s work is foolish enough to comment to him that, “You need no great strength to fell little fir-trees, but try to throw down a pine…” Suddenly Tanya’s virtue is threatened… Whether it’s a happy ending or not I won’t say. I will say that Gorky’s depiction of the workers’ condition and their psyche rang very true.
This story is available to read on-line in many places. One is http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/TwenSix.shtml
I also enjoyed reading the biographical info about Gorky in the introduction to my copy of “Twenty-Six and One (and Other Stories)” and learned a lot about him I didn’t know. He lived a large part of his life as a “tramp” wandering from place to place, yet always “reading and studying feverishly.” It is said thatit fell to him “to write the poem of vagrancy” and that “…the introduction of tramps in literature is the great innovation of Gorky.” What about YOU? Have you read Gorky? What do you know of him,and which works would you recommend?