Maxim Gorky had a brutally hard childhood, captured vividly in the first of his three memoirs. Among other losses, he saw two baby brothers die, one soon before the arrival of a second half-brother.
This baby, needing in his turn some medical care, is given an unusual sun-and-sand treatment by their grandfather, which doesn’t seem to do him harm (nor is it clear that it helps). Whatever its health effects it does give Gorky a chance to get physically and emotionally close to a child he feels understands him, in a troubled family where sweetness and understanding were in scarce supply.
‘He needs to be free, out in the sun, on the sands …’
I dragged home a sack of clean dry sand, heaped it in a sunny place by the window and buried my brother up to the neck, according to Grandfather’s instructions. The baby liked sitting in the sand, sweetly blinking and looking at me with his strange shining eyes; they had no whites, only blue irises surrounded by a bright ring.
At once I became strongly attached to my brother. He seemed to understand everything I was thinking as I lay beside him in the sand by the window, through which would come Grandfather’s squeaky voice:
‘You don’t have to be clever to die, but it’s time you knew how to live.’
Mother would then have a long fit of coughing.
My brother would free his little arms and stretch out towards me, shaking his small white head; his thin hair was shot with grey and his face old and wise.
Source: Maxim Gorky, My Childhood, trans. Ronald Wilks (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1966), p. 230
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