Friday, May 12, 2017

“It’s so sad! The cranes have flown away!” - Bunin turns memory into prose

The Ivan Bunin that Graham Hettlinger translates in Collected Stories is a nostalgist.  His longing for a vanished Russian was reinforced but not caused by the Russian Revolution and Bunin’s emigration.  He had lost his Russia a long time ago.

The first story in the book, “The Scent of Apples” (1900) is openly nostalgic.  “The early days of a lovely autumn come back to me.”  This is barely a story, but more a series of childhood experiences, of sensory impressions.

You dress slowly, winder in the garden, find a cold, wet apple that’s been forgotten among the leaves.  For some reason it’s remarkably delicious; it seems unlike any other apple.  (13)

I remind myself that “The Scent of Apples” is the single representative in the collection of the first twenty years of Bunin’s writing, and may be a freak.  But it sure sounds like the later writer, and it feels like a poet’s prose.

And so I see myself once more in the country.  Deep fall.  Cloudy, dove-grey days.  (15)

The sky, in Bunin, is perpetually dove-grey, at least in the north.  Look at the language in “Caucasus” (1937), about adulterous lovers who sneak away to the south for an idyll (this is an unusual Bunin story in that catastrophe strikes not the lovers but the husband):

The plain went on and on in all its emptiness: burial mounds and native graves under the dry, killing sun; the sky itself like a cloud of dust, the rising ghosts of mountains…

Fireflies drifted like topaz in the murky dark; the songs of tree toads rang like small glass bells…

How wonderfully the falling water flashed, scattering itself like glass among the stones at that secret hour when the late moon comes from behind the mountains and the woods like a divinity, and looks down watchfully.  (284)

This is the lushness of the sexual idyll, contrasted with the plain despair of the husband: “Then he went back to his room, lay down on the couch, put a pistol to each of his temples, and fired.”

The language is not always so poetical.  Bunin has other modes of intensification, always grounded in material things, though.  “He ate half-sour pickles with dill and downed four shots of vodka, thinking he’d willingly die tomorrow if some miracle would let him bring her back, let him spend one more day with her just so he could tell her everything” (“Sunstroke,” 193).  Suffering, with pickles.  This is another story where a love affair, the sexual act, makes the entire world more sensorially interesting to the character.  He now perceives what he had not, not just in himself but all around him.  “How terrible and savage everything mundane and ordinary becomes when the heart’s been destroyed – yes, he understood that now – destroyed by sunstroke, destroyed by too much happiness and love” (194).  All of the description enacts the word “everything” in prose.

A number of pieces are less than a page, sketches or anecdotes, a brief setup leading to a kind of punch line, for example:

“Sir,” he shouts into the dirt.  “Sir, the cranes!”  He waves his arms in despair.  “It’s so sad!  The cranes have flown away!”  And shaking his head, he chokes on drunken tears.  (“Cranes,” 1930, 110)

And for a moment, it is sad, ridiculous, but sad.


  1. I'm enjoying these posts on Bunin's work. I am aiming to read some more soon. I read 'The Village' a few years ago and the Penguin collection 'A Gentleman from SF' decades ago. I wasn't overly impressed with his work when I originally read it but I think I'd appreciate it more now.

  2. It's all in the colors and brushwork, so to speak. A writer's writer, at least at this point.

  3. Yeah, you can't approach a Bunin story as if it were Flannery O'Connor, or even Chekhov. It's a specialized taste, and it's kind of amazing he got the Nobel, though he thoroughly deserved it -- it may be a case in which politics inadvertently created a just outcome.

  4. I was a bit surprised. I don't normally think of the Nobel folks as having a strong taste for the exquisite.

    Bunin reminds me of a series painter, like Morandi rearranging his bottles. All the same, all different.