Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Quietude and calm settled on the island - Ivan Bunin's "Death on Capri"

“The Gentleman from San Francisco” (1915) is Ivan Bunin’s most famous story at this point, I think, although I do not remember ever seeing it anthologized anywhere.  The title character, never named “– no one really learned his name in Naples or Capri –” is taking his wife and adult daughter on a long tour of Europe.  Grown rich on the back of Chinese labor, “he decided it was time to rest.”

The first seven pages of the nineteen page story are set on the ocean liner and in Naples.  It takes another six pages to move the characters from Naples to Capri, and to get them settled in at their hotel.  The tone throughout is lightly ironic, mildly satirical, and observant:

During one of the stops he rose up on the couch, and saw a wretched mass of little stone houses with mildewed walls stacked on top of one another at the water’s edge below a rocky slope, saw boats and piles of rags, tin cans, brown nets – and fell into despair, remembering that this was the authentic Italy to which he’d come in order to enjoy himself.

In the gentleman’s defense, the sea between Naples and Capri is rough and he is seasick.  Even Italy loses its savor when seasick.  They land: “The earth smells sweet in Italy after rain, and the scent of every island is distinct.”  That’s more like it.

Let me add up those pages.  Bunin has six pages to go.  What is this story going to be about?  Will the gentleman learn a lesson about what it means to live, toe really live (“He hadn’t lived before – he had only existed”)?  Will he have an epiphany of some kind?

Not exactly.  Reading the newspaper before dinner (“a few sentences about the endless Balkan War”) he instead has a stroke, and dies.  Most of the remaining pages are about what happens in a nice Italian hotel when a guest dies.  The family members appear, but as problems to be managed.  Soon enough, they are all, alive or dead, back on the ocean liner, bound for home.  “Quietude and calm settled on the island in its wake.”  Then comes a paragraph as startling as any in the story:

Two thousand years ago that island was inhabited by a man who somehow held power over millions of people.  He gratified his lust in ways that are repugnant beyond words, and carried out immeasurable atrocities against his subjects.

Why the change of scale?  Why has Emperor Tiberius appeared in the story?  Because tourist to Capri visit “the ruins of his stone house on one of the island’s highest peaks.”  The trip is arduous enough to require a good night’s sleep, and now that “the dead old man from San Francisco – who’d planned to make the trip with all the others, but wound up only frightening them with an unpleasant reminded about mortality – had now been sent away to Naples, the guests slept very soundly.”

The long last paragraph is like something out of Kipling, with a lot of detail – well, not a Kipling level of detail – about the ocean liner’s engines and driveshafts, and about the dancing in the ballroom, where no one thinks or knows about “what lay deep, deep below them, in the blackness of the hold.”

The only hint that the story is written by a Russian is the appearance on Capri of “a few disheveled, bearded Russian who had settled on the island, all of them wearing glasses and looking absent-minded, the collars raised on their threadbare coats.”  One of these Capri Russians is presumably the author.  I mean of course the only hint in the English version, translated by Graham Hettlinger.


  1. It's a fine story. That Hettlinger book is a gem. I cannot understand why Bunin was ever considered one of the jokey, undeserving Nobel laureates, except that some critics at the time thought it should have gone to Gorky. I haven't read Gorky, but I've read enough Bunin to conclude that he was an excellent writer.

  2. I suppose Bunin's Nobel had a super-political cast to it, or was at least easy to perceive as political.

    I have some complaints - let's say puzzles - about Bunin that I will write about today, but I would be happy to read more by him.

  3. I remember disliking Bunin for a time after reading The Gentlemen etc and Other Stories. Just the kind of short stories I dislike, dull, realistic and full of abstruse and subtle symbolism, just like Joyce and all modern short story writers. But some other collections I read were much better, Light Breathing/Apple Fragrance, published I think by Raduga, and of course the sex obsessed Dark Avenues.

  4. Hettlinger's Collected Stories has about half of Dark Avenues. Maybe a little less. There is a lot of overlap with the Raduga collections, too, but only two of the four stories in the old Hogarth Press book.

    Or so I think. Some of this is obscure to me. My one knock on Hettlinger is that he scrambles the chronology and doesn't say where anything was published.

  5. Bunin is a wonderful writer, and a wonderful poet (which has largely been forgotten). I can't understand why he's so little appreciated and remembered, especially considering the Nobel.

    I cannot understand why Bunin was ever considered one of the jokey, undeserving Nobel laureates, except that some critics at the time thought it should have gone to Gorky.

    Good lord, is that true? This is the first I've heard of it. If so, "some critics" were clearly Soviet stooges, because as a writer Gorky was not fit to tie Bunin's shoelaces (though as a Soviet stooge he was a great help to writers who needed food and shelter in the hard years).

  6. And this would be Gorky in 1933! That would have been an ugly choice.

  7. I believe Gorky had been in the running for the prize for quite some time, while Bunin had only been nominated for the first time in 1930. Stalin was not pleased when the first Russian laureate was an anti-Communist émigré.

    I'd love to read Bunin's poetry. I know Nabokov thought very highly of it, while taking a dim view of the prose.

  8. Ah, "some critics" were not just Soviet stooges, but the premier Soviet stooge!

    The Nobel nomination process is a strange one, but Gorky was nominated in 5 years from 1918 to 1933, and Bounine in 5 years from 1923 to 1933. He got lots of nominations from 1931 on, whatever that means.

    The most interesting example is in 1923, when Romain Rolland nominated both Gorky and Bunin.

    Nabokov's prose was in some sense in direct competition with Bunin's prose, both in style and subject, and the younger man was a fierce competitor.

  9. Nabokov's prose was in some sense in direct competition with Bunin's prose, both in style and subject, and the younger man was a fierce competitor.

    Just what I was going to say! I'm not a great fan of Bloom, but this is a pretty clear case of anxiety of influence.