Thursday, May 11, 2017

Ivan Bunin stops time - But already it was passing, the fall of 1916

Ivan Bunin was a prolific short story writer for most of his life.  Early on he was best known as a poet.  He wrote novels, a book about Chekhov, a book about Tolstoy – he wrote a lot.  And here I have Graham Hettlinger’s Collected Stories (2007), 360 pages of short fiction, from which I will generalize.  What errors I will make!

In my defense, a century of English translations of Bunin keep returning to the same stories, and Hettlinger presumably selected this set for a reason.  Hettlinger skips Bunin’s first decade, and then after “The Scent of Apples” skips the next decade.  About a third of the book is from the 1946 collection Dark Avenues.  Most of the rest is from the 1920s.

Here is what I see:

1. Bunin writes in the tradition of Turgenev and Chekhov.  He is if anything at times too derivative of Chekhov, although his style is less plain.  His stories are mostly set in a Russia – “The Gentleman from San Francisco” is an aberration – that is instantly recognizable as that of Turgenev etc., just updated a bit.  Country estates, students home from Moscow or St. Petersburg.

And love affairs, first loves – as per the 1860 Turgenev novella, First Love – first sex, often followed by catastrophe.  If first sexual encounters led to suicide as often as they do in Bunin, there would be many fewer people on Earth.

I don’t want to count, but I will bet that a majority of the stories in this book are variations on this theme.  The novella “Mitya’s Love” (1924), then “Sunstroke” (1925), this time a one night stand between a soldier and a married woman, then “The Elagin Affair” (1925), with a soldier and a femme fatale actress – Bunin’s writes the story over and over.  He is in his seventies, barely scraping by in Nazi-occupied France, and he writes the story over and over.

2.  I said he updates Chekhov’s Russia “a bit,” and I mean it seriously.  Bunin left Russia for France in 1920 and never returned.  I assumed that many of the stories written after that date would be set in the world of the Russian émigrés in Paris, much as Vladimir Nabokov’s stories are set in Russian Berlin, the world in which he lived.  Oh no.  A single story, “In Paris” (1940), is about Russians in exile, a general and a waitress at a Russian restaurant.  It’s a lovely, sad story, about a kind of first love.

Every other story is set in Russia before the Revolution, and generally before the war.  It was surprising to see Bunin end the half-page sketch “The Eve” (1930), about the passengers on a train, end with “But already it was passing, the fall of 1916.”  It was almost shocking when “Tanya” (1940), another heart-breaking version of “first love” ends:

That was in February, in the terrible year of 1917.  He was in the countryside for the last time in his life.

At least the reason this particular mismatched couple cannot stay together is not their fault.

In the stories written in the 1920s, this did not stand out so much, but as the chronology pushed along, as Bunin wrote surrounded by a second war, it began to seem pretty strange.  “Cleansing Monday” (1944) is, aside from the “first love / single sexual encounter leads to etc.” story, a marvelous portrait of Moscow, with the young couple enjoying everything: “boxes of chocolates, new books by Hofmannsthal, Schnitzler, Tetmajer, and Przybyszewski,” a lecture by Andrey Bely “which he delivered in song as he ran and danced around the stage,” a performance by Stanislavski, and a range of restaurants.  Those blini!  They visit the grave of Chekhov; they read medieval Russian chronicles.  And they visit churches.  There is more religious language and imagery in this story than usual.  It ends in a church.

May 12, 1944, is the date attached to this story.  It may well be some kind of patriotic response to the war, but the Moscow Bunin describes is long gone, destroyed by the Soviets, not the Nazis.

This frozen quality of Bunin, the obsession with late adolescence circa 1910, began to overwhelm whatever else was in the stories.

But maybe this is an effect created by the translator.


  1. I got two of his collections on a whim last year, now I think it's better to space out the stories or it might be repetitive.

  2. Interesting. I have a few Bunin collections and there does appear to be quite a bit of crossover. And I take your point about the fact that he seems stuck in a particular period. He's an emigre who never got over the Revolution.


  3. I can imagine it going the other way, too. Spread out, I might just think, "This again, this again," while together I can see all the variations on the theme. Depends on what I remember, I guess.

    During the 1830s, Balzac seemed to never want to move his fictional history past 1830, the July Revolution. But this only lasted a decade or so. He got over it.

  4. Your posts always make my TBR piles grow by leaps and bounds! I just bought the Collected Stories of Bunin. As you saw from my Teffi post I've been reading revolutionary era Russian authors. It will be interesting to compare the two, even though Teffi's book is a memoir.

  5. I want to read more Bunin, too, more fiction, but also some of his diaries. Bunin's Cursed Days: A Diary of Revolution should have lots of correspondences with Teffi. I think they took the same route, the usual one - Odessa then Constantinople.

  6. Does an artist has some sort of obligation to keep up with the times, to meekly go where all the others are going? Bunin, like Ivan Shmelyov (another wonderful writer who's never gotten his due), took his inspiration from traditional Russia and had nothing to say about the Soviet era (and both were mocked by fellow exiles for being stick-in-the-muds, endlessly prattling on about old-fashioned holidays and estates and muzhiks that hadn't existed for many years -- Nina Berberova is smugly scathing on the topic), but should they have written bad stories about the postwar period instead of good ones about the world that they knew, that was imaginatively real to them? (Don't answer that, it's rhetorical.)

    It's hard to translate Bunin effectively, since so much of the effect of his stories derives from the rhythm of the Russian, the perfect placement of every word; I know whereof I speak, having made an attempt here (and I see in the comments I wrote "Bunin was a prematurely old 54 when he wrote this story, and from what I can gather was utterly uninterested in the modern world, obsessing about the Russia he grew up in"). In that way he's like Pushkin. Babel's Russian is similarly exquisite, but of course he's writing about war and crime and suchlike exciting topics, so the stories aren't as dependent on style.

    I highly recommend Cursed Days, but the translation is not great (see this comment), and the notes are worse -- see this LH post. But what are ya gonna do? It's the only translation around, and the good stuff is worth putting up with the errors.

  7. Fiction writers write fantasy fiction. The question is always what kind of fantasy world does each particular writer create? That's what I am doing here. And thinking about Bunin's range, I guess.

    Shame about that translation, from a serious scholar, too.

  8. It's as hard to find a good scholar as a good mechanic.

  9. Much less to find someone who is both.

    I guess the translator is the mechanic in that metaphor. Maybe it doesn't work.