Thursday, 6 August 2015

IVAN BUNIN Collected Stories 1900-1944 (2007)

Ivan R Dee Publisher USA, 2007

She had small, dark freckles on her stomach and her back as well –– and they delighted him.  Because she wore soft shoes without heels, her whole body seemed to sway under the yellow sarafan* when she walked.  The sarafan was light and loose-fitting, and her tall, girlish body moved freely under it.  Once, her feet soaked by the rain, she ran from the garden into the living room: he hurried to remove her shoes, kissed the narrow, wet soles of her feet –– and there had never been such happiness in his life.  Everyone had gone to sleep in the darkened house after lunch; more and more fresh-smelling rain was pouring over the patio beyond the open doors –– and how terribly the rooster frightened them as he too ran from the garden into the living room, his black feathers shot with a strange, metallic green, his crown as brilliant as a flame, his claws clicking on the floor at the very moment when they'd lost themselves and let all caution go.  Seeing how they jumped up from the couch, he ducked his head, as if embarrassed, and politely trotted back into the rain with his shimmering tail drawn down.

Rusya (1940)
[*sarafan = a loose fitting peasant dress without sleeves]


The Collection:  The early days of a lovely, long-vanished Russian autumn.  Fields of new green wheat surveyed from the seat of a tarantass as it slowly rolls through them, its horses guided by a mumbling but kindly old peasant.  A grizzled cobbler seated in the doorway of his rudely built hut, beating his uncomprehending dog because it refuses to learn the trick of shaking hands with him.  The blue-grey face of a wealthy American tourist, slowly stiffening as life departs from it in a luxury hotel room on the Mediterranean island of Capri.  Peasant girls, their strong smooth legs bare beneath their rough homespun skirts, sorting good potatoes from bad as it softly, ever so gently begins to snow.  The delight felt by a lonely hunchback when he receives a note from an anonymous admirer, begging him for a rendezvous in the park the following day.  The familiar but comforting taste of blinis and freshly-made raspberry preserves, washed down with hot smoky tea poured straight from the samovar.  The fashionable restaurants of Moscow, richly ornate in the gilt-edged glow of candlelight, where new lovers sit dreaming of the perfect if unrealistic future they one day hope to enjoy together. 

These are just some of the moments to be savoured in the moving, elegiac and, above all, poetic stories of the great Russian writer Ivan Bunin, rendered magnificently into English by US academic Graham Hettlinger.

Bunin, the first Russian writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, is best known these days –– outside Russia, at least –– for his 1915 story The Gentleman From San Francisco.  While that story –– a perfectly told tale of a rich American businessman vacationing in Europe whose wealth nevertheless fails to save him or his dignity after he succumbs to a stroke –– is excellent and obviously very well-deserving of its place in this collection, it's by no means typical of Bunin's work or representative of what characterizes his unique and occasionally disquieting genius.  

Like many a Russian writer before and after him, including his forerunner Ivan Turgenev and his contemporary Vladimir Nabokov, Bunin was an unwilling exile from his homeland whose life and work were intimately bound up in his memories of a childhood and adolescence spent on his family's vast but crumbling ancestral estate.  Like another great 'recapturer of the past,' the Frenchman Marcel Proust, memory is both Bunin's central theme and his most compelling subject, the past something that did not and could not really die for him because he never stopped re-experiencing it in his imagination day after achingly nostalgic day.  This, it could be argued, may be the true purpose of all literary fiction –– to keep us connected to what we, as flesh and blood mortals, are inevitably and painfully predestined to forget and lose unless we're able to preserve it in the form of written language.  

The most beautiful and affecting stories in this collection –– Rusya, Tanya, Mitya's Love, Zoyka and Valeriya, The Scent of Apples –– are generally those which place the reader directly in Bunin's pre-revolutionary Russian past, recreating the vanished world of his youth by presenting it as a series of vivid, stirring and sometimes tantalizingly erotic images.  This emphasis on the visual component of memory is arguably Bunin's greatest strength as a writer and it comes as no surprise that he first rose to prominence as a poet.  These thirty-five stories are less 'stories' in the traditional sense –– narratives that move from point A to point B by cleaving to a continuous narrative line –– than collections of vividly recalled, sharply drawn impressions, interlaced with images which capture and reflect emotions in a manner that masterfully evokes and recreates a certain place (Russia) at a very specific time (the years before the Bolsheviks took over and wiped out, virtually overnight, everything that 'home' had meant to people of Bunin's class and generation).  While Bunin does all that's expected of any gifted writer –– creates believable and memorable characters, places them in interesting situations, shows how conflicts arise and how these conflicts are confronted and resolved –– he also reaches beyond this, offering us glimpses into the innermost souls of his characters which are as honest as they are profound, as moving as they are, on occasion, uncompromisingly brutal and shocking.  

OneWorld Classics USA, 2008
As great as all of these stories are, for me Bunin's masterpiece is the very different tale Chang's Dreams –– a story told from the point of view of a dog who belongs to a drunken old sea captain.  Chang's memories of his life with the captain, of the adventures they've had at sea and in scores of exotic foreign ports, are interspersed with scenes from the 'new life' they live together in the Russian city of Odessa, where his master lurches from restaurant to restaurant in search of the cheap vodka which has become his only comfort since the woman he adored impulsively abandoned him to run off with another man.  The scene describing Chang's reaction to the captain's not entirely unexpected death is one of the most moving pieces of prose I've ever read, so perfectly does it reveal the dog's emotions as it simultaneously offers us profound insights into his loyal, devoted and infinitely patient personality.

Later, when the door is taken from its hinges, when all the different people come and go in noisy conversation –– the yardmen and police, the artist and his top hat, the other men who joined the captain in the restaurants –– Chang is like an object made of stoneBut now not even horror registers with Chang.  He lies on the floor with his face in the corner, his eyes closed tight to keep from seeing the world –– to forget it.  And over him the world's noise is dim and distant, like the sea above one who is descending deeper and deeper into the abyss.   

There are remarkably few writers who possess the skill required to tell a story like this without making it seem completely artificial or, worse, embarrassingly twee and mawkish.  It serves as further confirmation of Ivan Bunin's genius –– as well as that of Graham Hettlinger, whose translations capture every nuance of his poetic and uniquely subtle style with incredible acuity –– that he was able to make Chang (and his pain, which is as real as any experienced by a human being when they lose a loved one) so believable without stooping to the Disneyfied trick of sentimentalizing him.  Like all the stories selected for this superb and important collection, Chang's is one that remains fixed in the mind long after it's been read, demanding to be reconsidered not just as a piece of literature but as an uncannily perceptive slice of what feels like an actively lived, vividly recalled life.   

IVAN BUNIN, c 1888
The Writer:  'The general sound of the piece is created in the very beginning of the work,' Ivan Bunin once declared in an essay titled How I Write.  'Yes, the first phrase is decisive.  If you don't manage to capture that primordial sound correctly, then youget all tangled up and set aside what you started, or just throw it away as useless.'  This principle was one that Bunin adhered to throughout his career, applying it as rigorously to the stories he wrote after fleeing his Bolshevik-run homeland in 1920 to those he wrote as an impoverished, largely forgotten old man living in the French town of Grasse through the harshest years of World War Two and beyond. 

Bunin's eventual obscurity would have come as a shock to the crowds of reporters who mobbed him in Paris following the announcement that he'd won the 1933 Nobel Prize for Literature.  He was the first Russian writer to receive the award and, for a time, became one of the world's most celebrated and widely-translated authors, one whose work and achievements the Russian emigré community took justifiable pride in boasting of.  But Bunin's fame didn't last and nor did his prize money, much of which was donated to literary charities while the rest was squandered on bad investments or ended up in the hands of the swindlers for whom he was always an easy and reliable target.  He was virtually penniless when he died in his tiny attic apartment in Paris on 8 November 1953, the victim of nearly two decades of unmerited literary neglect and of the generosity which made it impossible for him to say no to any friend or fellow writer who approached him in search of a loan.

Bunin was born on his family's estate, near the village of Glotovo in the Russian province of Voronezh, on 22 October 1870, the third and youngest son of a hard drinking nobleman of Russian-Polish ancestry who, by the end of that decade, had managed to gamble away the larger part of his family's considerable fortune.  Things had become so grim by 1886 that sixteen year old Ivan was expelled from school in the nearby town of Yelets because his family could no longer afford to pay its modest tuition fees.  After that he was educated at home by his elder brother Yuly, a political agitator placed under house arrest by Czar Alexander III, who taught him philosophy and psychology and encouraged him to write by insisting that he familiarize himself with the work of classic Russian authors including Pushkin, Lermontov and Tolstoy.  

An intelligent and highly sensitive boy, Bunin began writing poetry at a young age and had his first poem, Village Paupers, published in a St Petersburg literary magazine in 1887.  This was followed four years later by the publication of his first short story, Country Sketch, in the magazine Russkoye Bogatstvo [Russian Wealth] –– a liberal journal that his brother, who belonged to the same Populist Party whose members helped to fund it, most likely exerted a strong influence on in both a political and an editorial sense.  Yuly remained the dominant force in the budding author's life and in 1889 Bunin moved to the city of Kharkov to be close to him, working first as a government clerk before taking jobs as a librarian and then as a court statistician.  

Bunin next moved to the city of Oryol, not far from Glotovo, where he found work as an editorial assistant on one of its local newspapers –– a job which offered him the chance to publish much of his newly written poetry and fiction in its pages.  It was in Oryol that he was reunited with Varvara Paschenko, a former schoolmate he'd fallen passionately in love with but had tried hard to forget after leaving Glotovo.   By August 1892 Bunin was living with her in the Ukrainian city of Poltava, where for a time they shared a house with Yuly.  In the meantime, Bunin's first, favorably received poetry collection had been published, creating enough of a stir in literary circles to ensure his work was printed in some of St Petersburg's leading newspapers.  These successes did not, however, help to salvage his stormy relationship with Varvara Paschenko, who left him for good in 1894 and shortly afterwards married one of his closest friends, the actor and writer AN Bibikov.

Between 1894 and 1895 Bunin spent most of his time traveling through the Ukraine, acquainting himself with peasant life in what was considered to be the emotional and spiritual heartland of Russia.  In 1895 he visited Moscow for the first time, where he met a number of important political figures and fellow writer Anton Chekhov, establishing a friendship with the playwright that would endure until Chekhov's death in 1904.  After 1895 Bunin began to divide his time equally between Moscow and St Petersburg, consolidating his position as a writer of tremendous promise and originality with the publication of his first story collection To The Edge of the World and Other Stories (1897) and his second poetry collection In the Open Air (1898).  After moving briefly to Odessa, he returned to Moscow in the winter of 1899 where he began attending meetings of the Wednesday Literary Group, at which he was introduced to and befriended by many important 'new' writers of the day including Nikolai Teleshov and Maxim Gorky.  In 1910, shortly after the publication of Bunin's bitingly realistic and controversial novella The Village, Gorky would publicly describe his new friend 'the best Russian writer of the day.'  Between 1909 and 1913 Bunin would be Gorky's annual winter guest on the Italian island of Capri, where the latter had temporarily relocated partly for reasons of health and partly to escape the increasingly repressive and chaotic regime of Czar Nicholas II. 

In September 1898 Bunin married Anna Tsakni, the eighteen year old daughter of a Greek-born activist and newspaper editor whom he'd originally met in Odessa.  The relationship quickly soured and within a year Bunin left his young bride despite the fact that she was pregnant with what proved to be his only child, a son named Nikolai whom he rarely saw prior to the boy's early death from scarlet fever and associated heart problems.  In 1906 Bunin met Vera Muromtseva, the niece of a high-ranking Russian civil servant whose family were firmly opposed to the idea of her becoming romantically involved with an upstart writer.  They soon became inseparable –– and remained so despite the many affairs Bunin had with other women –– and married in 1922 following his divorce from Anna Tsakni.  It was with Vera that he traveled to Egypt, Palestine and eventually to Ceylon –– journeys that inspired a series of travel writings that were collected and published in 1931 as The Bird's Shadow.  These writings came as something of a surprise to the critics, some of whom had already begun to dismiss Bunin as a talented but largely irrelevant peddler of nostalgia, pining for a world that, even before the Revolution, no longer existed even for most Russian aristocrats.  

As the decade progressed, opinion would become increasingly divided about Bunin's work, with many on the left accusing him of not going far enough in his criticism of the Czar and the effect his repressive policies had on the Russian peasantry while those on the right declared him to be too negative in his depictions of the lives of the poor and the Czar's painfully slow attempts to modernize.  Bunin himself refused to participate in this debate, preferring to spend his time writing either in Moscow or in what remained of his family home in Glotovo.  He continued to do this throughout the first two years of World War One, preparing a six volume collected edition of his work which was published to widespread acclaim in 1915.  

By the following year, depressed about the conduct of the war and with talk of violent revolution becoming ever more prevalent among his countrymen, Bunin more or less stopped writing altogether, unable to continue in the face of what he deemed to be such pointless brutality.  The war also cost him his friendship with Gorky, who by 1917 had become an outspoken advocate of the Bolshevik cause –– an affiliation which remained, for a romantically-minded artist like Bunin, unthinkable if not detestable.  He was in Moscow when the Bolsheviks seized power from the interim Kerensky government in October 1917 but soon relocated, with Vera, to Kiev and eventually to Odessa where he worked for a time as the editor of Iuzhnoe Slovo [The Southern Word], a newspaper which openly supported the White Russian (ie. anti-Bolshevik) cause in what had now become a bitter and very bloody civil war.  The couple fled Odessa on 26 January 1920 aboard a French-owned ship bound for the Turkish capital Constantinople.  Although neither suspected it at the time, they would never set foot on Russian soil again.  

After brief stays in Greece and Yugoslavia –– Bunin was robbed of his academic medals and nearly all his money in the Greek city of Sofia, where Vera was also robbed of her jewellery –– the couple somehow found their way to Paris where a thriving Russian emigré community had by now established itself.  Bunin received a warm welcome from his fellow exiles but, according to Vera, never felt comfortable in his adopted homeland –– a discomfort that was to be intensified by his winning of the Nobel Prize and the unwanted (and unmerited) attention it drew to him as 'the voice of anti-Bolshevism.'  He refused to see himself as anything but a writer and certainly not as a political or polemical writer, a viewpoint which influenced his decision to move from his apartment at 1 Rue Jacques Offenbach to the relatively isolated town of Grasse, located high in the Alpes-Maritimes region.  It was here, in a house known as the 'Villa Jeanette' that he shared with Vera and several other emigrés of both sexes, that he spent the late 1930s and the war years.  

Although he was technically a stateless person and by now extremely poor –– one French neighbour remembered him cutting grass on its hillsides that he would then carry home and boil for soup –– he didn't flinch when it came to publicly denouncing Hitler and Mussolini or hiding refugees, including several Jews, inside his home.  Throughout this time he continued to write with the same feverish zeal he'd always shown for his work, refusing to publish as a form of protest against Nazism while he gathered the stories that would be published in New York in 1943 as Dark Avenues, with a French edition appearing three years later.

IVAN BUNIN, c 1945
Bunin and Vera returned to their former Paris apartment following the Liberation and remained there, except for visits to hospitals and convalescent homes, for the remainder of their lives.  For a time, during the immediate post-war years, it seemed that Bunin was on the verge of being officially welcomed back to the USSR by the Soviet government, representatives of which he met in Paris and apparently provided copies of his work to in the hope it might be published in his native land in a new, state-approved collected edition.  (This edition eventually appeared, in fifteen volumes, a dozen years after his death in 1965.)  These negotiations came to an abrupt end, however, following the publication of his Memoirs (1950), in which he was scathing in his condemnation of Communism and of the debasing impact he felt it had had on all aspects of Russian life and culture.  His last years were marred by the combination of chronic ill health and almost universal neglect, although his death in November 1953 saw lengthy obituaries appear in both French and Paris-based Russian-language newspapers.  His final book, an important critical study of his friend Chekhov, was completed by his wife and published in 1955.

Click HERE to read a free online version of Dark Avenues, one of the finest stories ever written by IVAN BUNIN.  Several English translations of his books, including his Collected Stories, are still in print and can be obtained via your local library, bookstore or preferred online retailer.  Click HERE to view a list of what's currently available.

You might also enjoy:
IVAN TURGENEV Fathers and Sons (1861)
IVAN GONCHAROV Oblomov (1859)
ANNA AKHMATOVA Selected Poems 1909-1963 (1985)

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