Ivan Bunin is one of those Nobel Laureates who appear to be depressingly unknown outside (and maybe even inside) their home countries. It may not have helped that Bunin was resolutely ‘White’, representing the opposition to the Bolshevik (Red) forces who took over Russia in his lifetime and were to control it for long after his death. In fact, his work makes a cameo appearance in Bulgakov’s ‘The White Guard’ ‘A cold cup of tea and The Gentleman from San Francisco lay on the table’. It feels sadly prescient given Bunin’s current renown.
Bunin received a Nobel Prize for Literature “for the strict artistry with which he has carried on the classical Russian traditions in prose writing.” It makes you wonder if they were possibly feeling just a tiny bit guilty for not awarding the prize to Tolstoy at any point from it’s foundation in 1901 till his death in 1928. Seriously, I have trouble understanding why a writer should get a Nobel prize for ‘carrying on’ a tradition when those writers who created said tradition were ignored!
Anyway, that’s my mini-rant done and I feel I’m one of the very very few people in England who’ll have an opinion on this because it’s not that easy to get hold of Bunin’s writings in translation at the moment. The first two works I managed to read, ‘The Gentleman from San Francisco’ and ‘The Village’, were translated in 1922 and 23 respectively which gives you an idea of how much his ‘classical Russian tradition’ writing is valued in England (sorry, maybe I wasn’t quite ranted out yet).
In fairness, Alma Classics published a 2009 translation of ‘The Village’ which is certainly less dated than the 1923 edition. In Alma’s previous incarnation as ‘Oneworld Classics’ they also published ‘Dark Avenues’, but that’s currently on sale on Amazon from £86.70. I like Russian literature, but I don’t like it that much. ‘Dark Avenues’ will be republished next month and I’m sure I’ll read it, but for now I’m going to stick with what’s available.
I’d probably be ranting slightly less if I’d enjoyed Bunin a little bit more. ‘The Gentleman from San Francisco’ is a lovely little tale, it really reminded me of Tolstoy’s incredible short stories. Then there are the ‘Sorrows of Young Werther’ style romances in the ‘Collected Stories’, the over-the-top sentimentality is done well and I can fully understand its popularity, but it just didn’t feel as fresh as the others Russians I’ve been reading over the past few months. I’m aware that I may not have loved Gorky, but at least he was trying something new with his Social Realism. The last Russian novel I read, ‘Petersburg‘, is experimental and ambitious enough to rival Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, and shortly before that I discovered Andreyev who is now one of my favourite short story writers ever because of how he challenged my expectations of the genre. I just wasn’t really in the mood for somewhat clichéed love-lorn young landowners seducing each other in dachas and sleeping with their servants on the side. It seems Bunin was fairly risqué at the time and I like to think of Russian teenagers franticly scrabbling through his books looking for the ‘rude bits’. Sadly, it all seems terribly coy now, with lots of women getting undressed in front of men and then the couple waking up – guess what might have happened in between!
I’m afraid my negative response says more about me and my Russian Lit expectations than about the works themselves. Bunin fled his home country in 1920 and the majority of the stories I read were written in exile in France. The Russia he evokes is an adolescent world filled with nostalgia and love. It strikes an odd note of fantasy and illusion against the satirical, realist and experimental tones of the other Russian novels I’ve been reading recently. Re-reading certain Bunin stories for themselves, rather than for what I wanted them to be, has paid off; even some of the melodramatic sentimentality I struggled with before has its own charm when read with less jaded eyes.
Ultimately, Bunin, as the first Russian Nobel Literature laureate, has a clear place in my reading project and, on reflection, I am looking forward to discovering ‘Dark Avenues’ on its republication. Still, I’m not sad about leaving Bunin for the time being; Teffi was his contemporary (also fleeing Russia for Paris), and Pushkin’s new edition of her short stories is up next!