A collection of Ivan Bunin stories had been sitting on my shelf for over a year when I decided it was about time I got to it. I’m a fan of Russian literature, and this book , The Gentleman From San Francisco and Other Stories had been recommended. Bunin (1870-1953) came from a wealthy serf-owning family, but his grandfather burned through most of the estate, and Bunin’s father compiled the problem with his gambling addiction. Then the so-called Emancipation of the Serfs in 1861 brought a change to the family’s already decimated fortunes. Family poverty even led to the end of Bunin’s education at one point, but encouraged by his elder brother, Julius, he studied university courses independently and sat for exams. Bunin’s literary career was just taking off when the revolution hit and Bunin became one of the millions of Russian emigres wandering the planet. Under the Soviet Union, he was classed as a “traitor” and his work was not published there until after his death. In 1933, he won the Nobel Prize for literature.
My copy, from Penguin books, contains a total of 16 short stories and 1 novella (Mitya’s Love) which are translated by David Richards and Sophie Lund. It’s a wonderful collection–most excellent, some good and a couple forgettable (well they can’t all be marvellous). Out of the collection, my favourites are The Gentleman From San Francisco, The Primer of Love, Long Ago, At Sea At Night, Graffiti, A Cold Autumn and The Riverside Tavern (and this last one is–upon reflection–my absolute favourite).
The themes of the stories include: loss, the erosion of time on memories, love and regret, and since Bunin was a post-revolution emigre, it shouldn’t come as a great surprise that most of the stories involve travel on some level. It should also come as no surprise that events include: sudden death, adultery, obsessive love and suicide. In At Sea, At Night, two men–a doctor and a famous writer meet on a ship. Now both elderly, the men reminisce how decades earlier they’d both been in love with the same woman. In The Gentleman From San Francisco, a wealthy middle-aged man travels by ship throughout Europe with his wife and daughter. When the story begins, they’ve been travelling for over two years and as perpetual tourists, they experience only the best–transmuted experiences in which the luxury of their circumstances shields them from discomfort or unpleasant experiences. No matter the destination, the days are shaped by meals, and the highlight of the day comes with the dinner gong. It’s then the upper class passengers, who are familiar with the rituals of being served, don their finest clothes and in their best element, parade in front of one another:
“It was the done thing until eleven to stroll briskly about the deck, inhaling the cold ocean freshness, or to play shuffleboard and other games to stimulate their appetites anew, and at eleven to fortify themselves with broth and sandwiches; once fortified, they would contentedly read the newspaper and placidly await lunch, which was still more nourishing and varied than breakfast; the next two hours were devoted to rest; for this all the decks were covered with long cane chairs on which the travellers lay, wrapped in rugs, and either gazed at the cloudy sky and the foaming ridges that appeared fleetingly at the side of the ship or lapsed into a sweet somnolence; between four and five, glowing and cheerful, they were regaled with strong perfumed tea and biscuits: at seven bugle calls would herald that which constituted the supreme aim and consummation of their existence…and at this point, the gentleman from San Francisco would hurry to his luxurious cabin to dress for dinner.”
Bunin, known as the “last of the classics” was also a poet and his ability with language shows throughout the stories–mainly in the beautiful descriptive passages. Now, I am not one generally who enjoys a great deal of descriptive writing, but in Bunin’s stories his writing is so evocative, he has the ability to transfer, through the pages, a sense of sensory immediacy:
“It was a hot, still day. He walked in the transparent shade of the avenue and looked at the curly, snowy-white branches all around him. The blossom on the pear trees was especially dense and vigorous and the mixture of this whiteness with the bright blue of the sky produced a violet hue. The pear trees and the apple trees were flowering and shedding their blossom at the same time and the earth which had been dug up round them was completely covered with faded petals. Their sweetish, delicate scent hung in the warm air together with the smell of the hot rotting dung in the cattle-yard. Occasionally a little cloud appeared, making the blue sky grow lighter, while the warm air and all the smells of decay became even more delicate and sweet. And the entire fragrant warmth of that vernal paradise was filled with the blissfully somnolent humming of the bees burrowing into that honeyed, curly snow. And all the time, in the blissful boredom of their day, the nightingales trilled, one after another.” (from Mitya’s Love)
Bunin’s skill is evident in this passage as he creates a sense of timelessness entwined with decay, and yet the decay is not negative; it’s an integral part of the process of sweet renewal that takes place endlessly and repetitively. Bunin’s very deliberate use of language further reinforces the languidness of the day–at the same time he makes it clear that everything is in a state of flux. There’s an underlying message here: enjoy the delights of life as they fade quickly. This message is tackled in another way when Bunin explores the erosion of memories through time, and we see that things that once meant so much, were so painful, no longer seem as important. Memories fade with time (At Sea, At Night, A Cold Autumn), but a resurgence of memory will inevitably stir regret and longing to the surface.
In another section of Mitya’s Love, he wanders in the garden at night, and once again Bunin’s language recreates the sensory experiences of his character:
“an evening beetle slowly floated past, humming close to his ear, as if it were spreading silence, peace and twilight, though light from the early-summer sunset still filled half the sky with its even, long-undimming glow;”
In another beautiful passage, Bunin uses alliteration to very effectively accentuate the rythmn of the ocean:
“The mountain black ocean waves ran booming outside while the snowstorm whistled powerfully through the burdened rigging, and the whole liner would shudder as it strove against both storm and waves, like a plough turning over the ocean’s heaving mass which incessantly seethed and soared up with lappets of foam; the siren, muffled by the mist, groaned in mortal anguish; the men on watch froze in the cold and felt their minds wandering from over-concentrated attention; the underwater depths of the liner, where gigantic furnaces voicelessly cackled and and with their candescent gorges devoured the piles of coal clangorously shovelled into them by half-naked men who were bathed in acrid, dirty sweat and lurid from the flames, were like the torrid dark bowels of the last ninth circle of the inferno.”
Despite the strong competition, from the entire collection The Riverside Tavern remains my favourite. It’s a tale that captures my imagination. In the story, the narrator runs into an old acquaintance, an army doctor at the Prague restaurant. The doctor is a little unsettled from his meeting with the poet, Bryusov, who had an adoring girl in tow. Bryusov has a terrible reputation with women, and the experience sparked a memory for the doctor. He tells the story of how, many years before, predicting heartache and disaster, he’d interfered in the relationship of a young woman and a “debauchee.” He asks himself:
“Why, I must ask, did I interfere? Does it matter how or why someone is happy? After-effects? For you know one way or another there are always after-effects–everything leaves cruel traces in the heart, memories, I mean, which are particularly cruel and agonizing when you remember something happy.”