Category Archives: Bunin Ivan

The Greatest Russian Stories of Crime and Suspense ed. by Otto Penzler

Given my interest in Russian literature, it should come as no surprise that I was delighted to receive a review copy of The Greatest Russian Stories of Crime and Suspense. The introduction written by Otto Penzler includes some interesting observations about the existence of detective fiction in a society in which individualism does not flourish, and notes that Russian crime and suspense fiction contains a “pervasive darkness” that “rivals the relatively new fiction genre that is often termed noir.”

Most of us will be familiar with some of the Great Names of 19th Century Russian literature, but what is interesting is that we get lesser titles by some of those big names. Here’s a breakdown of the contents:

Boris Akunin Table Talk

A chapter from Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment

Vil Lipatov Genka Paltsev, Son of Dimitri

Nikolai Gogol The Portrait

Anton Chekhov The Swedish Match

Anton Chekhov Sleepy

Anton Chekhov The Head Gardener’s Story

Anton Chekhov The Bet

Alexander Pushkin The Queen of Spades

Lev Sheinin The Hunting Knife

Ivan Bunin The Gentleman from San Francisco

P. Nitikin The Strangler

Vladimir Nabokov Revenge

Nikolai Lyeskov The Sentry

Maxim Gorky A Strange Murderer

Boris Sokoloff The Crime of Doctor Garine

Nikolai Gogol The Overcoat

Leo Tolstoy God Sees the Truth, but Waits

Leo Tolstoy Too Dear

Bunin’s story The Gentleman from San Francisco is considered to be one of the best pieces he wrote, and of course, Pushkin’s Queen of Spades appears in many collections. Gogol’s story The Portrait, a story of an artist who trades in his integrity for fame morphs into the tale of a portrait with special powers. This story contained unexpected shades of German Romanticism, and so it was entirely different from Dead Souls. Some of the stories were humourous: The Swedish Match (very funny) or had a witty ironic edge. While some of the names are familiar, included in the collection are some names that were new to me:Vil Lipatov, Lev Sheinin, Boris Sokoloff, & P. Nitikin.

With the authors and choices in this collection, it wasn’t easy to narrow down some favourites, but since I’d read a couple  of the stories before, I’m selecting stories that are new-to-me. This brings me to Chekhov’s The Bet (1889), a story I didn’t really expect from Chekhov (although I know he’d written masses of short stories) and a story which reminds me of no small degree of Dostoevsky.

During a dinner party, a group of men talk about capital punishment:

The majority of the guests, among whom were many journalists and intellectual men, disapproved of the death penalty. They considered that form of punishment out of date, immoral, and unsuitable for Christian States. In the opinion of some of them the death penalty ought to be replaced everywhere by imprisonment for life.

The host, an extremely wealthy banker argues for the death penalty:

 I have not tried either the death penalty or imprisonment for life, but if one may judge a priori, the death penalty is more moral and more humane than imprisonment for life. Capital punishment kills a man at once, but lifelong imprisonment kills him slowly. Which executioner is the more humane, he who kills you in a few minutes or he who drags the life out of you in the course of many years?

A lively, passionate debate ensues with a 25-year-old lawyer stating that if he had to choose, he’d choose imprisonment for life over execution. The banker challenges the lawyer to a wager, and he bets the lawyer that he cannot stay in solitary confinement for five years. In a few seconds, five years becomes 15, and the banker bets two million against the lawyer being able to stay locked up for 15 years.

And this wild, senseless bet was carried out! The banker, spoilt and frivolous, with millions beyond his reckoning, was delighted at the bet. At supper he made fun of the young man and said:

“Think better of it, young man, while there is still time. To me two millions are a trifle, but you are losing three or four of the best years of your life. I say three or four, because you won’t stay longer. Don’t forget, you unhappy man, that voluntary confinement is a great deal harder to bear than compulsory. The thought that you have the right to step out in liberty at any moment will poison your whole existence in prison. I am sorry for you.”

Of course, in this speech, tinged with a condescending manner, the banker is really egging the young man on, and he takes the bait. The banker realises that this meaningless bet will not “prove that the death penalty is better or worse than imprisonment for life,” and that the bet is “the caprice of a pampered man, and on his part simple greed for money….” 

But does the banker underestimate the lawyer? They are, after all, locked in a contest of will.

The lawyer agrees to confinement in one of the lodges owned by the banker. There “under the strictest supervision” he is to remain for 15 years.

It was agreed that for fifteen years he should not be free to cross the threshold of the lodge, to see human beings, to hear the human voice, or to receive letters and newspapers. He was allowed to have a musical instrument and books, and was allowed to write letters, to drink wine, and to smoke. By the terms of the agreement, the only relations he could have with the outer world were by a little window made purposely for that object. He might have anything he wanted–books, music, wine, and so on–in any quantity he desired by writing an order, but could only receive them through the window.

Will the lawyer sweat out his 15 years of solitary? Will he go insane or will he break free one day when he can stand it no longer?

A number of the stories in the collection are concerned with punishment (The Head Gardener’s Story), and that’s no doubt a reflection of the society in which they were written. Tolstoy’s story–a parable of sorts– Too Dear, explores the nature of punishment solely through its cost to the king who demands punishment.

Boris Sokoloff’s The Crime of Doctor Garine (1927) is a strange story and one I enjoyed a great deal-even though the ending didn’t answer all the questions the story raised. Doctor Garine admits murdering his wife in the most brutal manner but refuses to explain himself. There seems little doubt that he committed the crime, and since he freely admits it, motivation is the key element, and the motivation is gradually spun out through the details of the trial. During the trial and the appearance of various witnesses, Garine is calm, controlled and mostly unemotional. As the testimony builds, we see how the importance of why the crime is committed is paramount, and how this sensational trial is fundamentally society’s way of trying to understand what happened. The Crime of Doctor Garine is especially interesting for its emphasis on psychological motives; indeed a psychologist is even called to talk to Garine who mocks his profession.

Otto Penzler notes that the Russian approach to detective fiction is different to the western approach while discussing the shifts in the genre through the 20th century and modern writers of Russian detective fiction such as Victor Dotsenko and Aleksandra Marinina.

Among Russian writers, detective novels have flourished, and readers in the former Soviet U.S.S. R. have made them their preferred choice of reading matter. In a reader survey taken in 1995, more than 32% of men and 24% of women named “detektivy” as their favorite type of book.

Russian Radio Kultura regularly plays readings of British detective novels–including some obscure titles from Georgette Heyer & Agatha Christie.

One criticism of the collection that I’ve read is that it focuses too much on the 19th century, but that, surely, just begs for volume two. My complaint is reserved for the comment about Sophia (Sofya) Tolstoy. The intro to God Sees the Truth, but Waits says that Tolstoy, “tired of his life as a libertine, [he] married in 1862 and in, an effort at candor, showed his wife his diaries, leading to lifelong distrust and jealousy.”  Tolstoy’s diaries contained details of his sexual relationships with women–hardly the romantic, tactful or sensitive reading one would give to a virgin bride on a wedding night. Tolstoy was a genius as a writer, but left a lot of room for improvement in the husband department, and while he may have told himself that giving Sophia his diaries which included his sexual conquests of prostitutes and peasant women was an act of “candor,” that’s open to idle speculation & debate. Who knows what motivates people, but in my book, Sophia had the patience of a saint.

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The Gentleman from San Francisco and Other Stories by Ivan Bunin

 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.

buninMy 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.”

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