The Backward Look

The Life of Arseniev: Youth

by Ivan Bunin, Books 1–4 translated by Gleb Struve and Hamish Miles, Book 5 translated by Heidi Hillis and Susan McKean and Sven A. Wolf, edited, annotated and with an introduction by Andrew Baruch Wachtel
Northwestern University Press, 254 pp., $54.95; $17.95 (paper)

Ivan Bunin: Russian Requiem 1885–1920, A Portrait from Letters, Diaries, and Fiction

edited with an introduction and notes by Thomas Gaiton Marullo
Ivan R. Dee, 387 pp., $30.00

Ivan Bunin: From the Other Shore 1920–1933, A Portrait from Letters, Diaries, and Fiction

edited with an introduction and notes by Thomas Gaiton Marullo
Ivan R. Dee, 332 pp., $35.00

Ivan Bunin
Ivan Bunin; drawing by David Levine

Except among students of Russian literature the name of Ivan Bunin is hardly remembered in the West today. The title of one of his most famous stories, “The Gentleman from San Francisco,” may still strike a chord. The story survives well in translation, and once read is not forgotten. D. H. Lawrence, who was not at all given to praising other writers, greatly admired it, and helped to produce the English version; it could even be said to have influenced the technique of some of his own later stories, though its most obvious resemblance is to Tolstoy’s nouvelle, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. A rich elderly American comes to Capri, has a heart attack, and dies. That is the whole story, but the way it is done is masterly; and the stark and yet richly poetical overtones of its style are powerful and disturbing.

The story appeared in Russia in 1915 and in 1922 was published in England and America, in a book of Bunin’s stories that sold only very slowly. By that time however, Bunin, who had joined in the great diaspora of Russian émigrés and settled in Paris, was becoming a writer well known in European circles, partly through the sheer volume and variety of his output, which was brought out in journals and by the numerous and resourceful émigré publishing houses, as well as in the Soviet Union itself, at least up to the late Twenties. An old friend of Maxim Gorky, and before the war a fellow writer in his publishing concern, Znanie (Knowledge), among a band of like-minded novelists whom the brilliant notoriety of the younger Gorky had attracted around him, Bunin possessed a genuinely Russian wealth of sympathy and versatility in his writing. He was both a lyric poet and a prose writer, the two media often harmonized together in the same volume; but he was also the master of a detailed and pitiless realism, which he brought to bear on the backwardness and barbarity of provincial Russia.

Where the short story was concerned his master was Chekhov, and especially such a magical instance of Chekhov’s art as one of his longer tales, The Steppe, but in prose fiction Bunin’s scope was far wider. His reputation in pre-revolutionary Russia was crowned in 1910 by his big poema, The Village. The Russian word signifies an epic of imaginative narration in either prose or verse. Both The Village and Sukhodol (“Dry Valley”), which followed it, chronicle the destruction in the rapidly industrializing and socially changing Russia of the old patriarchal landowning ways and the class that presided over them. Both are “beautiful,” in their writing and their sense of life, but uncompromisingly bleak and pessimistic in their view of the future. Bunin was not able or willing to summon up in his writing any of the utopian or merely hopeful prospects which were the stock in trade of…

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