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 the Social Revolutionary writers. Despite his versatility, and his understanding of the modern, Bunin really looks back to the classic age of Russian prose—Turgenev, Sergei Aksakov, and Goncharov—except that he was temperamentally disinclined to take even the cautiously liberal and progressive line that such writers thought proper to subscribe to, at least as a matter of decorum. He was raised in the Elets district of central Russia, in an ancient and impoverished family of country gentry, and real inspiration and nostalgia remained for him in the life he had before he was twenty—the world of experience lovingly recorded in the book he was to write in exile, The Life of Arseniev.

Always in love with the backward look, Bunin now found his true country in the past. Anna Akhmatova, in one of her poems written in a mood of stoical despair in St. Petersburg after the Revolution, knew that no new future awaits, “and that God has not saved us.” In exile at the same time, Bunin set himself like Proust, the only modern French writer he admired, to rediscover the past. Since he was Russian the past was Svyata Rus, Holy Russia, the place where God had once been. And yet paradoxically Bunin was no sheltered introvert but a tough, combative, and ambitious writer: in the penurious and competitive world of exile one had to defend one’s own corner as hard as one could—there was no chance of retiring into a corklined study.

Bunin exploited his fame among the émigrés as a famous prewar Russian writer and one of the gentry, one of themselves; and he continued to write as much as he could, and in the ways which had previously made him well known, including short stories and essays. It was this productivity in several literary fields, as well as his literary conservatism, that made him an obvious candidate, if the Nobel committee should feel it expedient for the first time to award the prize to a Russian—a non-Soviet Russian, naturally. Bunin and his friends in emigration lobbied as much as they could, and the distinguished award was duly conferred on him in 1933. By that time he and his devoted common-law wife, Vera Muromtseva-Bunina, had achieved a degree of prosperity that enabled them to live for much of the year in a villa near Grasse in the south of France.


This success and good luck did not please his fellow writers in exile. Even those who had worked hardest for him, like the influential critics Zinaida Gippius and her husband, Merezhkovsky, author of standard works on Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, now muttered that it was they, and not Bunin, who best deserved the final accolade of international recognition. The fiery poetess Marina Tsvetaeva was particularly infuriated.

I don’t agree with it: Gorky is bigger, more human, more original, and more necessary than Bunin. Gorky is an epoch, but Bunin is the end of an epoch. But it’s also a matter of politics, since the King of Sweden could not pin an order on Gorky the Communist. By the way, the third candidate for the prize was Merezhkovsky, who also undoubtedly deserved the award more than Bunin, for if Gorky is an epoch, and Bunin the end of an epoch, then Merezhkovsky is an epoch of the end of an epoch. His influence both in Russia and abroad is much greater than Bunin’s, who never exerted any influence either here or there. And…to compare Bunin’s style with that of Tolstoy…is simply shameful…

I don’t love Bunin. He’s a cold, cruel, and arrogant barin.

For good measure Tsvetaeva adds that “everyone is afraid” of Merezhkovsky and Gippius, “for they are both mean, especially her.” One can see that apart from the hardships of exile it was no joke being a Russian émigré writer surrounded with friends like these; and no doubt Bunin was wise to spend most of his time in the Alpes Maritimes. The mildest criticism he received was in an émigré journal, which dryly observed that no Russian writer had refuted as convincingly as Bunin “the old…half-truth that talents develop only on native soil.” Time magazine approved the award, for Bunin was clearly “head and shoulders above all other White Russian authors,” but remarked that Soviet Russia would be furious that Gorky had not been chosen, and that the award was “political.” Time was right. Bunin’s books were banished from the Soviet Union, and he only ceased being a non-writer there when the thaw came in the Fifties. His popularity in Europe had displeased the Soviet literary establishment, as did the fact that the Nobel committee had for the first time given their prize to what the American magazine called “a man without a country.”

These comments are taken from Thomas Gaiton Marullo’s two-volume portrait of the writer, based on Bunin’s and his wife’s diaries, later comments from the émigré press and from European critics, and occasional excerpts from Bunin’s own novels and stories. The book is a highly skillful and scholarly compilation, giving an insight not just into Bunin’s own work but into many other figures of Russian culture as it had spread out over Europe. And it is hardly Marullo’s fault that neither Bunin nor his wife—a faithful and amiable but not particularly intelligent woman—is in the category of great or even interesting diarists. Although the Soviet authorities detested Bunin and his fellow émigrés, they profited indirectly from the widespread interest in Russian literature which these exiles had brought with them to Europe, producing the fashionable craze for Diaghilev’s Russian opera and numerous productions of Chekhov’s plays.

Bunin profited too. At the time of the prize he was continually interviewed, and was asked the usual imbecile questions about what he thought of modern civilization and the future of society. He replied that winning the Nobel Prize had made him “a great optimist” on all these matters. The same sardonic humor is evident in the “parody” stories that he now wrote in the style of Maxim Gorky, who had referred to him in his book about the Russian peasantry as a man well known in Russia for his hostility not only toward the new regime but even toward the spread of literacy among the citizens of the new Soviet Union. Not yet disillusioned with Lenin’s and Stalin’s regime, Gorky had set himself up as the archetypal opposite to his old friend and colleague in matters of class, literature, and ideals: he was the positive against Bunin’s negative, and it is this “positive” aspect of Gorky’s work that Bunin gently mocked in his story “The Made Artist.”


If for Gorky Bunin was a nobleman who despised the new Soviet working class even more than the old peasantry—“a splendid artist, but that is all”—the envy and jealousy of some of his fellow-emigrants began to make themselves felt even against his status as an artist. Didn’t he belong too much to the past, even though as exiles they were bound to do so themselves? Mark Aldanov, who was acting as Bunin’s chief lobbyist in the attempt to make his the best-thought-of Russian name for the Prize, wrote to congratulate him on bringing out, at the age of fifty-four, a new and wonderful love story. The poet Khodasevich, on the other hand, observed tersely to a friend that Mitya’s love was “one percent Kreutzer Sonata and 100 percent distilled water.” As poets, both Khodasevich and Marina Tsvetaeva seem to have been especially irritated by what they considered the spurious similarity between Bunin’s work and Tolstoy’s, whether it was Tolstoy’s late and pessimistic tale of jealousy, The Kreutzer Sonata, or his magical early work, Childhood, Boyhood and Youth, that is so much in the background of The Life of Arseniev.

And yet, for an English-speaking reader at least, this irritation seems unjustified. “Mitya’s Love,” which concerns the joys and sorrows of a boyish love affair, is lush and dreamy without being in the least sentimental: and while noting its place as “the culminating work of a specific tradition of Russian writing: the pseudo-autobiographical novel devoted to childhood,” the editor of The Life of Arseniev, Andrew Wachtel, is surely right to claim it as “the crowning achievement of Bunin’s illustrious career.” Tolstoy himself in Childhood (1852), and Aksakov six years later in The Childhood Years of Bagrov’s Grandson, had laid down the formula, as it were, aptly summed by Dr. Wachtel as “a happy, carefree time, spent in the countryside in the bosom of a loving family, that normally consisted of an essential, serious, loving mother, and a spendthrift, pleasantly disorganized father.” A very Russian combination in the nineteenth century, when, as critics and historians have frequently pointed out, the women of the gentry class were usually stronger, more self-reliant, and more forward-looking than were its feckless and “superfluous” males. No wonder, though, that even the reactionary émigrés of the post-revolutionary period felt more than a little impatience with Bunin’s wish to celebrate yet again the golden days gone by, days remembered only by a class that they themselves had mostly belonged to.

Nevertheless Bunin’s late novel does indeed possess all the best characteristics of his earlier style and approach, developing a richness that is full and autumnal without being in the least decadent. Bunin’s descriptive prose is alive in the same absolute sense as that of D.H. Lawrence, who had written of his own childhood twenty years earlier, a proletarian childhood, but dwelt upon in Sons and Lovers in the same warmly lyrical terms as those of the Russian gentry writers. Of course Bunin does not develop the same strongly probing themes, both modernist and “Freudian” as we should now consider them, which distinguish Lawrence’s novel. The colors of a dreamy childhood are often visited by death—Bunin’s most besetting theme—throughout his first four books—deaths of relatives, of a Grand Duke whose funeral train is seen returning from the Crimea to Moscow, and, in the fifth book, of Lika, the young woman with whom Bunin had been living for some years at the end of the period covered by the novel.

Death is equated in Bunin’s work not only with the futility of material progress and prosperity, as represented by “the gentleman from San Francisco,” but with the hateful vitality of revolution itself, the revolution that had forced Russia to “meet the fate she did, destroyed before our eyes with such miraculous rapidity.” To that new Soviet death-in-life, Bunin, like Proust or Nabokov, opposes the truth of personal recall, of the moments subsumed in the Orthodox ritual and in the Church Slavonic funeral chant of “Eternal Memory.” This desire and ability to record the past are the only immortality we possess. And as the nineteenth-century English parson Kilvert remarked in his diaries, which Bunin would have enjoyed if he could have read them, things from the past which are written down achieve a kind of holiness which was not given to them at the time, and which can never be felt in the passing moment. Bunin reflects:

Do I remember many such days? Of course, very few; the morning which I imagine now is made up of patchy pictures, flitting through my memory from various times. Of noontides I seem to see only one picture: the hot sun, the stimulating smells from the kitchen, the keen anticipation of dinner awaiting everybody returning from the fields; my father; the sunburnt, red-bearded elder riding with a broad rocking amble on a sweating nag saddled with a high cossack saddle; the farmhands, who have been mowing with the mowers and now enter the courtyard on top of a cart full of grass and flowers mown together at the field boundaries, the gleaming scythes lying beside them; and the men who have brought the horses back from the pond, their coats shining like glass, their dark tails and manes dripping with water.

At one such time I saw my brother Nicholas also sitting on top of a cart, on grass and flowers, returning from the fields with Sashka, a peasant girl from Novolselki. I had already heard something about them from the servants—something I could not understand but for some reason took to heart. And now, seeing them together on the top of the cart, I was suddenly aware, with a secret rapture, of their beauty, their youth, their happiness. Tall and slender, still no more than a girl, with a delicate pretty face, she sat holding a pitcher, turning away from my brother, her bare legs swinging down from the cart, with downcast eyes; he, in a white peaked cap and a light cambric Russian shirt with unbuttoned collar—sunburnt, clean, youthful—was holding the reins; and he looked at her with shining eyes, telling her something, and smiling joyfully, lovingly….

The admirable translation, reproducing the creamy opulence of Bunin’s style and avoiding unnecessary modernist touches, is equally at home in a winter landscape and at the hero’s first ball.

I recall impenetrable Asiatic blizzards, raging sometimes for whole weeks on end through which the town belfries barely loomed. I recall the Epiphany frosts that made one think of most ancient times of Russia, of the frosts that made “the earth crackle seven feet deep”; then, at night, over the snow-white town all drowned in snowdrifts, blazed menacingly in the raven-black sky the white constellations of Orion, and by day, crystalline and sinister, two dull suns shone; and in the taut and resonant immobility of the burning air the whole town was slowly and wildly besmirched with livid smoke from the chimneys and creaked and resounded all over with the footsteps of the pedestrians and the runners of sleighs…. During one such frost the mendicant idiot, Dunya, froze to death on the cathedral parvis; for half a century she had roamed the town, and the town, which had always mocked her with the utmost ruthlessness, suddenly gave her almost a royal funeral.

Strange as it may seem, immediately after this comes to my mind a ball at the girls’ school—the first ball I went. The weather was again very frosty…. On the way we met schoolgirls coming from their school, dressed in fur coats and shod in high galoshes, wearing pretty hats and hoods, with long frost-silvered eyelashes and radiant eyes, and some of them said in full, clear, affable tones as they passed, “Come to the ball!”—troubling one by that full, clear tone, rousing in me the first feelings of something which lay inside those fur coats, galoshes, and hoods, in those tender excited faces, in the long frosted eyelashes and quick ardent glances—feelings that were afterward to possess me with such force….

Long after the ball I felt intoxicated by recollections of it and of myself—of that well-dressed, handsome, light, deft schoolboy in a new blue uniform and white gloves who, with such a joyously brave chill in his heart, mixed with the dense and elegant girlish throng, ran about the corridors and staircases, drank many almond syrups in the refreshment room, glided among the dancers on the floor sprinkled with some glistening powder, in the big white hall flooded with the pearly light of the chandeliers and echoing from the balconies with triumphantly resonant thunders of the military band, breathing in all that fragrant ardor with which balls drug the novice, and enchanted by every tiny shoe he came across, by every white cape, every black velvet ribbon on the neck, every silk bow in the braid, by every youthful breast heaving in blissful dizziness after a waltz….

The translators Gleb Struve and Hamish Miles have managed to convey much of what Bunin’s Russian gives us, which Bunin himself dryly compares with the proverb “Russia’s joy is in drinking,” a joy which produces “that verbal sensuality for which Russian literature is so famous.”

Throughout the novel there are intimations of the apocalypse to come—naturally enough, since Bunin is writing in the south of France a decade after his life had been torn apart by the revolution. His brother, a highly intelligent and well-qualified man, had been one of those gentleman subversives whose clandestine activities had been watched over by the tsar’s secret police, and whose services were both made use of and despised by Lenin and his professionals. Bunin is shrewd about their psychology and its real motivation, finding it in a sort of continuation of childhood by other means, “all that happy festive atmosphere amid which his youth had been flowing—…participation in all the secret circles, the holiday atmosphere of gatherings, of songs, of ‘seditious’ speeches, of dangerous plans and undertakings…. Ideas were all very well, but in these youthful revolutionaries how much was there also of the mere longing for gay idleness under the cloak of hectic activity…”

Nothing sharpens the memory so much as a divided life and that “lost childhood” of which Nabokov writes in Speak, Memory. Bunin was one of Nabokov’s early admirers, remarking of The Luzhin Defense, Nabokov’s nouvelle written in Russian in Berlin in the Twenties, that it already invented a new kind of Russian literary future and past, superseding that of the writers of his own generation. Nabokov himself, as we learn from the end of Marullo’s portrait of Bunin in his letters and diaries, perferred Bunin’s “remarkable flowing poetry to the brocadelike prose for which he was famous.”

When I met him in emigration, Bunin had just received the Nobel Prize. He was terribly preoccupied by the passage of time, old age, and death; with pleasure he noted that he held himself more erectly than I, though he was thirty years my senior.

I remember that he had invited me to an expensive restaurant for some heart-to-heart conversation. Unfortunately, I cannot stand restaurants, drinks, hors d’oeuvres, music—and heart-to-heart conversations. Bunin was taken aback by my indifference to pheasant; he was annoyed by my refusal to lay bare my soul. By the end of the dinner, things had become intolerably boring for the both of us. “You will die in terrible torment and in complete loneliness,” Bunin told me when we returned to the cloakroom…

We used to meet often with other people; but for some reason we adopted a kind of depressingly bantering tone; in general, we never agreed on art….

One would hardly have expected them to have done so. One of Bunin’s own themes, after all, is how the hungry generations tread down the memories of their predecessors, and reject anxieties that lurk in their possible influence. But Bunin’s achievement is complete on its own, and as it stands. He most certainly remains one of the finest writers of the “Silver Age,” that period of creativity in the Russian arts which spanned two thirds of his lifetime.

This Issue

August 10, 1995