What the Swedes Read: Ivan Bunin

What the Swedes Read: Ivan Bunin

Daniel Handler
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  • LAUREATE: Ivan Bunin (Russia, 1933)
  • BOOK READ: The Gentleman from San Francisco and Other Stories, translated by David Richards and Sophie Lund

On the back of my battered copy of Ivan Bunin’s The Gentleman from San Francisco is a quote encouraging me to read Bunin because he “represents the last flowering of the great tradition of Turgenev and Tolstoy,” the umpteenth perfect example of the publishing industry shooting itself in the foot. With all due respect to London Magazine’s April Fitzlyon, whom Wikipedia tells me was quite the Russian scholar, it’s hard to think of a less effective inducement to reading a guy than saying he helped usher the vanishing of a tradition practiced by two very famous, very well-regarded writers of whose work practically none of us have read enough. It feels something like “You absolutely must try this restaurant, it’s the third-best Mexican restaurant in Pittsburgh.”

If I were in charge of the publishing industry—and I heard you snorting—I’d market The Gentleman from San Francisco to Goths. The seventeen stories in this volume all exude the dark and stormy dread found in the best singles by Joy Division. Picture yourself, fifteen years old, eyelinered up and in a trenchcoat, reading something like this:

He smoked cigarette after cigarette, strode through the mud along the paths or sometimes entirely at random, through the long wet grass under the apple trees and pear trees, bumping into their crooked and gnarled branches which were covered with patches of grey-green, sodden lichen. He sat on the swollen black garden benches or went off to the hollow to lie on the damp straw in the hut on the very spot where he had lain with Alyonka. The cold and the icy damp air had turned his large hands blue and his lips mauve, while his deathly-pale face with its sunken cheeks had taken on a violet tinge. He lay on his back with his legs crossed and his hands behind his head, staring wildly at the black straw roof which was dripping heavy, rust-coloured drops. Then his face twitched and his eyebrows started to dance. He impulsively jumped up, pulling out of his trouser-pocket the stained and crumpled letter he had received late the previous evening (it had been brought over by a land surveyor who had come to the estate for a few days’ work); he had already read it a hundred times, and now, for the hundred and first time, he avidly devoured it once more.

And get this, here’s the letter:

Dear Mitya,
Don’t bear me any grudges. Forget, forget everything there was between us. I’m wicked, vile and depraved, I’m not worthy of you, but I’m madly in love with art. I’ve made up my mind, the die is cast, I’m going away—you know who with. You’re sensitive and intelligent, you’ll understand. I beg you, don’t torment yourself and me. Don’t write, it’s pointless.

Pointless! I love it. The book is saturated with this saturated kind of stuff, each emotion very emotional and each situation extremely extreme. If there are teeth, they are gnashing. If there’s a storm, it’s the stormiest in a hundred years. When Bunin introduces a gun, you don’t have to guess what might happen with it.

The idea that you can’t introduce a gun without firing it is traced to Chekhov, and it’s true, yes, Ms. Fitzlyon, that Bunin is part of a Russian tradition of philosophical tales of decaying wealthy homes full of gloomy people tramping around in the ice betraying one another. But more often than not the tales in The Gentleman from San Francisco reminded me less of Chekhov and Tolstoy and more of Woody Allen’s spoofy Russian mash-up Love and Death. Even as I acclimated to the prose, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Bunin’s work had all the trappings of classic Russian literature but little of its breadth. War and Peace, to take an example you’ve maybe heard of, has lots of tramping around damp barns debating obscure ideological and intellectual points, not to mention long letters from people begging other people not to write. But it’s also a rip-roaring adventure, a passionate soap opera, and a thrilling spectacle, so that even when an incident or a turn of phrase approaches the ridiculous, the entire endeavor has weight and heft. Of course, War and Peace is weighty and hefty even if you just pick it up, whereas Bunin specialized in the slim volume—the title story is called a novella but is hardly twenty pages long—where it’s more difficult to encompass the whole tapestry of life.

Still, Chekhov manages to offer up clear-eyed truths and weepy epiphanies in the short story, and Bunin sometimes seems to give up before he starts. “Does it really matter whose story this is?” another tale starts. “Every creature on Earth deserves to have its story told.” Yet a story called “Long Ago” embarks on a dual character study only to have the narrator admit that he “would doubtless have been surprised had someone told me then that they… would be preserved forever in that sweet bitter dream of the past by which my soul will live until the grave,” cutting short the story’s grander possibilities to remind us it’s just a glimpse. “The Gentleman from San Francisco,” as far as I can tell widely regarded as Bunin’s masterpiece, takes its inspiration from “Death in Venice” by fellow prizewinner (remember? Believer June 2012?) Thomas Mann, but it’s “Death in Venice” without the forbidden, obsessive love and the looming plague; that is, it’s about someone who drops dead in a foreign climate. It doesn’t read like another great masterpiece in the spirit of Thomas Mann; it’s more like Thomas Mann fan fiction. It made me wonder if the Swedes were honoring Bunin not for his own merits but for the tradition he upheld, somewhat unfashionably, after other literary bigwigs blazed the trail—bigwigs who missed the Nobel boat. (War and Peace was published in 1869, more than thirty years before the prize started.) Indeed, the speech awarding Bunin the Nobel spends quite a bit of time on Tolstoy.

But you don’t want to read Tolstoy all the time. Bunin’s work might be a little light on significance, but its delights lie in its enthusiasms—all the heartstopping, cloudbursting, trigger-pulling gestures of its prose. It’s overwrought, but you need overwrought prose when the situation is overwrought. If you die suddenly abroad, your grieving family may indeed think of your coffin in the “gloomy, torrid bowels of the ship as it resolutely strove against the gloom, the ocean and the blizzard.” If you feel bad for what you did to your boyfriend, you might describe yourself as “wicked, vile and depraved.” When love stands resolute at the brink of a fiercely attacked empire, you need Tolstoy. But Ivan Bunin, like all entrancing, gothy pieces of culture, can keep you grim company when you smoke cigarette after cigarette, on a muddy path or in your dorm room, when love is tearing you apart. Again. Love, love will tear us apart. Again. 

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