Bunin, Ivan (Alexeyevich)

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BUNIN, Ivan (Alexeyevich)

Nationality: Russian (expatriate, moved to France in 1919). Born: Voronezh, 22 October (10 October in some sources) 1870; descendent of Russian poets Anna Bunina and Vasili Zhukovski. Education: Four years of formal education; private instruction by family and others. Family: Five-year romance with Varvara Pashchenko, 1889-94. Career: Editor, Orlovskii vestnik, 1889-92; traveled extensively throughout Europe and the Middle East. Awards: Pushkin prize, 1901, for Listopad; Pushkin prize, 1909; Honorary Academician in the Russian Academy of Sciences, 1909; Nobel prize, 1933. Died: 8 November 1953.



Sobraniye sochineniy (nine volumes; short stories, novels, memoirs, and poetry). 1965-67.

Short Stories

Na krai sveta. 1897.

Sukhodol. 1912.

Ioann Rydalets (short stories and poetry). 1913.

Gospodin iz San-Frantsisko. 1916; as The Gentleman from San Francisco and Other Stories, 1922.

Sny Changa. 1916; as The Dreams of Chang, and Other Stories, 1923.

Roza Iyerikhona (short stories and poetry). 1924.

Solnechnyy udar. 1927.

Grammatika lyubvi. 1929; as Grammar of Love and Other Stories, 1934.

The Elaghin Affair, and Other Stories. 1935.

Tymnye allei. 1943; as Dark Avenues, and Other Stories, 1949.


Derevnya. 1910.

Mitina lyubov'. 1925; as Mitya's Love, 1926.

Zhizn' Arsen'eva. 1930; as The Well of Days, 1933.


Stikhotvoreniya. 1891.

Listopad. 1901.


Vospominaniya (memoirs). 1950.

Memoirs and Portraits (memoirs). 1951.


Critical Studies:

"Bunin: Eclectic of the Future" by Nikander Strelsky, in The South Atlantic Quarterly, July 1936, pp. 273-83; An Intensive Reading of Ivan Bunin's "The Gentleman from San Francisco" by Edward J. Huth, 1942; Conclusive Evidence: A Memoir (chapter XIV) by Vladimir Nabokov, 1951; "Ivan Bunin: 1870-1953" by Jacques Croisé, in The Russian Review, April 1954, pp. 146-51; "Ivan Bunin in Retrospect" by Andrew Colin, in The Slavonic and Eastern European Review, December 1955, pp. 156-73; "The Fulfilment of Ivan Bunin" by C.H. Bedford, in Canadian Slavonic Papers, 1956, pp. 31-44; The Works of Ivan Bunin by Serge Kryzytski, 1971; Ivan Bunin: A Study of His Fiction by James B. Woodward, 1980.

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Apart from the Proustian novel Zhizn' Arsen'eva (The Life of Arsen'ev; 1930) and a handful of masterly Novellen, Ivan Bunin confined his prose writing to the short story (in Russian, rasskaz) . His best-known story, "The Gentleman from San Francisco" ("Gospodin iz San-Frantsisko"; 1915), with its strong allegorical content and foreign setting, is actually atypical of the bulk of his work, which is set in the Russia he grew up in and which, after his emigration in 1920, he recalled and re-created with astonishing accuracy.

Bunin's first published work, a poem, dates from 1887, his first published short story, "Derevenskii eskiz" (Country Sketch) from 1891, and his earliest important story, "Kastriuk" from 1892. His short stories can be assigned to three periods. Like many of Bunin's early stories, which were published in his first collection, Na krai sveta (To the Edge of the World; 1897), "Kastriuk" deals with peasant life and shows a marked influence both of Lev Tolstoi, whom Bunin met in 1894, and Gleb Uspenskii. Bunin's travels abroad, to Constantinople in 1903 and to the Middle East in 1907, influenced the second group, which includes stories set outside Russia. Among them is "Sny Changa" (The Dreams of Chang; 1916), the action of which, like Chekhov's "Kachka" and Tolstoi's "Kholstomer," is seen through the eyes of an animal, in this case a dog. During this period Bunin also wrote a series he called Putevye poemy (Travel Poems; 1907-11). The third group belongs to Bunin's 33-year period of exile and includes the 38 stories that make up his last collection, Dark Avenues (Temnye allei; 1943).

Some themes, however, are present in Bunin's work of all periods, and three in particular predominate: death, memory, and sexual love. The theme of death preoccupied Bunin from an early date, possibly because of the death of his younger sister and, later, of his only son in 1905. In 1921 he wrote, "The constant consciousness or sensation of this horror has persecuted me since infancy; under this fateful mark I have lived my entire life." There are numerous examples of Bunin's obsession with death, none more striking than "Ogn' pozhiraiushchii" (Consuming Fire; 1923), which deals with the death and cremation of a beautiful young woman in Paris. The narrator, as so often in Bunin's stories, muses on the transience of life, but the story acquires a special resonance for Russian readers because of the hostility of the Russian Orthodox Church toward cremation. Stories dealing with the power of human passion are also a recurring feature of Bunin's work, from "Osen'iu" (In Autumn; 1901) and "Zaria vsiu noch"' (Sunset throughout the Night; 1902), through "Legkoe dykhanie" (Light Breathing; 1916) and "Solnechnyi udar" (Sunstroke; 1925), to his last collection, Dark Avenues. The theme of memory, Bunin's treatment of which has affinities with both Proust and Nabokov, is the outstanding feature of "Antonovskie iabloki" (Antonov Apples; 1900), the opening words of which are " Vspominaetsia mne" (I recall) and the opening paragraph of which contains three instances of the verb " pomniu " (I remember).

A story that combines all three major themes is "Grammatika liubvi" (The Primer of Love; 1915). The narrator visits the estate of a local landowner who had fallen in love with his servant girl and who, after her unexpected death, had for the remaining 20 and more years of his life barely ventured out of the house. The narrator discovers the eponymous book that, as he reads it, brings the spirit of the long dead lovers to life. The story is as much about the dead lovers as it is about the narrator. Most of all it is about Bunin himself, who, writing in 1928, said, "A real artist always speaks primarily about his own heart." For Bunin, however brief the encounter between man and woman, the consequences of love are always profound, long-lasting, even destructive.

The tone of "The Primer of Love" is calm, melancholic, wistful, lyrical, and elegiac, redolent of what the narrator calls "the poetry of life" (poeziia zhizni). Like all of Bunin's mature prose, the story lacks the moral earnestness that characterizes so much Russian literature. Stylistically, however, the story is an excellent example of Bunin's art. Contemporaries viewed him as an inheritor of the classical tradition of Russian literature, as a conservative who rejected modernism. His stories are, indeed, full of allusions to writers, from Tiutchev to Griboedov in the nineteenth century to Briusov in the twentieth. In fact, however, there is much that is innovative in Bunin's style, not least his refusal to recognize any real distinction between the language of poetry and the language of prose. He argued that "poetic language should approach the simplicity and naturalness of conversational speech, while prose style should assimilate the musicality and pliancy of verse."

Of Bunin's later work, the best is to be found in the collection Dark Avenues. Bunin himself described it as "the best and most original thing that I have written in my life," singling out "The First Monday in Lent" ("Chistyi ponedel'nik") for special mention. The eroticism of stories such as "Vizitnye kartochki" (Visiting Cards; 1940), "Zoika i Valeriia" (Zoika and Valeria; 1940), and "V Parizhe" (In Paris; 1940) is delicately explicit and seems well ahead of its time.

The three major themes in Bunin's work are echoed in the recurrent minor themes. These include the disintegration of the old Russia, perhaps best exemplified in "Zolotoe dno" (The Gold Mine; 1903), and beyond that, in the travel poems, for instance, the fate of civilizations generally and, in stories such as "Epitafiia" (An Epitaph; 1900), the search for enduring values that Bunin's protagonists find in human love and the eternal beauty of nature. Some of Bunin's descriptions of rural Russia are among the finest in the language, and they are to be found in stories written 50 years apart, such as "Na krai sveta" (To the Edge of the World; 1894) and "Chasovnia" (The Chapel; 1944).

Bunin is a transitional figure between the nineteenth-century Russian classics he admired, notably Turgenev, Tolstoi, and Chekhov, and modern Russian exponents of the short story such as Iurii Kazakov. Despite winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1933, Bunin was regarded as a nonperson by the Soviet literary bureaucracy, and little of his work was published inside the Soviet Union. Today, however, he is widely published and is among the most revered of all Russian writers.

—Michael Pursglove

See the essay on "The Gentleman from San Francisco."