Ivan Alekseevich Bunin

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Ivan Alekseevich Bunin

Ivan Alekseevich Bunin (1870-1953) was the first Russian to receive the Nobel Prize in literature, in 1933. Although a noted poet, he is perhaps best known for the delicate "brocaded" prose of his short stories and his novels on Russian rural life and bourgeois stupidity.

Ivan Bunin was born on his impoverished but proud family's estate near Voronezh in Oryol Province on Oct. 10/22, 1870. He grew up with a love for family traditions and a high regard for the works of Aleksandr Pushkin. In 1881 he entered the gymnasium (secondary school) in Elets but withdrew after 3 years and was tutored by his older brother. In 1889, however, family poverty forced Bunin to go to work. He held various technical and clerical jobs on provincial newspapers.

In 1891 Bunin published Poems, a volume that celebrated the natural world and was classical in style. Other collections of poetry followed—In the Open Air (1898) and Falling Leaves (1901), which won the Academy of Sciences' Pushkin Prize in 1903. At the same time Bunin wrote stories and sketches about Russian rural life, among the most notable of which are "Tank," "At the World's End," and "News from Home." During the 1890s he was becoming a well-known figure in literary circles. The year 1891 marked the beginning of his friendship with Anton Chekhov. And in 1899 Bunin met Maxim Gorky, who introduced him to the Znaniye group, a circle of young liberal writers.

With the opening years of the 20th century, Bunin began to concentrate on prose forms. "Antonov Apples" (1900), "The Pines" (1901), and "The Black Earth" (1904) are among his finest stories. They are marked by love for the land as well as by social awareness. In his novels The Village (1910) and Sukhodol (1911), Bunin contrasts man's aspirations with the dismal record of failure seen in human history. These works display Bunin's use of striking metaphors and penetrating understatement. Bunin's prose style has been widely admired for its delicacy, subtlety, clarity, and strong musical quality.

Bunin's work was both popular and critically respected, and in 1909 the Academy of Sciences elected him to honorary membership. He traveled widely, and from 1907 to 1911 he published a series of sketches on the Mediterranean and the Near East. At the same time, his energetic talent explored urban themes (the satirical "A Good Life," told entirely in Elets dialect), presented psychological portraits of fierce intensity ("The Dreams of Chang," 1916), and exposed the internal contradictions of bourgeois civilization ("The Gentleman from San Francisco," 1916). His translations of The Song of Hiawatha, Lord Byron's plays, and other works were extremely successful.

Bunin opposed the Russian Revolution, and in 1920 he emigrated to France, where he lived until his death. Bunin's early themes often reappear in the works he wrote in exile-especially his use of autobiographical material in fiction (Arseniyev's Life, 1930) and his strong interest in death and idealistic passion ("Mitya's Love," 1925). During this period he also wrote books on Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov. In his Memories and Portraits (1950) he attacked Soviet cultural debasement. Bunin died in Paris, on Nov. 8, 1953.

Further Reading

Bunin's Memories and Portraits was translated by Vera Traill and Robin Chancellor (1951), and most of his stories and short novels have also been translated. There is no book in English on Bunin; he is, however, discussed in Renato Poggioli, The Poets of Russia, 1890-1930 (1960). For background material see Ernest J. Simmons, An Outline of Modern Russian Literature, 1880-1940 (1944), and Helen Muchnic, An Introduction to Russian Literature (1947; rev. ed. 1963). □

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(18701953), poet and a master of prose fiction; the first Russian to win the Nobel prize for literature (1933).

Ivan Alexeyevich Bunin was the scion of an ancient aristocratic family from the heartland of Old Russia, the fertile countryside south of Moscow that produced so many writers from the gentry, among them Turgenev and Tolstoy. Much of his early fiction depicts the decline of the class he was born into. The celebratory tone of "Antonov's Apples" (1900) makes it exceptional. However, it is purely commemorative, a song of praise for a way of life that has passed away. A lyric apprehension of nature is a central feature of Bunin's art. Without religious faith or political commitment, he finds sustenance in a pantheistic attitude or in aristocratic stoicism. The Village (19091910), a naturalistic portrait, is more typically grim. Its subject is the barbarity and backwardness of Russian provincial life. "Dry Valley" (1911) is one of the supreme masterpieces of modern fiction. In this haunting novella Bunin's lyrical reverie attains mythic and tragic resonance. Experience is filtered through layers of memory to evoke an image of the patriarchal estate of Old Russia as a landscape of violence and ruin.

Bunin fled Russia after the Revolution. He settled in Paris but traveled much. Separated from the Russian countryside he knows so intimately, he tends to become abstractas in his exotic Eastern tales and much of his work in emigration. "Gentleman from San Francisco" is a masterpiece of his international style. A work of cold, jewel-like beauty, it may be read as a satire of bourgeois civilization or an allegory of the vanity of human ambition in the face of deatha favorite theme of Bunin's, especially in his later years.


Poggioli, Renato. (1957). "The Art of Ivan Bunin." In The Phoenix and the Spider. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Woodward, James B. (1980). Ivan Bunin: A Study of His Fiction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Milton Ehre