Alexander Anichkin at Tetradki (“A Russian Review of Books: Non-Russians writing about Russia and Russians writing about themselves and the world around them”) has a post about Bunin’s 1924 mini-story Книга (Kniga, ‘Book’), which I am very fond of myself, and says “I searched for an English translation of this short story on the internet, but could not find one. Please let me know if there is one.” I thought I might as well give it a try, though Bunin’s late, pared-down style shows a mastery of Russian prose that is impossible to adequately render, and I’m pleased enough with the result to reproduce it below. It makes a nice contrast to my recent post about bibliophilia. (My thanks to jamessal for his help whipping it into shape.)
A note on a phrase: the Russian does not say “with a beginning and an end” but с завязкой и развязкой ‘with a beginning [literally ‘tying-up’] and a denouement [literally ‘untying,’ which of course is also the literal meaning of denouement],’ and a denouement is not necessarily an ending. But I thought it was more important to preserve the natural pairing than the literal sense, since the distinction between an ending and a denouement is not significant in this context.
Lying on a stack of straw on the threshing floor, I had been reading for a long time – and suddenly I revolted. Once again reading all morning, once again with a book in my hands! And it’s been that way day in, day out, since I was a child! I’ve spent half my life in a world that doesn’t exist, among people who never lived, invented people, being as agitated about their fates, their joys and sorrows, as if they were my own, linking myself to my dying day with Abraham and Isaac, Pelasgians and Etruscans, Socrates and Julius Caesar, Hamlet and Dante, Gretchen and Chatsky, Sobakevich and Ophelia, Pechorin and Natasha Rostova! And how can I now distinguish between real and imagined companions of my earthly existence? How can I divide them, define the degree of their influence on me?
I was reading, living on other people’s inventions, but the field, the estate, the village, the peasants, horses, flies, bumblebees, birds, clouds – everything lived its own real life. And I suddenly felt that, and I awoke from my bookish hallucination, I threw my book into the straw and with astonishment and joy, with new eyes, I look around, I see, I hear, I smell keenly, above all I feel something uncommonly simple and at the same time uncommonly complicated, that deep, miraculous, inexpressible thing that is in life and in myself and that they never write about properly in books.
While I had been reading, in nature things were secretly changing. It had been sunny, festive; now everything had grown dark and still. In the sky, little by little, clouds had been gathering, in certain places – especially to the south – still light and lovely, but to the west, beyond the village and its willows, rain-laden, bluish, depressing. Warmly, mildly, it smells of distant rain in the fields. In the garden a single oriole is singing.
Along the dry violet road running between the threshing floor and the garden, a peasant is returning from the churchyard. On his shoulder is a white iron spade with rich blue earth clinging to it. His face is rejuvenated and bright. His cap is pushed back off his sweaty forehead.
“I’ve planted a jasmine bush for my girl!” he says cheerfully. “I wish you good health. Still reading, still making up books?”
He’s happy. Why? Just because he’s living in the world; that is, accomplishing the most incomprehensible thing on earth.
In the garden the oriole is singing. Everything else has become still and silent, not even roosters can be heard. She alone is singing, unhurriedly spinning out playful trills. Why, for whom? For herself? For the life that the estate and garden have lived for a hundred years? Or could it be that the estate is living for her fluted song?
“I’ve planted a jasmine bush for my girl.” But does the girl know? The peasant thinks she does, and perhaps he’s right. By evening the peasant will have forgotten about the bush, so for whom will it blossom? Because it is going to blossom – and it will not seem to blossom for no reason, but for someone and something.
“Still reading, still making up books.” But why make things up? Why heroines and heroes? Why a novel or a story, with a beginning and an end? The eternal fear of seeming not bookish enough, not similar enough to the famous ones! And the eternal torment of being eternally silent, of not talking even once about what is truly yours and the only real thing, most justly demanding expression, demanding to leave a trace, incarnation and preservation, if only in a word!