Back to Bunin.

Having effectively reached the end of my Long March through Russian literature with Marina Stepnova’s 2020 Сад [The orchard] (I have a couple of later books but am saving them for some other time), I turned back almost a century and resumed my reading of Ivan Bunin, which I left off in 1925. I immediately felt as if I were home again, swimming in familiar waters under familiar skies; yes, Bunin is a great writer, but for me he is also what Russians call родной: native, one’s very own. I don’t even care what he’s writing about, I just love the sound of his sentences and tend to mutter them aloud as I read. To quote the translator Graham Hettlinger:

Many of his most famous works […] focus on the themes of love, sex, death, and memory—topics with an undeniably universal appeal. But the importance of theme in Bunin’s prose is never completely equal to the importance of style. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the meaning of Bunin’s stories often derives from the movement and unfolding of their language. Whereas Tolstoy could be said to reveal important philosophical truths that are capable of surviving, at least to some degree, the inevitable disfigurements of translation, Bunin’s most important accomplishments are invariably linked to form: how he says something is usually as important as what he says. For this reason he is widely ranked among the greatest Russian stylists of the twentieth century. His often elaborate sentences move with a rhythmic, fluid grace that few have matched, and his accounts of sensory experience are sometimes staggering in their musicality, their detail, and their sheer intensity.

[After quoting a passage from Sukhodol:] This passage is typical of Bunin’s style. All the reader’s senses are engaged—smell, sight, sound, touch, even taste by association with the frost that resembles salt on the grass. […] In the original these nuances are delivered with an easy grace; they emerge in a series of rhythmic sentences, each detail slightly recasting those that preceded it. The author’s language operates almost like a camera lens being focused with increasing precision.

It is this fluid, nuanced style that often suffers badly in translation. How does one preserve the music of a Russian text when one can no longer use Russian words? How does one replicate the elaborate structure of a Russian sentence when rebuilding it within the confines of English grammar? Struggling to preserve Bunin’s style, one understands all too well Werner Winter’s statement that “We may compare the work of a translator to that of an artist who is asked to create an exact replica of a marble statue, but who cannot secure any marble.”

(See my similar complaints on the occasion of my attempt to translate his Книга [Book] back in 2009.)

I started by reading the highly praised novella Митина любовь [Mitya’s Love]; as I wrote to Lizok:

I enjoyed it and am glad I read it, but, well, it also seemed much ado about not very much. I mean, the Первая любовь [First Love] thing has been done to death, and I long ago got fed up with passionate young protagonists for whom love is the whole world and the detailed accounting of their every flutter of hope and dive into despair; we’ve all been there and done that and lived to tell the tale and hopefully find more interesting ways to occupy our time and spend our energies, and no matter how magical Bunin’s prose is I want to shake Mitya by the shoulders and say “Snap out of it!” Love is, of course, a wonderful thing, but excessive focus on it can be an addiction as dreadful as addiction to booze, drugs, or gambling, and one of the dreadful things about addiction is how boring it is to read about unless there’s other stuff going on. It creates the kind of “vortex” Morson talks about [see this post], a downward spiral in which everything points in one direction, as with Anna Karenina (or, even farther back, Young Werther). I prefer it when Bunin exercises his skills on penguins flying in a dream, or on a nighttime walk in the mountains, or just about anything else!

Then I decided to reread Солнечный удар [Sunstroke], in which a man and woman meet on a Volga riverboat and spend a night together, after which she leaves, refusing to tell him her name (“we’ve both had a bit of sunstroke”); it’s been called “one of the best of his love stories,” and I agree. But this time around, thanks to the reading I’ve done latterly (particularly the Stepnova novel, part of which is set in Lenin’s home town), I realized that it’s set in Simbirsk (now Ulyanovsk), though the town is never named: it’s the only provincial capital between Samara and Kazan, you have to take a cab up the steep slope to the city center, and it’s got a park (Новый Венец) overlooking the Volga, just as described in the story. I haven’t found this mentioned in any discussions of “Sunstroke,” so I record it here as a matter of interest.

His novella Дело корнета Елагина [The Case of Cornet Elagin, also translated as The Elagin Affair] is about a young officer on trial for killing his mistress, a Polish actress who led a dissolute life and of whom he was insanely jealous; its structure is unusual for Bunin, featuring a first-person narrator of undetermined status reporting in detail on the proceedings, retailing the speeches of the prosecutor and defense lawyer and describing how the facts of the case were uncovered, and as I read I began realizing that it was clearly a response to the trial section (Book 12) of The Brothers Karamazov. I was not, of course, the first person to notice that — there is a close reading of the parallels in N.V. Prashcheruk’s В диалоге с Ф.М.Достоевским: о повести И.А.Бунина «Дело корнета Елагина» — but again, I thought it was interesting enough to mention.

Just now I finished rereading Ночь [Night], originally published in Современные записки XXVI [Dec. 1925] as Цикады [Cicadas]; it’s more like an essay than a story, beginning with his thoughts about his thoughts looking down at the sea and up at the Milky Way from a town probably on the Black Sea coast and moving to a credo about how the artist must be removed from immersion in immediate surroundings and open to all times and places, joining past and present to ensure immortality. One of the things that struck me this time was the passage beginning:

Always, at such moments, how well I understand the tears of Peter the Apostle, who just at dawn felt so freshly, youthfully, tenderly all the strength of his love for Jesus and all the evil that he, Peter, had committed the day before, at night, in fear of the Roman soldiers! I again experienced completely, as my own, that distant gospel morning in the olive grove of Mount Olivet, Peter’s denial. Time has disappeared. I felt with all my being: oh, what an insignificant length of time is two thousand years!

Как я понимаю всегда в такие минуты слезы Петра-апостола, который именно на рассвете так свежо, молодо, нежно ощутил всю силу своей любви к Иисусу и все зло содеянного им, Петром, накануне, ночью, в страхе перед римскими солдатами! Я опять пережил совершенно, как свое собственное, это далекое евангельское утро в Элеонской оливковой роще, это отречение Петра. Время исчезло. Я всем существом своим почувствовал: ах, какой это ничтожный срок — две тысячи лет!

Which must be an allusion to Chekhov’s most Buninesque story, Студент [The Student], in which the protagonist, returning home, stops at a campfire and says “Точно так же в холодную ночь грелся у костра апостол Петр” [On a cold night, just like this, the apostle Peter warmed himself by the fire]; he proceeds to tell the laborers gathered around the fire the story of Peter’s denial, adding effective details and bringing tears to one listener, and then:

The student thought again that if Vasilisa had shed tears, and her daughter had been troubled, it was evident that what he had just been telling them about, which had happened nineteen centuries ago, had a relation to the present — to both women, to the desolate village, to himself, to all people. The old woman had wept, not because he could tell the story touchingly, but because Peter was near to her, because her whole being was interested in what was passing in Peter’s soul.

And joy suddenly stirred in his soul, and he even stopped for a minute to take breath. “The past,” he thought, “is linked with the present by an unbroken chain of events flowing one out of another.” And it seemed to him that he had just seen both ends of that chain; that when he touched one end the other quivered.

Студент опять подумал, что если Василиса заплакала, а ее дочь смутилась, то, очевидно, то, о чем он только что рассказывал, что происходило девятнадцать веков назад, имеет отношение к настоящему — к обеим женщинам и, вероятно, к этой пустынной деревне, к нему самому, ко всем людям. Если старуха заплакала, то не потому, что он умеет трогательно рассказывать, а потому, что Петр ей близок, и потому, что она всем своим существом заинтересована в том, что происходило в душе Петра. И радость вдруг заволновалась в его душе, и он даже остановился на минуту, чтобы перевести дух. Прошлое, думал он, связано с настоящим непрерывною цепью событий, вытекавших одно из другого. И ему казалось, что он только что видел оба конца этой цепи: дотронулся до одного конца, как дрогнул другой.

I should add that I’ve compared the final versions of the stories to the ones originally published in Современные записки [Annales contemporaines], published in Paris from 1920 to 1940; it’s a real look into the writer’s workshop to see how he tweaked them, omitting bits he decided were too obvious and should be left for the reader to intuit.

I have one lexical question. In the text of Ночь, there occurs the phrase «в мановение ока» [in the beckoning of an eye], which looks like it must be a misprint for the standard phrase «в мгновение ока» [in the twinkling of an eye]… but it’s in all editions of the story, even the magazine publication (pdf, p. 93), and Kartaslov has a whole page of quotes with the “incorrect” version. Is this one of those popular misquotes?


  1. ἐν ῥιπῇ ὀφθαλμοῦ → in ictu oculi → in the blink of an eye → “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump:” → The trumpet shall sound.

    I always feel _that’s_ the point the audience should leap to its feet, not the darned Hallelujah.

    I appreciate Russians might not harbour Handel in their hearts as much as Anglos. But if Bunin didn’t use the stock phrase, was he deliberately sending a different message? ‘Beckoning’ sounds like some sort of come-on. Is there some protagonist fluttering their eyelids?

    (Sorry, that phrase always produces trumpets in me. I’ll go apologise to the neighbours now.)

    Oh, and off-topic: why doesn’t wp have a ‘Bunin (disambiguation)’ page? It’s quite a common surname — including one of my Philosophy tutors. There’s this, I suppose. There’s an asteroid named for him — Ivan, I mean, not the tutor.

  2. Stu Clayton says

    resumed my reading of Ivan Bunin, which I left off in 1925

    I just knew you’ve been fibbing about your age.

  3. The long list of usages, which both predate and postdate Bunin, suggests that it is an accepted collocation, though prescriptivist purist in me says that it is wrong. There is «мгновение ока» and «мановение руки» (beckoning of the hand) and never the twine should meet, but they do.

  4. Stu Clayton says

    prescriptivist purist … never the twine should meet

    Nice one ! Our spell on this planet is brief and freight with difficulties.

  5. John Cowan says

    Sorry, that phrase always produces trumpets in me.

    “And the trumpets sounded for him on the other side. (The Pilgrim’s Progress)

  6. Stu Clayton says

    It always makes me think of strumpets, who also sound off when provoked.

    Again, some men cannot go half a mile from home but they must have dogs at their heels, but they can very willingly go half a score miles without the society of a Christian. Nay, if when they are busy with their dogs they should chance to meet a Christian, they would willingly shift him if they could. They will go on the other side the hedge or the way rather than they will have any society with him; and if at any time a child of God should come into a house where there are but two or three ungodly wretches, they do commonly wish either themselves or the saint out of doors; and why so? because they cannot down[9] with the society of a Christian; though if there come in at the same time a dog, or a drunken swearing wretch, which is worse than a dog, they will make him welcome; he shall sit down with them and partake of their dainties. And now tell me, you that love your sins and your pleasures, had you not rather keep company with a drunkard, a swearer, a strumpet, a thief, nay, a dog, than with an honest-hearted Christian? If you say no, what means your sour carriage to the people of God? Why do you look on them as if you would eat them up?
    # [Bunyan, Sighs From Hell]

    There’s also The Sixpenny Strumpet by T. F. Powys. I haven’t read it, but it sounds tasty. As the Amazon link says, you can get the book in tapa dura with a side dish of pasta dura. More GT high-jinks, I suppose.

  7. The long list of usages, which both predate and postdate Bunin, suggests that it is an accepted collocation, though prescriptivist purist in me says that it is wrong. There is «мгновение ока» and «мановение руки» (beckoning of the hand) and never the twine should meet, but they do.

    I guess I wouldn’t be surprised running into it online, but in Bunin!!

  8. I wonder if maybe he wrote мгновение and the typesetter at SZ printed it wrong and nobody ever noticed.

  9. David Marjanović says

    Speaking of consonant congestion

  10. I am (almost) sure someone have noticed. I mean, before Hat did. There are some slip ups in even very careful writers. There is a Chekov’s story entitled “First debut”.

  11. the typesetter at SZ printed it wrong and nobody ever noticed.

    Or the only one who noticed it and told Bunin about it was the young Nabokov (who tended to notice such things), and Bunin then kept it just out of spite.

  12. Heh. Could be!

Speak Your Mind