Bunin’s Music.

In working through my massive Bunin collection Иван Бунин: Полное собрание рассказов в одном томе (over 1,100 pages, and it doesn’t include the longer works!), and once again I’ve come to a story that wouldn’t let go of me, that was so mysteriously powerful I had to translate it. It’s very short, one of a series of tiny stories he wrote in 1924 (back in 2009 I posted another one, Book), but I sweated as much over it as if it had been ten times as long. Bunin is so precise, so simple, and so carefully weighed (you get the feeling he read every sentence out loud many times until he was satisfied with it) that it’s a nightmare trying to even approximate the effect in English. You can read the Russian here.


I took hold of the door handle, pulled it toward myself – and at once an orchestra began playing. Outside the open window, moonlit fields went backward – the house had become a moving train. I pulled now tightly, now slackly – and conforming to my desire with unusual ease, now quieter, now louder, now solemnly spreading out, now charmingly dying down, sounded music before which the music of all the Beethovens in the world was nothing. I already understood that it was a dream, I was already frightened by its extraordinary resemblance to life, and I made a desperate effort to wake up and, waking up, threw my legs off the bed and lit the fire, but I realized at once that it was all a diabolical dream game again, that I was lying down, that I was in the dark, and that it was necessary at all costs to free myself from this hallucination, in which without any doubt some otherworldly force made itself felt, alien and yet at the same time my own, a force powerful in an inhuman way, because the human imagination of ordinary, everyday life, be it the imagination of all Tolstoys and Shakespeares together, can still only imagine, fantasize, that is, think, not make. But I had made, truly made, something completely incomprehensible: I had made music, a moving train, a room in which I apparently woke up and apparently lit a fire, I created them as easily, as wondrously, and with as much corporeality as only God can create, and saw my creations no less clearly and tangibly than I see now, in real life, in the light of day, this very table on which I am writing, this very inkpot into which I have just dipped my pen…

What is this? Who is the creator? Is it I, writing these lines at this moment, thinking and conscious of myself? Or is it someone existing in me apart from me, a secret even to myself, and incomparably more powerful than me, self-aware in this ordinary life? And what is corporeal and what is incorporeal?

As you can see, it’s something of a precursor of the 1929 “Penguins,” which is also about dreaming while dreaming; the later story is longer and very different in mood, and I’m glad to have both of them.

Incidentally, I noticed in my “Loopy Ears” post that he used the word непостижимый ‘incomprehensible’ in that story as well, so I did some research and discovered he was inordinately fond of it:

Холодная осень (1944)
И многое, многое пережито было за эти годы, кажущиеся такими долгими, когда внимательно думаешь о них, перебираешь в памяти все то волшебное, непонятное, непостижимое ни умом, ни сердцем, что называется прошлым.

Освобождение Толстого (1937)
А от несуществования до зародыша отделяет уже не пучина, а непостижимость.
Но вот этот человек … на пороге старости вдруг садится за изучение древнегреческого, потом древнееврейского языка, изучает и тот и другой с быстротой непостижимой
…у всех «какая-то общая забота, смягченность сердца и сознание чего-то великого, непостижимого, совершающегося в эту минуту…
И чувство ожидания и смягчения сердечного перед непостижимым не падало, а возвышалось.

Дневники (1931-1939)
Так вот и умру когда-н. ― заснув, ― делаю над собой нечто непостижимое.

Жизнь Арсеньева. Юность (1927-1933)
Бог ― в небе, в непостижимой высоте и силе…
… под этим венчиком в непостижимую противоположность тому живому, весеннему, теплому, чем так сладко и просто веяло в решётчатые окна церкви!
… той самой жизни, непостижимый и ужасный конец которой я только что видел воочию.
… всего того непостижимого, что называется жизнью, любовью, разлуками, потерями, воспоминаниями, надеждами…
Это спрашивает жена Богданова, того самого статистика, который так непостижимо для меня умеет винтом заплетать нога за ногу.
Это непостижимо странно ― встретиться всего два раза в жизни и оба раза в сообществе смерти. Да и всё непостижимо.

Окаянные дни (1925)
А дальше высится нечто непостижимое по своей гнусности, загадочности и сложности…

Книга (1924)
Только тем, что живет на свете, то есть совершает нечто самое непостижимое в мире.

Неизвестный друг (1923)
Въ силу чего? Непостижимо, но именно так.

Петлистые уши (1913)
Он безлюден, мертв, мгла, туманящая его, кажется частью той самой арктической мглы, что идет оттуда, где конец мира, где скрывается нечто непостижимое человеческим разумом и называется Полюсом.

Смерть пророка (1911)
Бога никто не может видеть. Он непостижим.

I wonder if anyone’s ever done a study of writers’ favorite words?


  1. Michael Hendry says

    Maybe you could use a study of writers’ favorite words, but it might not be a good idea to show the writers. See this cautionary tale from a 38-year-old novel, via a 19-year-old blog post: http://www.drweevil.org/archives/000704.html. After all these years, I imagine Cosh’s wish has been fulfilled, though maybe not for him.

  2. What a wonderful passage! I haven’t read the novel in decades, but I smiled as soon as I recognized it. Lodge is brilliant at humiliation (and of course invented “Humiliation“).

  3. It’s interesting that a writer found dream-inspired music more real than imaginative literature.

  4. Yes, but I don’t think he’s saying that it is more real, he’s just emphasizing the amazing verisimilitude of what we experience (seem to experience) in our dreams. I sometimes have trouble convincing myself, as I’m waking up, that I was “just” dreaming — that none of it really happened.

  5. Superb translation, LH!

  6. Thanks very much, BD!

  7. Stu Clayton says

    The Swiss Dörlemann Verlag publishes a Bunin Werkausgabe, so far in 11 volumes. I don’t know if more are coming. That makes 11×26 Euros for the lot.

  8. Good for them! I wish some English-language publisher would get the idea.

  9. Stu Clayton says

    Can that лабиринт price of 649 rubles be right for the collected short stories in Russian ? That’s only about 10 euros.

  10. A story like Cosh’s is unrealistic, and the Bunin analysis you wish to perform is unlikely to find meaning, without at the very least considering PMI, which goes beyond what’s “more frequent” into what “more characterizes” a corpus. Even twenty years ago this was common practice.

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