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By Ivan Bunin
Translated by David Richards and Sophia Lund
New York: Penguin Books, 1987
ISBN # 0-14-018552-6
224 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
July 2013

Bob Corbett’s overview comment:

Bunin’s stories are dark, often tragic. He generally writes of life among the financially quite well off, but happiness has eluded them. They seek, but do not find. Yet he tells the stories so well. They are believable if unrelenting.

It was quite fascinating to read his tales. He does seem to see the world as a place where little good ever happens to one. I live in a world where I can’t imagine the joys and satisfaction with life that I have. Yet his writing was so gripping that he makes me really believe he is sincerely living in this dark world of gloom and doom which dominates his stories.

Intro: Ivan Bunin – 1870-1953

Title story written in 1915. After the 1917 Bolshevik success Bunin left Russia forever.

In 1920, at age 50, he began a new career in Europe. He was mainly ignored during his lifetime.

In 1933 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature

Most of his stories are based on his own life experience. “Bunin’s art is markedly egocentric.”

He was very aware of the “. . . impermance of all human existence.”

Bunin lived 33 years as an immigrant, and had no interest at all in politics.

The Gentleman From San Francisco. Pp. 17-37

A wealthy 58 year-old fellow from San Francisco is on a two year European trip with his wife and daughter. Not much happens for a bit then on the Isle of Capri a tragedy occurs. It seems not to be the events themselves, but the telling of the tale and its details that Bunin is aiming at. Well written.

The Primer of Love. Pp. 38-47

Khuoshchinsky went nearly crazy when his servant, Lushka, a sort of idealized servant, died some 20 years earlier. The story’s narrator, Ivlev, goes to his home supposedly to see about buying his library, but it is more from curiosity.

The only thing he buys is a tiny booklet the dead man had written in which he reads the short poem:

“’Live by fair legends,’ Say the wise men above, ‘And bequeath to your seniors This Primer of Love.’”

Chang’s Dreams Pp. 48 – 64

Old Chang tells the story. It is six years after he met the Captain, an old and drunken former ship’s captain. It is Odessa and winter. They no longer live at sea, but in a tiny run-down attic. The Captain once believed in 2 truths:

1. Life was unutterably beautiful.
2. Life was only to be contemplated by mariners.

Now he’s changed and believes in “Job’s truth” There is no pleasure in days.

The Captain has a family in Odessa, but never sees them. “Life is a dismal winter day in a filthy tavern . . .” is his fundamental reality. The Captain’s wife betrayed him.

The surprise of the story is that the narrator, Chang, is a dog.

Temir – Aksak – Khan Pp. 65-68

The story is set in the Crimean countryside. An old beggar sings a folksong in a tavern and the proprietor likes it. Hadji listens. It is the song of a famous khan.

“Pluck out my soul, o ye beggars and cripples. For even the desire for desire has forsaken it.”

The story and song reminded me of Ozmandius.

Long Ago. Pp. 69 – 75

This story is narrated by a student who frequented The North Pole, an inn in Moscow.

Ivan Ivanych frequents the inn and is said to be the humblest man on earth! He lived a quiet, private life. A prince came to The North Pole, close to Ivan’s residence. The prince developed an attraction to Ivan but it was not reciprocated and the prince was polite about it. However it is spring and time for a new and a genuine re-start of life.

When spring does come there is a restart of life for Ivan under the prince’s influence and that year he “did” spring, creating a new existence. But it all happened years earlier in the area of Arbat Square.

An Unknown Friend – A Correspondence Pp. 77 – 86.

This is a letter from a reader to an unnamed author. It is a tale of a woman in Ireland who had a French husband. They were married some 16 years and had three kids.

The story is a powerful and moving tale, a microcosm of human existence. The author never responds and we are left to wonder if the woman is really accepting of this.

At Sea, At Night Pp 87 – 94.

2 people are on deck chairs on a ship going from Moscow to the Crimea. They haven’t seen each other in 23 years, yet each EXPECTED the other in this seemingly unplanned meeting. One is a famous medical person, a writer. They are bound by “. . . an idiotic lack of feeling.” The doctor has had three years of suffering after his wife left with some other man. This is a very powerful story. The conversation is perhaps imagined between the deck passengers, but both “had” this same woman. Awesome tale.

Graffiti Pp. 95 – 100

There is an argument about graffiti on a wall. It’s not about the WHO who might have written it, but the WHAT. “Does it matter whose are the names or the initials – Goethe’s or Fritz’s . . .” What’s important here is that there was ‘. . . blood which suffused her cheeks,’ . . . somehow to preserve something, that is to oppose death, to oppose the fading of the wild-rose.”

It is the writing of human experiences and feelings that matter and what make this an appealing story.

Mitya’s Love Pp 101 – 159

It is the end of winter and Katya is in with a somewhat bohemian crowd. It is in Moscow and she is three months into a serious relationship with a fellow at her drama school. The two have not consummated their relationship but are intensely amorous. Mitya, the lover, goes away to visit relatives to figure out where he stands on this relationship. He gets very jealous thinking of her with others and tragedy follows. He wonders what he really felt for her after all:

“What did he feel for her? What was called love, or what was called passion?
Was it Katya’s soul, or her body that drove him almost to the point of fainting, to an agony of bliss, when he unbuttoned her blouse and kissed her breasts which were paradisiacally lovely and virginal and which she revealed with a kind of soul-shattering submissiveness and the shamelessness of the purest innocence?”

He arranges to go away to the home of relatives in the countryside and figure it all out.

This story of lost love and betrayal is very long. The essence of the plot would be some 6 – 10 pages. However, Bunin is able to reasonably well hold the suspense some extra 40 or so pages with the gripping writing of the introspective and hurting Mitya.

Sunstroke Pp 160 – 167

A one night stand with a nameless woman leaves a military officer forlorn and mentally asea.

Night Pp. 168 – 179

He is bound to seek knowledge and to act on it. Artists and poets have this burden. What is he to make of it?

“Is such a person a great martyr or one who has been greatly blessed?”

He believes:

“The crown of every human existence is to be remembered – the greatest promise engraved on any man’s tombstone is eternal memory.”

He further believes all humans crave this.

The story was interesting, but the sentiment isn’t one I find myself in agreement with. I see us humans as having a marvelous gift of life, but we live it, pass on, and overwhelmingly, we are simply forgotten within two generations at most. Of course there are the famous and historical folks in every period, but overwhelmingly it is not us in memory that matters, but the living of this precious life each of us has when we still have it.

The Caucasus. Pp. 180 -184

A simple story of an affair and its dark consequences.

Late Hour Pp. 185 – 191

The narrator has been away from Russia for 19 years. He is returning but only can experience moment of sadness, yet they were important in his earlier life. In this story set in the Russian steppes he reflects:

“In the town there was not a single light anywhere and no living soul. All was quiet and spacious, calm and sad – with sadness of a Russian town asleep in the steppes at night.”

The story tells of the narrator’s sad nostalgia of his love lost, rather than his lost love.

Visiting Cards Pp. 192 – 198

There is a woman on a steamer on the Volga. She’s in third class, but has met a famous author who is in first class. She’d met him the night before and he invites her to have a drink.

“. . . she had moved him by her poverty and artlessness.”

They have a quick and utterly meaningless affair, but they just move on never to meet again.

Zoyka and Valeria Pp. 199 -212

A student, Levitsky is hanging out with Danilevsk. Zoyka is 14, an “exceedingly plump” child of the house. The father of the house runs a mental clinic out of his home. Daria comes to the house to visit. She is a “Ukrainian beauty.” Levitsky is dumbstruck by her, but she falls for the young and handsome Dr. Totov (whom the mother of the house is also in love with). Finally Levitsky wins this beauty he so desires, but she doesn’t really want him. It all costs him his life in fleeing . . . maybe.

The Riverside Tavern Pp. 213 – 219

A young man is attracted to a woman he sees at a restaurant in Moscow. He follows her into a church where she prays and cries.

Soon she turns up at the restaurant and he took her away. They talk, she tells him nothing of her troubles and they simply part.

Again it is this penchant of Bunin to see human relationships as rather shallow and meaningless.

A Cold Autumn Pp. 220 – 224

Franz Ferdinand has just been killed in Sarajevo in 1914. Germany declares was on Russia a month later. The first story is told by a woman whose lover is killed in the war. 30 years later she marries and ends up in Constantinople. She went all over Eastern Europe but has no friends. Even her niece is indifferent to her.

Her life has been meaningless since her soldier-lover died in 1918. He had said:

“You live, be happy for a while in the world, and them come to me…”

Her reply, in her last days is:

“I have lived, I have been happy for a while, and now, quite soon, I’ll come.”

Bob Corbett


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