Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Flying into an abyss

Ivan Bunin, the first Russian writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, died 70 years ago today. Though admired for his short stories and poems, it was his diaries, written in the aftermath of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and published in the 1920s, that brought him fame among his compatriot emigrés in France as well as wider attention within European literary circles. It was not until the 1990s that parts of his diaries began appearing in English versions.

Bunin was born in 1870 into an old, noble family with a literary heritage, in the province of Voronezh, Central Russia. Having been tutored at home, he was sent to a public school in Yelets in 1881, but left in 1886 due to financial difficulties caused by his father’s gambling. The following year, he published his first poem in a literary magazine. He followed his brother to Kharkov, where he worked for a local paper, and then moved further south to Oryol where he became editor of a local newspaper, enabling him to publish his own stories, poems and reviews.

His first book - Poems 1887-1991 - appeared in 1891, and thereafter he managed to place some of his writing in St Petersburg magazines. In 1892, he moved, with his lover Varvara Paschenko, to Poltava settling in the home of his brother, Yuly. From there he travelled all over Ukraine, and, in 1895, visited St Petersburg for the first time. Thereafter, dividing his time between Moscow and the Russian capital, he made friends with Chekhov and Gorky, and was much inspired by Tolstoy.

Bunin married Anna Tsakni in 1898, but left her two years later. By the end of 1906, he had fallen in love with Vera Muromtseva, and the two then lived together, travelled in the Middle East, and married in 1922. Bunin, meanwhile, was making his literary name with short story collections, such as Bird’s Shadow, as well as translations - one of Longfellow’s Hiawatha earned him a Pushkin Prize from the Russian Academy. Another Prize, and membership of the Academy followed in 1909. He also translated D. H. Lawrence, Byron and Leonard Woolf.

In 1910 Bunin published his first short novel, The Village, which gave a bleak portrayal of Russian country life, caused controversy, and brought him fame. Its harsh realism, Wikipedia’s bio notes, prompted Maxim Gorky to call him ‘the best Russian writer of the day’. After winters in 1912-1914 with Gorky on the Italian resort island of Capri, he wrote what has become his most famous short story, The Gentleman from San Francisco. Bunin did not greet the 1917 October Revolution with enthusiasm. He left Moscow first for Odessa, and then, in 1920, to settle in France, where he had another grand affair, with the poetess Galina Kuznetsova, 30 years his junior, though they were both married.

In France, Bunin was hailed as one of the most important living Russian writers, and soon became the figurehead for a generation of expatriates. In 1933, he was the first Russian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, ‘for following through and developing with chastity and artfulness the traditions of Russian classic prose’. Russipedia says, though, that ‘everyone knew the real reason behind his winning the prize was the publishing of The Accursed Days, which voiced his aristocratic aversion to the harsh realties of the Soviet state’. In 1934-1936, Petropolis published, to Bunin’s approval, his complete works in 11 volumes.

Although friends arranged for the Bunins to move to the US during the Second World War, they chose to stay in their isolated house in Grasse, often with other long-term residents, and sometimes sheltering fugitives from the Nazi regime, which Bunin hated. The Bunins returned to Paris in 1945, and from around 1948 Bunin focused his creative time on writing memoirs and a book about Chekhov which he never finished; but he was often disillusioned and bitter. He died on 8 November 1953. Further biographical information is available from Russiapedia or Wikipedia.

Bunin kept a diary for most of his life. Parts of it - 1918-1920 - first appeared in print in the mid-1920s when Bunin published them in a Paris-based Vozrozhdenye newspaper under the title The Accursed Days (later put in book form by Petropolis). It was not until 1998 that this was translated by Thomas Gaiton Marullo and published in English, by Rowman & Littlefield, as Cursed Days: Diary of a Revolution. Much of it can be freely read online at Googlebooks.

Substantial extracts from Bunin’s diaries have also appeared in translation by Marullo (published by Ivan R. Dee, an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield) in three biographical volumes all subtitled A Portrait from Letters, Diaries, and Fiction: Russian Requiem, 1885-1920 (1993); From the Other Shore, 1920-1933 (1995); The Twilight of Emigre Russia, 1934-1953 (2002). 

Of the first volume, Rowman & Littlefield says: ‘Mr. Marullo gives us a compelling picture of a writer searching for himself amidst a society experiencing momentous change. Bunin alternated between periods of despair and joy throughout most of his life. He stood for traditional Russian values in a time of complete upheaval - in the “dark night” between the twilight of imperial Russia and the dawn of the new Soviet state - and he despised the revolutionaries who sought to overturn the ways he cherished. His life and art come alive in this immensely successful book.’

Of the second volume, it says: ‘Mr. Marullo gives us a vivid picture of a man suddenly and agonizingly without a country. Bunin’s life and art, which depended so heavily on traditional Russian values, seemed to be overthrown in a moment, and the writer found himself marooned amidst Western culture, clinging to his old ideals. Through his writings we are also provided a window on the lively but despairing and often fractious community of Russian emigrĂ©s in Paris in the twenties, which included Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff Chafiapin, Prokofiev, Chagall, Kandinsky, Pavlova, Diaghilev, and Zamyatin.’

Here are several extracts from Bunin’s diary as translated by Marullo for Cursed Days.

18 February 1918
‘Beginning February 1st we have been ordered to observe new style. So according to the Soviets, it is now February 18th.

Yesterday there was a meeting “Wednesday [a literary group]. Many of the “young people” were there. Mayakovsky behaved rather decently most of the time, though he kept acting like a lout, strutting about and shooting off his mouth. He was wearing a shirt without a tie. The collar of his jacket was raised up for some reason, just like those poorly shaven people who live in wretched hotel rooms and use public latrines in the mornings.’

19 February 1918
‘The newspapers report that the Germans have begun their attack. Everyone says: “Oh, if it were only so!”

We took a walk to Lubyanka. There were “meetings” everywhere. A red-haired fellow talked on and on about the injustices of the old regime. He was wearing a coat with a round, dark-brown collar. His face was freshly powdered and shaven; he had red curly eyebrows and gold fillings in his mouth. A snub-nosed gentleman with bulging eyes kept objecting hotly to what the red-haired fellow was saying. Women were fervidly adding their two cents’ worth, but always at the wrong time. They kept breaking into the argument (one that was based on “principle,” so the red-haired fellow said) with details and hurried stories from their own lives, by which they felt compelled to prove God-knows-what. Several soldiers were also there. They acted as though they understood nothing; but, as always, they had their doubts about something (or more accurately, everything) and kept shaking their heads suspiciously. [. . .]

A lady complained hurriedly that now she didn’t have a piece of bread to her name, even though once she had had a school. She had had to let all her students go because she had nothing to feed them. “Whose life has gotten better with the Bolsheviks?” she asked. “Everyone’s worse off and we, the people, most of all!”

A heavily made-up little bitch interrupted her, breaking in with naive remarks. She started to say that the Germans were about to arrive and that everyone would pay through the nose for what they had done.

“Before the Germans get here, we’ll kill you all,” a worker said coldly and took off. The soldiers nodded in agreement: “If that isn’t true!” they said, and they also left.’

21 February 1918
‘Andrei (my brother Yuly’s servant) is acting more and more insane. It is even horrifying to watch. He has served my brother for almost twenty years, and he has always been simple, kind, reasonable, polite, and devoted to us. Now he’s gone completely crazy. He still does his job carefully, but it is apparent that he’s forcing himself to do so. He cannot look at us and shies away from our conversations. His whole body inwardly shakes from anger; and when he can keep silent no longer, he lets loose with wild nonsense.

For instance, this morning, when we were visiting Yuly, N. N. said, as always, that everything has perished and that Russia was flying into an abyss. Andrei was setting the table for tea. He suddenly began waving his arms, his face aflame: “Yes, yes, Russia’s flying into an abyss, all right! But who’s to blame, who? The bourgeois, that’s who! Just you wait, you’ll see how they’ll be cut to pieces!” ’

5 March 1918
‘I went to Nikolaevsky Station. It was very sunny out, almost too much so, with a light frost. From the hill behind Myasnitsky Gates - I saw a blue-grey haze, clusters of homes, and the golden cupolas of churches. Ah, Moscow! Snow was melting on the square in front of the station. The entire place shone like gold, mirrorlike. I was taken by the massive, powerful sight of carts with boxes on them. Can it really be that all this power, this wealth is coming to an end? There were a great many peasants, soldiers in many kinds of old overcoats, wearing them any old way, and with various types of weapons - one had a saber at his side, another had a rifle, another had a huge revolver in his belt . . . These are now the masters of everything, the heirs of colossal heritage . . .’

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