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Book review

Reading: A volume of Ivan Bunin’s short stories

A book of short stories by Russia’s first Nobel Laureate.

Mostly *Bleak House*.  Will review that when I finish.  Meanwhile, a review of some of Ivan Bunin’s short stories.  This collection is called *In A Far Distant Land*. 

I’ve read and admired several Russian writers.  The usual suspects.  Tolstoy, Gogol, Turgenev, Chekhov; and my favourite, Dostoevsky.  This is my first encounter with Bunin (1870-1953).  The translation is by Robert Bowie (1983).  Bunin’s language is rich and thick, like honey.  Through this honey you glimpse a world as exotic – to a western or westernised reader – as Tolstoy’s.  In Tolstoy and his contemporaries, you get the sense that it’s the socioeconomic differences between Russia and Europe that produce a psychology, and therefore a literature, so distinct from other European canons.  In Bunin, Russia of the late 19th and early 20th centuries looks no longer so starkly different.  (These stories don’t mention the USSR.  They’re mostly from the 1920s and 1930s, and were perhaps written about pre-Revolutionary Russia.  They don’t mention the Czars, either.)  So, you’re forced to look elsewhere for the source of these stories’ strangeness. 

Not all the stories are exotic.  Several could be set anywhere.  “First Love” is a one-page story about a teenage boy who’s just falling in love.  He doesn’t yet know it.  It’s summer, and after days of rain there’s a break in the clouds.  He’s high-spirited.  The object of his affections sees what’s going on, and preens herself on her conquest.  This story, dripping with freshness, could be set anywhere anytime.

So could “An Unknown Friend.”  This story is a series of letters written over one month.  All are from a woman to a stranger.  She’s a Russian living in Ireland, where her husband works; he’s a famous Russian writer living in Russia.  Ostensibly, our letter-writer has a full and active life; in fact, she’s lonely.  In the writer’s words she identifies (she fancies) a kindred spirit.  She writes to him, she doesn’t know why.  She tries to work out why.  She wants him to reply; then she wants him not to reply.  A one-sided love affair?  Not quite.  An obsession, certainly: after an indirect encounter, a lonely soul reaching out into the void.  This story, too, could be set anywhere.

These and other stories, which are in essence timeless and placeless, I enjoyed.  But I enjoyed even more the stories that seem to me inalienably Russian.  Stories that I can’t imagine being set anywhere but in the magic-realist landscape of Dostoevsky and Gogol.

(Re: magic realism: Gabriel Garcia Marquez told interviewers that it’s only western readers who call his works magic-realist.  Readers back home in South America consider his fiction as journalistic as the news-reports with which Marquez began his career.  One of the reasons I love literature is as a window to cultures so different from my own, that it’s easy to attribute their strangeness to the writer’s decision to take liberties with reality.)

Two stories in *In a Far Distant Land* embody the alienness of Russia.  “The Grammar of Love” recounts the tragic love-story of a small landowner.  As a boy, he fell in love with his chambermaid.  She died soon after; he spent all his life in love with her memory.  He seldom left his estate; soon he became confined to a small room in his house, where presumably he worshipped at his beloved’s shrine.  Meanwhile he married and had a son, but let his estate fall into ruin and his house into disrepair.  Strange?  Yes.  But not bizarre.  It seems a blessing not to have to work for a living – until you realise how much more susceptible idle mind is to certain illnesses.  As illnesses go, spending a lifetime loving someone one knew only briefly, forsaking every other activity and relationship – is a Class One privileged illness.  Here’s what takes “Grammar” from the realm of the merely strange to the bizarre: The narrator, as a boy in a neighbouring village, heard the story of this landowner’s obsession, and himself became obsessed with the same chambermaid.  Sight unseen.  In the present, the narrator travels to visit the now-deceased landowner’s decrepit home.  What he finds punctures any hint of romance or glamour about the whole affair.

“Noosiform Ears” begins with the phrenology of evil, indulges a one-sided discourse on morality, and ends with proof of concept.  Symbolically-named Adam Sokolovich is a man on whose face evil is so plainly written that strangers stop and turn to stare, and shudder, and hurry away.  Two acquaintances treat Adam to dinner; he repays their generosity in the dud coin of a philosophical lecture.  He claims: to do evil without remorse is in the nature of all humans.  He claims that he himself is ‘dissipated.’  A Victorian concept, and Adam’s conception of how one becomes dissipated and what are the effects of dissipation – is idiosyncratic.  Is Adam a sociopath?  Perhaps.  But that’s an impoverished explanation of his behaviour; also one that conveniently alienates the plausible possibility that each of us contains the germ of evil.  This story demands an epistemology of evil, the beginnings of which Adam himself offers us.  A haunting story.

My favourite story in this collection is “Indulgent Participation.”  On the dichotomy of universal-vs.-only-in-Russia, this story occupies the ‘universal’ end.  Every November, an elderly music-teacher is invited to sing at an annual Christmas concert.  It’s one insignificant concert out of thousands; but to her, in her quiet life, this is the highlight of her year.  Receiving the delegates of the November invitation; the month of anxiety and preparation; selecting her ensemble, getting her hair done; and, on the evening of the concert, receiving her escort to the venue.  It’s The Day.  She’s dolled up.  Silks, velvets, jewellery, satin shoes.  Mouth-freshener, hair-perfume.  In royal state she sails out to meet the two young men who have come to escort her to the stage of her glory.  The house of cards of human vanity collapses when, as he kneels to put on her overshoes, one of the young men smells, from the armpits of her expensive dress, “the rankness of mice.”  He’s polite and straight-faced; she’s none the wiser.  But for the reader, the illusion of our unnamed protagonist’s glory is punctured.  When I first read the story, this phrase struck me like a slap.  It’s stayed with me.  Harmless-looking, an insidious phrase that creeps under your skin.  We make plans.  We dream of our own glory.  We smell in unexpected places.  We are ridiculous.

Bunin’s language is rich, his stories striking.  I highly recommend this writer, and will read more of him this year.

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