OCTOBER 20, 2020
On October 22, 2020, Ivan Alekseevich Bunin, the first Russian writer to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature — and not the first of the country’s great writers to die far from home — will turn 150. Until the end of his life, in 1953, this author, who was no stranger to modernism, fashioned himself as the last patriarch of classical Russian literature. Neorealism and symbolism left thematic and stylistic fingerprints on the crystal surface of Bunin’s prose without changing his artistic orientation. Bunin managed to maintain a veneer of artistic decorum even though, from his earliest stories to his last, he had explored taboo love and nympholepsy — long before this term was invented and fictionally dramatized by another Russian expatriate.
Ivan Bunin was born on October 2, 1870, to an impoverished family of pre-Petrine gentry, in the city of Voronezh, located in Russia’s forest steppe region. He spent his childhood and youth in what was then the Oryol Province. Family ties connected Bunin to Vasily Zhukovsky and Anna Bunina, important Russian poets of the first half of the 19h century. Bunin attended a classical men’s high school in the town of Elets, famed for its affluent merchants, but never graduated. As a young man he fell under the powerful sway of Tolstoy’s teachings. In January 1887 Bunin debuted as a poet in the St. Petersburg weekly Rodina (Motherland), mourning the death of Semyon Nadson, whose plaintive and socially activist verses enjoyed phenomenal popularity in late 19th-century Russia.
Literary fame came to Bunin in the late 1900s and early 1910s. By the time of his emigration in 1920, towards the end of the Civil War, Bunin had become a living Russian classic. His pre-exile reputation rested largely on his gothic tales of rural life, such as “The Dry Valley” and “The Village,” and also on his stories and novellas of fatal desire, some of them anticipating his peerless novel-length cycle Dark Avenues, composed in France in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Destructive and death-bearing, love, in Bunin’s works, breaks down the barriers of the forbidden. Other of Bunin’s prerevolutionary tales feature foreign characters (notably “The Gentleman from San Francisco,” which depicts the death of an American captain of industry on Capri) or interweave motifs of Buddhist and Daoist metaphysics (like “Dreams of Chang,” with its alcoholic dog’s whelming knowledge of tiers of universal truth). Bunin’s ability to embrace strangeness and otherness had few parallels in Russian literature. In book five of his novel The Life of Arseniev. Youth, a masterpiece written in France in the 1920s and 1930s but set in Russia in the 1870s and 1880s, Bunin describes a visit to Vitebsk:
The evening was frosty; bright. Everywhere around it was very snowy, soundless, and clean, virginal; to me the town looked ancient and un-Russian: tall houses fused into one whole, with not very large windows and deep and rough-hewn semicircular gates in the lower stories. Now and then one came across old Jews dressed in long [black] coats and white stockings with boots, their peyes looking like tubular, winding ram’s horns; [their faces] bloodless, their eyes completely dark and sadly inquisitive. On the main street there was promenading; slowly moving along the sidewalks was a dense crown of plump young ladies, dressed with a provincial Jewish exuberance in velvet thick coats, purple, blue and pomegranate. Behind them, but modestly, keeping the distance, there walked young men, all of them in bowler hats but also with peyes; with maidenly tenderness and roundness in their Oriental-candy faces; with silky youthful down around their cheeks; with languid antelope gazes … Enchanted, I walked in this crowd, in this town that seemed so ancient to me in all its wondrous newness. (my translation)
Both Yehudah Pen and Marc Chagall, Vitebsk-inspired Jewish artists, would likely find something enchanting and familiar in this artful recollection by Bunin’s semi-autobiographical Russian protagonist. Here Bunin is writing of the Jews he had personally observed in his youth but also reimagined through the prism of his 1907 trip to the Holy Land. (In the second stanza of Bunin’s 1907 poem “Jerusalem,” a guide addresses a Russian traveler: “And the guide said to me: ‘Sir, I’m a Jew/ And perhaps I descend from the kings./ See these flowers in the walls of Zion: That’s all that’s left to us now.’”) Having earned his national reputation for fiction often set in the Russian countryside, Bunin was — and remains — both one of the most “Western” and one of the most “Eastern” of Russian writers.
In his best verse, he simultaneously echoed the most important poets of the mid-19th century and sang in his own, inimitable voice. Reviewing a volume of Bunin’s poetry in 1929, Vladimir Nabokov, fellow exile who was rapidly becoming Bunin’s rival in Russia Abroad, called Bunin’s work “the best that has been created by the Russian muse in several decades,” yet added: “music and thought in Bunin’s verses coalesce into one whole to such an extent that it is impossible to speak separately of theme and of rhythm.” Bunin’s poetry, and especially his Judean and Near Eastern poems, still awaits its interpreters and translators.
After leaving Moscow in June 1918, Bunin and his future second wife, Vera Muromtseva, lived for a year and a half in Odessa, where the author had spent time in the 1890s and met his first wife, Anna Tsakni, daughter of a Russianized Greek man and a Jewish woman. The marriage of Bunin and Tsakni disintegrated; their son Nikolay — Bunin’s only child — died in 1905. In January 1920 Bunin and Muromtseva left Russia for good, and in March 1920 they arrived in Paris, where they were married in 1922.
Ivan Bunin (French spelling “Ivan Bounine”) stayed in France for 33 years — in Paris (in the 16th arrondissement) and in Grasse in the Maritime Alps. In France he wrote and published his only novel, The Life of Arseniev; like his master, Chekhov, he did not naturally take to bloated or expansive narrative forms. In 1933 Bunin, an apatride who staunchly opposed both left- and right-wing totalitarianism and worshipped freedom, was awarded the Nobel Prize. In the political climate of the 1930s, this award meant much more than an acknowledgment of Bunin’s contribution to European letters.
Ivan Bunin survived the war and Nazi occupation, and avoided the postwar Bolshevizing enthusiasm of some of the Russian émigrés. He outlived Stalin by 248 days and died in Paris on November 8, 1953. In the year of Bunin’s sesquicentennial, a wave of official celebrations has been planned in the land of his first love and first literary fame. Ravens circle and tall grasses rage over the empty spot where Bunin’s parents had their last homestead.
- Ivan Bunin, 1936. Courtesy of Leeds Russian Archive.
- Site of Butyrki, the homestead of Bunin’s parents, formerly in the Oryol, now in the Lipetsk Province of Russia; Bunin lived here as a young boy in 1874-1881. Photo 2019 by Maxim D. Shrayer.
Maxim D. Shrayer, a professor at Boston College, is the author and editor of nearly 20 books. His book Bunin and Nabokov: A History of Rivalry, is a national bestseller in Russia. Shrayer’s most recent book is the collection of poems, Of Politics and Pandemics: Songs of a Russian Immigrant.