An Unsparing Portrait of Bunin in Exile
That relation would change in the course of Bunin's lifetime. By the 1930s, the Soviet government had nearly succeeded in isolating emigre literature and relegating it to the margins. In no small measure, ideology motivated Soviet officials, and that ideology rested on class: They sought to silence the gentry. But Bunin, born in 1870, represented a unique challenge. Once the Soviets renounced Modernism in favor of realism, Bunin became important to them not only because of his friendships with such classic writers as Anton Chekhov, but also because he emerged as the pre-eminent practitioner of realism. Works such as "Dry Valley" and "The Village" hearken back to the Golden Age and to writers like Tolstoy and Saltykov-Shchedrin, in particular. Though attracted to Bunin because of his kinship to the classics, the Soviets were repulsed by his class origins: Bunin's work grew out of the culture of the landowning gentry.
Bunin ran counter to Soviet norms. It is his resistance to Bolshevism and opposition to ideologically driven art that has made him such an attractive figure since the demise of the Soviet Union. The reappropriation of his work into the mainstream in the last 10 years has been as much a phenomenon of politics and culture as of literature. Although Bunin has not flown as high as that other star of the emigration, Vladimir Nabokov, he has fared well. Not all emigre writers have been so fortunate in their posthumous fates. Vladislav Khodasevich, for example, still has not attained the readership his work merits. Such considerations take nothing away from Bunin's achievement, but do serve to temper it. A balanced approach to Bunin has become possible.
In his third volume about the writer, "Ivan Bunin: The Twilight of Emigre Russia, 1934-1953," Thomas Gaiton Marullo makes available a great deal of material that should contribute to a reassessment of Bunin, and Marullo deserves enormous credit for his effort. He has successfully adapted into English a genre more commonly encountered in Russian: the chronology of a writer's life and times. It is rendered in primary sources, such as diaries, letters, memoirs and official documents.
Marullo's ambition is broad in its scope, but he can deliver only in part on the promise of his subtitle: This book is less a study of the "twilight of emigre Russia" than of the twilight of Russia's gentry culture in exile. The reader in search of the sound of the so-called Paris Note, that distinctive tone that Georgy Adamovich identified in the literature of emigre Russians in Paris, will be frustrated. Major players in emigre Paris literature, such as Adamovich and Georgy Ivanov, and their arch rival, Vladislav Khodasevich, play tangential roles in this work. Instead, this, the third volume in Marullo's "chronological portrait" of Bunin, follows the writer and his more immediate milieu through the writer's last 20 years.
This volume tells the tale of Bunin's life and career after the Nobel Prize. We find him struggling with his newly won notoriety, squandering his prize money and struggling against political pressures from both the emigre community and the Soviet Union that threaten to curtail his artistic freedom. To no small extent, this becomes the story of Bunin's remarkable integrity in the face of abject poverty. Although many times tempted by Soviet officials' promises of wealth and adulation in the Soviet Union, Bunin resisted, insisting on artistic freedom at a ravaging price -- financial and psychological -- that was exacted not only from him, but from his wife as well.
Given the human cost of this battle, it is easy to understand why Marullo's commentary sometimes borders on hagiography. His repeated reference to Bunin as a "man-god" is a bit of hyperbole that recurs a bit too often. The term invites comparison with philosopher Vladimir Solovyov's notion of "Godmanhood," which Bunin himself would have objected to strenuously. Likewise, Marullo's characterization of Bunin's second and common-law wife as a Solovyovian Sophia, the living manifestation of divine wisdom, seems more appropriate to a study of Symbolists like Alexander Blok and Andrei Bely, who were both influenced by Solovyov, than to a book on Bunin, who was not.
Such an attitude blinds Marullo to the faults and failings of Vera Muromtseva-Bunina. For example, how would Bunin, that inveterate and implacable enemy of Bolshevism, have reacted to the news that after his death, his widow sold his archive to the Soviets? One can only marvel that the lid on his tomb remained intact. Like Marullo, the reader will have great sympathy for Muromtseva-Bunina, whose suffering was monumental, but this sympathy should be leavened with a healthy dose of skepticism. Marullo's tendency toward hagiography also distorts Bunin's relations with other women. For example, the departure of Bunin's longtime mistress Galina Kuznetsova is relegated to a footnote. The reader is likely to experience this as a lost opportunity since Bunin, at roughly the same time, is consumed by the composition of his last important work, the stories that make up the collection "Dark Avenues." Here, as everywhere in Bunin's oeuvre, the twin obsessions of eros and thanatos possess his work. Death and sex, for Bunin, are intimately bound: Lovers fall in love, only to lose one another in death.
Despite such shortcomings, the rewards of this volume are great, and Marullo shines in his selection of material. As opposed to Marullo's own commentary, the portrait that emerges in quotations from diaries, memoirs and letters is detailed and unsparing. As much as his strengths, Bunin's weaknesses become apparent, in particular his profound insecurity as a poet. Bunin seethes with petty envy toward greater poets like Blok, whose talent outstripped his own. Many of the most moving passages, in fact, center on Bunin's struggle with self-doubt and with mortality, a question that torments him until the very end. What begins as dry chronology is gradually transformed into a very human document.
Timothy C. Westphalen is associate professor of European Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and the author of "Lyric Incarnate: The Dramas of Aleksandr Blok." His translation of Blok's trilogy of lyric dramas is due out in January.
"Ivan Bunin: The Twilight of emigre Russia, 1934-1953: A Portrait of the Nobel Prize-winning Writer and of Russians in Exile, Drawn from Letters, Diaries, and Memoirs." Edited with an introduction and notes by Thomas Gaiton Marullo. Ivan R. Dee. 436 pages. $35.