Monday, March 19, 2018

The Gentleman from San Francisco and Other Stories by Ivan Bunin

Four brief tales of melancholy and mortality
In 1933 Ivan Alekseyevich Bunin became the first Russian writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. An objector to the Bolshevik revolution, he left Russia in 1920, before it became the Soviet Union. Bunin lived the rest of his life in France, though he continued to write in the Russian language. The Gentleman from San Francisco is a collection of four of his short stories. The title selection was originally written and published in Russia in 1915. It is unclear whether these four stories ever appeared together in a Russian volume, but in 1922 they were published in English by Hogarth Press, the publishing house run by British authors Leonard and Virginia Woolf. The stories were translated by English author D. H. Lawrence and Russian-born Samuel S. Koteliansky.

The stories take place in a variety of settings. In “The Gentleman from San Francisco,” a wealthy American businessman takes a sea voyage to Italy to see the wonders of the Old World. “Gentle Breathing” opens in a Russian cemetery, where we are first shown the headstone of a dead teenage girl and then told the tragic story of how she came to lie buried there. In “Kasimir Stanislavovitch,” the title character is called from Kiev to Moscow for reasons unbeknownst to the reader. A poor man in the big city, he is out of his element and forced to stay in a shoddy hotel. Not until the very end of the story is the purpose of his trip revealed. In the book’s final story and best entry, “Son,” a French married couple live for 14 years in Constantine, Algeria. When a friend of theirs passes away, her son begins to make frequent visits to the couple’s home. This young man falls in love with the middle-aged wife, but she only cares for him as the son she never had. Often Bunin leaves important details left unrevealed until the very conclusion, so the less said about these stories’ plots the better. One tactic he uses to build suspense is to switch the narrative perspective to one of the characters, who relates his or her story almost as if presenting evidence at an inquiry regarding a crime or an accident, the nature of which is kept from the reader until the story’s conclusion.

Stylistically, Bunin shunned modernism and chose to carry the torch of a more classic Russian realist style influenced by Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov. Though Bunin didn’t move to France until after he wrote these stories, one can nevertheless also detect the influence of French literature on his writing. Perhaps solely due to the mutual respect and cultural exchange between the French and Russian literary traditions, one can detect a hint of the naturalism of Emile Zola, particularly in the bluntness with which Bunin depicts death and contemplates mortality. While Bunin’s prose (or at least the English translation) is crafted with an exquisite elegance that calls to mind the era of romanticism, there is nothing conventional or prudish about his imagery or the subjects he depicts. If there is one naturalist or modernist theme that runs through these stories it is the cold indifference of the universe to any single human life. Though extraordinary events are depicted in the lives of ordinary people, the reader is often left with a feeling of existential insignificance. Life events like love and death are depicted more as indignities than glories or tragedies. Nevertheless, they are indignities that are universal to human experience, and in Bunin’s hands they become profoundly moving experiences. Though this book only runs 86 pages long, these stories deliver an emotional impact that far outweighs their brevity.

Stories in this collection
The Gentleman from San Francisco 
Gentle Breathing 
Kasimir Stanislavovitch 

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