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Russian writer Ivan Bunin equals Leo Tolstoy

Ivan Bunin cursed the Soviets with a vehemence that even other emigres found excessive. But in his short stories, he confronted history on a human level.

Over the past decade, Western interest in Ivan Bunin has undergone a curious revival. Even as aficionados of the writer bemoan the fact that Bunin is little known (and read) in Europe and the United States, publishers on both sides of the Atlantic have been translating his long and short works at an impressive rate. Since 2002 alone, at least three new editions of Bunin`s writing have appeared. Such interest on the part of their publishers is laudatory. After all, Bunin had a long and distinguished career as one of Russia`s best-known and best-loved writers. His almost 70-year contribution to Russian literature was the longest in the national written canon, surpassing even that of Leo Tolstoy.

Born near Oryol in 1870, Bunin hailed from aristocrats who traced their lineage to the rise of Moscow in the 15th century but who, like so many of their class, had fallen on hard times after the abolition of serfdom in 1861. In his early years, Bunin wrote poems, stories and novellas on the plight of "masters" and "men" in the Russian fin de siecle, winning acclaim as an elected member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and as a three-time recipient of the coveted Pushkin Prize. Sadly, though, Bunin was not fated to enjoy his country`s esteem for long. Leaving his homeland in 1920, he spent the last three decades of his life in the West, cursing the Soviet regime with a vehemence that even his fellow emigres found excessive, and, in his writing, exploring human problems rather than sociopolitical ones. Yet during this time, Bunin also gained international recognition for his art. In 1933, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature -- the first Russian writer and the first writer in exile to be accorded this honor.

The strengths of the latest Western edition of Bunin`s works, "The Elagin Affair," are twofold. The translator, Graham Hettlinger -- also the translator of "Sunstroke: Selected Stories," an earlier edition of Bunin`s short fiction -- has rescued from antiquated and clumsy English renditions such novellas as "Sukhodol," "Mitya`s Love" and "The Elagin Affair," as well as "Cleansing Monday," "Tanya" and "The Scent of Apples." Hettlinger has also continued to do what no other translator of Bunin`s prose has done to date: bend the often resistant and intractable structures of English to accommodate Bunin`s contradictory style -- at once simple and stark, lavish and complex -- in a way that evokes new delight and admiration for Bunin as an artist and Hettlinger as a translator.

One of the most interesting things about Hettlinger`s new edition of Bunin`s prose is that the contents appear in skewed chronological order. "Mitya`s Love" (1924) is followed by "Cleansing Monday" (1944), "The Elagin Affair" (1925), "Tanya" (1940), "Sukhodol" (1911) and "The Scent of Apples" (1900). Although somewhat disconcerting at first, the effect is ultimately successful in that it helps to explain Bunin`s popularity not only with everyday readers, but with notables such as D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Mann, Rainer Maria Rilke and Andre Gide, and in a contemporary vein, the Russian emigre writer Andrei Makine. By positioning stories from Bunin`s years in France before those from his life in Russia, Hettlinger readies his readers for the complex, decadent pictures and themes of Bunin`s pre-Revolutionary works with the simpler, more stripped-down images and ideals of his later writing.


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