(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Ivan Bunin wrote poetry, novels, and literary essays, but it was in short fiction that he was most successful. His stories employ a wide range of themes, but he returned to three themes time and again: the life of landed gentry and peasantry, love, and death. There are many other themes and subthemes, but those mentioned above constitute the main features of Bunin’s profile as a writer.

In his early stories and novels, Bunin showed great interest in the fate of the landed gentry and peasantry and in their role in the society. His first novel, Derevnya (1910; The Village, 1923), depicts the anarchy, squalor, and drunkenness in Russian villages and the bleak prospects for the future. It is the gloomiest of Bunin’s works. He continued in the same vein in his novella Dry Valley. Even though he subtitled it A Poem, it is quite naturalistic in tone. With its meager plot, the story is more of a chronicle of decay, moral degradation, spiritual emptiness, and even physical degeneration of the gentry and the peasants, both driven by irrational forces and equally doomed. The story also represents the author’s vain attempt to recapture the glory of the old days, of the temps perdu of Russian rural life. In this sense, Dry Valley is a statement of Bunin’s social philosophy of sorts and a revelation of his thinking about the state of both the gentry and the peasantry. His artistic acumen, especially the verbal mastery, lifts the story above the level of social tract, however, exemplified by the symbolism of the peasants dredging ponds in the bed of a river that has dried out.

Dry Valley is not the only work about the decay of Russian rural life. Stories such as “Nochnoi razgovor” (“A Nocturnal Conversation”), “Ermil,” “Ignat,” and “Vesennii vecher” (“A Spring Evening”), show similar features. A series of “mood paintings,” “Antonovskie iabloki” (“Antonov’s Apples”), more than any other story, conjures the nostalgic atmosphere of Bunin’s world.

To be sure, not all the stories paint such bleak pictures of Russian life. Stories such as “Sverchok” (“Cricket”) and “Veselyi dvor” (“A Gay Farmhouse”) show that the peasants are capable of selfless love and that they possess spiritual values that might help them regenerate themselves. Still, the predominant effect in Bunin’s early stories is bleakness and despair.

To escape such an atmosphere, Bunin undertook between 1900 and 1917 several journeys to the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and the Far East, out of which came some of his best stories: “Brat’ia” (“Brethren”), “Sny Changa” (“The Dreams of Chang”), “Syn” (“The Son”), and “Gospodin iz San Frantsisko” (“The Gentleman from San Francisco”). The changed mood of these stories, buoyed by the abundant life and exotic settings, could not fully repress Bunin’s pessimistic outlook, but it sublimated it to artistic perfection. The stories with Asian settings manifest also his interest in the Buddhist tenet that suffering results from desire and that peace comes only when desire ceases.

For Bunin, love is one of the primary manifestations of human experience. He shows different types of love—love for the opposite sex, for one’s family, and for other human beings—and various reactions to love. There is one constant in all these relationships: Love is basically an unhappy, even tragic experience. In “Brethren,” for example, the father of the family, in his love and care for his dear ones, “was moved by earthly love, by that which, from the start of time, summons all creatures into being.” Yet, by doing so, he was also bound to multiply his earthly sorrows. His beloved son, upon finding out that the woman he loved had betrayed him and run away to the city where she was giving pleasure to other men, allows a poisonous snake to bite him to death. A sudden death of a beloved woman in “Grammatika liubvi” (“Grammar of Love”) forces her lover into total seclusion and degeneration because he is unable to cope with her death. In his virtual paralysis, all he hears and sees reminds him of...

(The entire section is 1711 words.)