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Standout Soviet writer offers insight into Russia's faded glory

Imagine that in the name of protecting downtrodden blacks and immigrant workers, the Mafia took over America in a coup after McKinley was shot. Then finally after almost 100 years of mismanagement and murderous mayhem, they were found to be incompetent to run a government and thrown out.

You have a brief history of Russia, then, in the last century.

One man who saw this clearly from the start was Ivan Bunin, Russian poet and prose writer. He was born of an "an old and noble house that [had] given to Russia a good many illustrious persons in politics as well as in the arts," (Nobel Prize speech, 1933). His family had fallen on hard times due to the dissolute habits of his father.

He, therefore, knew firsthand the ways of the poor. He knew their greatness and their inability to govern which was not from any fault of their own, but from centuries of abuse. He knew clearly what a government based on raising them above all others would become, especially when they were just a front for the Russian mafia hoodlums. He wrote about the poor and their relationship with the higher classes as well as any Russian, and never in the patronizing way of his fellow noblemen/writers, Tolstoy and Turgenev.

It's taken an extraordinary amount of time for the rediscovery of Bunin. The reason for this caesura is that his career suffered three serious blows soon after he won the Nobel Prize. His work more or less disappeared for several generations in the Soviet Union where it became a crime to mention him. Shalamov, the author of "Kolyma Tales," got 10 years in Siberia for praising Bunin's work.

The second blow was that translations did an injustice to his ambitious, poetic tone. As the introduction points out, style is more important to Bunin than content.

Here, for the first time, Graham Hettlinger's English translations of Bunin's stories contain the power of the original. His voice is completely original and not some watered-down version of Chekhov or Turgenev that they once seemed to be.

Another Russian emigre in Paris, Nina Berberova, in her autobiography, "The Italics Are Mine," reports that Bunin told her "If I had wanted to, I could have written any of my stories in verse." Indeed his prose is filled with the paradigm shifts that distinguish great poetry:

* "You rouse yourself. Hide your hands inside your sleeves, run along the avenue toward the manor house. How cold it is! How heavy the dew! How good it is to live on Earth!"

* "One had to overcome a small spell to look away from her mouth."

* "Oh it was lovely. Puddles everywhere, the air already soft -- already filled with spring. There's something tender and sad that enters your soul. And you sense all the time that this is your homeland -- this is its ancient past."

Delicate insights like these are easily lost in translation.

The third blow to Bunin's career was living in France and never sharing the international success of fellow Russian emigres like Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff and Nabokov. If he'd moved to America away from the large Russian community in France that was under the spell of that Jekyll and Hyde literary figure, Maxim Gorky, all that might have changed. But like his literary hero, Nikolai Gogol, Bunin was not known for decisive behavior. He also had no talent for self-promotion which was a sine qua non for artists in the 20th century.

To understand Soviet literature you have to understand Gorky, which is not easy. As Lenin and Stalin's artistic spinmeister, he and his peasant looks were allowed to hop across the Iron Curtain with impunity. Sometimes he was the protector of Soviet writers, their only connection to the West (he liked to winter on Capri). Sometimes he was their mortal enemy. (Contemporary Russians dismiss Gorky out of hand for inventing the phrase "social realism." Stalin and his flunkies used this phrase to drive a stake through every Soviet artist's heart who didn't please them.)

Berberova reports that each new collection of Bunin's stories drove Gorky into fits of jealousy.

In her final assessment of Bunin, Berberova explains why Gorky couldn't compete with him. It also provides an insight into why Bunin disappeared from the European cultural radar for 80 years: "I am convinced that he was a totally earthly man, a wholesome human being capable of creating the beautiful in elementary ready-made forms which already existed near him, with an astounding sensitivity to the Russian language, limited imagination and with a complete absence of vulgarity. A sense of taste never betrayed him. If he had not been born 30 years late, he would have been one of the greats of our great past."

The stories in this collection cover the full range of Bunin's career, but they are not presented in chronological order. This strategy emphasizes the fact that they are all linked by a poetic vision of a lost glory, something like Blake's deep regret when the Industrial Revolution destroyed the artisan culture of England. But Bunin never blames anyone or talks politics. He just reports. The works are filled with what Wordsworth called "the faith that looks through death."

His greatest work comes later in life when his readers had abandoned him. In a short story called "Cleansing Monday" (1944) set in 1912 Moscow just before the Revolution took its final and nasty turn, he writes about an attractive couple, each of whom are still capable of doing the things young people do in a major city.

The woman is interested in Russian history, especially the history of the Russian church. She plays the piano but keeps repeating the beginning of the "Moonlight Sonata." The man is obsessed by her. She is Mother Russia cut off from her roots and her culture by events that are not mentioned in the story. He is the poet condemned to tell the story 30 years later when no one is listening. Russia's past is doomed by its present.

Bunin remained true to his description of himself that he gave in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. He wrote only of "the Russian without makeup: his character and his soul, his original complexity, his foundations at once luminous and obscure, but almost always essentially tragic."

Bunin finished his testament without once resorting to playing the political card and he certainly never wrote anything that could be called social realism -- whatever that was. For these and other artistic qualities, he stands out from the rest of Russian writers who suffered through the Soviet era.

William L. Morris was the co-creator of the News Poetry Page. He currently teaches and writes in Ohio.


>The Elagin Affair and Other Stories

By Ivan Bunin, translated by Graham Hettlinger

Ivan R. Dee, 254 pages, $25

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