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book review

Russian master's stories reclaimed

Ivan Bunin, the first Russian to win the Nobel Prize for literature, is known among English-speaking readers mainly for one short story, "The Gentleman From San Francisco." Years of critical neglect and the difficulties of translation have restricted interest in his work to scholars of Russian literature. Now Graham Hettlinger's vibrant translations in "Collected Stories of Ivan Bunin" promise to remedy that situation.

For readers new to Bunin (1870-1953), the most salient facts of his life are that he grew up part of the Russian rural gentry during the years of its decline; he began his career as a poet; and he lived in exile, fleeing Russia after the Revolution and settling in France. A 1917 diary entry captures the essence of his art: "How do I live? I keep remembering and remembering." Bunin is the chronicler of lost youth and happiness.

We typically encounter Bunin's characters at moments of intense emotion - nostalgia for home and childhood, yearning for an elusive lover. Mood and atmosphere prevail over action. Feelings and experiences are bound up with colors, smells, sounds, lights, and shadows. Changes of season and fluctuations in weather leave sharp impressions. Nature is never dull and inert, the air never merely fragrant - instead, the "scent of mushrooms, rotting leaves, wet bark rises from the gullies"; in the aroma of a flower, a young woman feels "a part of her soul, her childhood, her adolescence, her first love."

The past, near and distant, takes on a magical quality in these stories. The narrator of "The Scent of Apples" remembers the village where he grew up, finding beauty in the most ordinary objects and activities. In "Sunstroke," about the aftermath of a shipboard romance, a simple, fleeting gesture becomes mysterious and captivating: "She closed her eyes, pressed the back of her hand against her cheek, and laughed." In "Rusya," a married man, passing by train through a small village where he once lived, recalls the rapture he felt long ago when the girl he loved walked by wearing a yellow dress.

Bunin is as much skeptic and realist as romantic. Hopes and longings go unfulfilled; the tone shifts abruptly from ecstatic to desolate. Concreteness in language - the sensuous detail lovingly recalled and rendered - compensates for the passage of time, missed connections, the quirks of fate.

"The Gentleman From San Francisco" stands apart for its cool, sardonic narration. Every word and phrase express the protagonist's complacency and apathy, the sterility of his world. A hard-working, middle-aged businessman travels by ship with his family to Naples and Capri. Over the course of the story, the most mundane aspects of tourism take on a sinister tinge; a sense of horror builds to a quietly devastating conclusion.

One of the collection's most tender stories, "In Paris," seems at first uncharacteristic. It has the feeling of film noir. Gone are the radiant images of nature. The protagonist, an emigre, prefers to forget the past, to endure rather than live. One evening, he befriends a waitress, a fellow Russian. Against a backdrop of shabby hotels, smoky theaters, and dimly lit cafes on rainy nights, a gentle romance kindles. The story is unmistakably Bunin's: Even as it ends sadly, we remember the sense of place and the ardent emotion stirring just beneath the resignation.

Collected Stories of Ivan Bunin
Translated, from the Russian
by Graham Hettlinger
Ivan R. Dee, 384 pp., paperback, $19.95

Judith Maas is a freelance writer/editor.

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