Tuesday 10 March 2009

Ivan Bunin and Vladimir Nabokov

While reading through some proofs of Bunin’s The Village, I was rather struck by his peculiar, exceptionally precise style, which reminds me of that of the more celebrated writer Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov – 30 years Bunin’s junior and one coveted Nobel Prize less – deeply admired Bunin’s work and sympathized with his rejection of ideological art and his careful recreation of the old, lost Russia to which the émigrés would never return, a “hypertrophied memory” much explored by both writers. Like Nabokov, Bunin’s eye for detail and the comic in The Village is marvellous – he describes a peasant as follows:
…the forehead concave, the face like a lopsided egg, the eyes fishlike, goggling, and the eyelids with the white lashes of a calf seemingly stretched out onto them: it was as if there had been a shortage of skin, and if the fellow closed his eyes, he would have to let his mouth gape, and if he shut his mouth, he would need to open his eyelids wide.
Nabokov respected Bunin tremendously as a poet – he sent the manuscript of his first novel, Mary, to Bunin with some trepidation and later referred to him as one of the best Russian poets since Tyutchev. Bunin in turn thought highly of Nabokov, and after reading The Defense wrote: “This kid has snatched a gun and done away with the whole older generation, myself included”. But the relationship between the two writers was beginning to sour by the mid 1930s, as Nabokov became aware of his own status as a significant writer. Bunin, despite his Nobel Prize, clearly felt some resentment towards Nabokov too – before the Second World War, he wrote: “I think that probably had I not existed, there would have been no Sirin [Nabokov’s nom de plume]”.

One of their last meetings was drily described by Nabokov in his autobiography, Speak, Memory. The two met for dinner, and “The first thing he said to me was to remark with satisfaction that his posture was better than mine, despite his being some thirty years older than me”. The meeting apparently ended with the two “utterly bored with each other”, and concluded nicely with Bunin’s last ironic comment to Nabokov (ironic because Nabokov managed to get nicely plump in Switzerland to a ripe old age, unlike his unfortunate companion), which was simply: “You will die in dreadful pain and complete isolation”.

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