Maksim D. Shraer ( Maxim Shrayer). Bunin i Nabokov: istorija sopernichestva [Bunin and Nabokov: The History of a Rivalry] (2-oe izdanie). Moskva: ANF, 2015. Index of names. 219 pp. Cloth. Available on Amazon and at www.biblio-globus.us.
“When Bunin and Nabokov are together, looking at each other, it’s like two movie cameras are running.”
…Mark Aldanov, cited on p. 95
[All translations from the Russian in this review are mine—URB]
Professor Shrayer has been working his way toward the publication of this fascinating book since his days in graduate school at Yale. His dissertation (1995) is titled, “The Poetics of Vladimir Nabokov’s Short Stories, with Reference to Anton Chekhov and Ivan Bunin.” For a complete listing of everything he has published on Bunin and Nabokov since then, see note 22 (185). It is certainly an impressive list. Now, having worked some twenty years on the two writers and their relationship—studying their literary works, reading their letters and diaries in archives (with the help of the redoubtable Richard Davies at the Leeds Russian Archive), consulting any and all commentary on their works and lives—Shrayer has ferretted out practically everything extant in regard to Bunin and Nabokov. The result is this compact book, laden with interesting facts and even highly entertaining.
The two authors tiptoed around each other for years, danced together and apart (mostly apart), sparred in personal meetings and on paper. Nabokov-Sirin used, or attempted to use Bunin at various times in furtherance of personal literary or life’s goals. Bunin had no need to use the younger writer in such ways, but he was acutely aware of Nabokov’s growing reputation in the thirties. As the story begins Bunin, thirty years older than Nabokov, is already the most famous Russian writer of the emigration, and young Nabokov is in awe of him. The cajolery and flattery begins with Nabokov’s father, the famous jurist, politician and publicist V.D. Nabokov (1869-1922). Bunin knew him personally; they had met on several occasions.
On Dec. 12, 1920, the elder Nabokov writes a long and obsequious letter to the old master, thanking him profusely for the enormous artistic delight that Bunin has delivered to him and to all readers of the journal “Rul’. After waxing eloquent on Bunin’s artistic glory, the politician Nabokov finally gets around to his real reason for writing: “If you have come across my son’s verses in ‘Rul’ (signed Cantab.), please let me know your opinion of them”(30). The elder Nabokov goes on buttering up the master (31-33), and then the young writer Nabokov himself, still a student at Cambridge, sends his own first letters, which, given the mature author’s pose of arrogant superciliousness, are shocking for their self-abnegating servility (33-35).
In the second of these letters Nabokov includes a poem dedicated to Bunin. In the first he thanks Bunin for writing about “my timid creative works” (o moem robkom tvorchestve), and concludes by practically asking Bunin to be a father figure to him: “Slovom, khochu ja vam skazat’, kak beskonechno uteshaet menja soznan’e, chto est’ k komu obratit’sja v eti dni velikoj sirosti (In a word, I’d like to tell you how infinitely I am consoled by knowing I have someone to turn to in these days of great bereavement”—34). Nabokov’s father was murdered on Mar. 28, 1922. The bereavement in this letter apparently alludes to the recent loss of the homeland, but there is also here a remarkable premonition. Almost as if Nabokov anticipated his father’s death and his personal bereavement (sirost’—“orphanhood”), which came a year after this letter was written.
A big issue right from the start is this: in the authors’ personal relations, in their letters to one another, in the inscriptions they wrote each other in the frontispieces of gifted books, how can you distinguish sincerity from insincerity? One fact shines through the posturing and the fakery: Nabokov was consistent over the course of a lifetime in his love for Bunin’s poetry. In a letter of May 11, 1929, he mentions that while still a child he had already memorized a lot of the verses, and a week later he “complains” that Bunin in a recent publication of his collected poems had changed some of his favorite lines. He informs Bunin that he has identified the butterfly in one of the poems (37-38).
In a reading at a gathering in Berlin, in Dec.,1933, the two writers finally met, after years of corresponding by mail (84). At this occasion Nabokov-Sirin made a speech about Bunin as a poet and declaimed some of his favorite Bunin verses. Much later, in requesting that Nabokov read in his honor at a festive occasion in New York (in 1951), Bunin may have recalled that reading in Berlin and anticipated Nabokov’s again declaiming his poetry (168). An interesting footnote: in 1945 Bunin declared that Nabokov’s poetry was better than his prose (43).
It cannot be overemphasized how much young Nabokov’s appreciation of his verse must have meant to Bunin, whose poetry was widely scorned as old-fashioned, and had been so scorned by the modernist writers he hated even before his emigration. One of my professors from graduate school, the poet Yurij Pavlovich Ivask, who knew Bunin personally in France, held his prose in high esteem, but spoke with mockery of his verse. Ivask’s attitude expressed that of the majority. In consistently praising Bunin’s poetry over his lifetime, Vladimir Nabokov was very much in the minority.
As for Bunin’s prose, Nabokov blew hot and cold over the course of his lifetime. In a letter to his wife, e.g. (July 16, 1926), he once expressed a high opinion of what was to become one of Bunin’s most well-known stories, “Sunstroke” (“Solnechnyj udar,”—“velikolepnyj rasskaz Bunina” (44), but not long after that, in the early thirties, he wrote a brutal parody of the story:“Khvat”—“A Dashing Fellow” in English translation. [My opinion, URB; Prof. Shrayer does not mention this story]. Later he included “The Gentleman from San Francisco,” to this day Bunin’s most well-known work in the West, in a list of recommended reading for his students at Harvard (173).
Given Nabokov’s love for Bunin’s poetry, Prof. Shrayer raises the question of to what extent the beloved verses influenced the tonality and style of Nabokov’s creative writing. A good question, but an even better question is to what extent Bunin’s prose style was instrumental in Nabokov’s development. Nabokov spent a lifetime denying that the prose had any influence on him, but time and again Shrayer cites comments of critics to the contrary. He writes (76) that “above all, Nabokov learned from Bunin the art of intonation and rhythm in prose.” I say amen to that. Gleb Struve also had it exactly right in what he wrote in 1936: “It’s hard to find any ancestors for Sirin in Russian literature. As a stylist he learned a thing or two from Bunin, but it’s hard to imagine any two writers more different in their spirit and essence” (93). Maja Kaganskaja is also perspicacious in remarking (134) that Nabokov took Bunin’s style and used it in the service of an anti-Bunin poetics.
In discussing the congruence of prose styles, Prof. Shrayer (76) compares a passage from “The Gentleman from San Francisco” with a passage from Nabokov’s “Pil’gram” (in translation “The Aurelian, 1930). You could do this with any number of prose works. Some of Nabokov-Sirin’s earliest stories so resemble Bunin that they could almost have been written by him. Take, e.g., “The Word,” published in 1923, and translated into English by Dmitri Nabokov long after his father’s death (The New Yorker, Dec. 26, 2005 and Jan. 2, 2006). Here we have the almost plotless story line so favored by Bunin in his early years, the long intricate sentences, the lush, over-lavish style, the Romantic extravagance:
“Wings, wings, wings [of angels]! How can I describe their convolutions and their tints? They were all-powerful and soft—tawny, purple, deep blue, velvety black, with fiery dust on the rounded tips of their bowed feathers. Like precipitous clouds they stood, imperiously poised above the angels’ luminous shoulders; now and then and angel, in a kind of marvelous transport, as if unable to restrain his bliss, suddenly, for a single instant, unfurled his winged beauty, and it was like a burst of sunlight, like the sparkling of millions of eyes” (New Yorker, p. 76).
“A kind of marvelous transport.” Yes, but a story overloaded with such passages may make for a bit too much transport. In reading this, one is reminded of the way Gorky and Chekhov cautioned Bunin to stop overloading his sentences and paragraphs, of how Yury Olesha found too much sparkling lavish imagery in “The Gentleman from San Francisco.” I wonder if “The Word,” almost fustian in its Romantic loftiness, would have even been published, had Nabokov still been alive in 2005. In his preface to the collected stories, Dmitri Nabokov gives half a page to “The Word,” mentioning its “ingenuous rapture,” but, of course, saying not one word about Bunin. See The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, N.Y., 1995, p.xvii. The story is notably absent in the “Bottom of the Barrel” list in the front matter (Nabokov’s listing of the last of the early Russian-language stories to be translated into English).
You may reply, “All right, Bunin’s influence was there early on, but Nabokov soon left behind such hyper-lyrical, exalted prose. He quickly transcended his dependence on the old man.” You’re right. He did of course go off in a completely different direction; his metaphysics and Bunin’s have nothing in common, and the modernist movement in literature is a more important influence on him in his mature years.
But take a percipient reader of Nabokov’s best stuff in English. A man who considers Nabokov the best American writer of his time. One who has never read Bunin. Send him “The Gentleman from San Francisco” to read. In 2006 I sent John Updike a copy of my Bunin translations (Night of Denial, Northwestern University Press, 2006). Here is a quotation from a post card he wrote me that year: (see above, top of this posting).
“I had never read a word by Bunin and read instantly the two stories you urged and then ‘The Gentleman from SF,’ in its full-throated style of translation. . . . . He is strikingly like Nabokov in his hyper-realism, in his insistence on wringing the last drop of descriptive elegance from his prose. . . .”
So there you have it. It is as if Bunin were a writer obviously influenced by Vladimir Nabokov, who was fifteen years old when “The Gentleman from San Francisco” was published. Throughout the whole of his life Nabokov never once acknowledged his stylistic debt to Bunin’s prose style. In his Russian-language memoir, Drugie berega, he dismisses Bunin’s “parchovaja proza, (brocaded prose)” and writes a parody of it (179-80, 175). This strikes me as one of Nabokov’s diversionary maneuvers, something like the way he implicitly denied his affair with Irina Guadanini in letters to his wife by expressly mentioning Guadanini and telling Vera (in English) “don’t you dare be jealous” (109—letter of Feb. 15, 1937). There was no love affair, but oh yes there was; there is no “brocaded prose” in Nabokov’s style, but oh yes, there is.
Nabokov’s almost total rejection of Bunin as a prose writer came late in his life, after his emigration to the U.S. It was certainly influenced by years of accumulated personal animosity between him and the old master. Prof. Shrayer takes Nabokov’s final verdict on Bunin (“a prose writer whom I rank below Turgenev”) as the title of his last chapter. He is especially good at detailing how the two came to despise each other over twenty years of émigré life in Europe. Of course, one could certainly have predicted the souring of the relationship, given the hyper-developed ego of most literary artists. Shrayer never says so, but what Bunin and Nabokov have most in common is their excessive pride and the almost megalomaniac nursing of the personal ego.
Of course, Nabokov is notorious for his judgments on some of his compatriots. His rankings of Russian writers for his students, as Prof. Shrayer acknowledges (169) cannot be taken seriously. His opinion of Gogol took radical dips and swoops at various points in his life, but he wrote a book about the great man that comes out, primarily, as a burlesque of Gogol and an exaltation of himself. As for Dostoevsky, despite Nabokov’s vehement condemnation of him, his constant attempts to toss him overboard, off the ship of Russian Literature (Bunin shared his opinion of Dostoevsky), the history of Russian Literature, when it makes its lists, will always rank Dostoevsky in the Top Five, above Nabokov.
As for Bunin’s prose works, few would argue that “The Gentleman from San Francisco” does not belong in the pantheon of great Russian literature. Or take Drydale (Sukhodol), the best novella Bunin wrote and one of the best any Russian has written. Then there is “Light Breathing,” generally acknowledged as Bunin’s best short story. Nabokov once mentioned that this was his favorite Bunin story. The list could go on.
You can follow the change in the relationship of Bunin and Nabokov by reading successive inscriptions written by Nabokov in the books he published and gifted to Bunin. The inscriptions are at first meek, ingratiating. The novel Mashen’ka: “Most deeply respected and dear Ivan Alekseevich, with joy and terror I send you my first book. I beg of you, do not judge me too harshly. With all my soul yours. V. Nabokov (44-45).” The collection of stories and poems, Vozvrashchenie Chorba: “To Ivan Bunin. To the great master from a sedulous disciple. V. Nabokov” (49).
By the early to mid-thirties Nabokov had, in his fame and renown in émigré circles, overtaken Bunin. He was widely considered the best writer of the emigration. Meanwhile, he came across Bunin frequently in émigré literary circles and did not much like him. By 1936, when he sent Bunin his novel Otchajanie (Despair) his inscription reads as if written by one who cannot think of a single genuine thing to say: “Dear Ivan Alekseevich, It was really, really nice seeing you in Paris [one too many “reallys” here, struggling to be sincere, failing]. But there remain thousands [read “zero”] of things that I have not expressed to you, and now all of that won’t fit into this inscription in a book. At any rate, I send you heartfelt [not really] greetings!” [exclamation point, striving to be genuinely exclamatory, failing] (107).
In 1938, sending Bunin Invitation to a Beheading, a novel that he surely knew would enrage the old man, Nabokov wrote a short and stereotyped inscription: “To Dear Ivan Alekseevich Bunin, with the sincerest [s samim luchshim—literally, “with the very best”] of greetings from the author” (121). For Bunin’s (enraged) reaction to the novel, see p. 88. In reading the later, most mature, of Nabokov-Sirin’s Russian-language works, Bunin’s rage knew no bounds. See, e.g., p. 136, where Bunin tells of re-reading “the bizarre and lewd Gift, swearing (rugajas’ materno) as I read,” and calls one of Nabokov’s best stories, “Spring in Fialta,” “nothing but banal vulgarity (odna poshlost’).”
It is no surprise that Bunin, a man whole favorite nephew once nicknamed “Sudorozhnyj” (The Convulsive One), would not sit idly by and watch his literary fame be overshadowed. But despite his aggravation with Nabokov-Sirin, which intensified as Nabokov’s star rose ever higher, Bunin could be remarkably generous in his praise of his younger colleague—although he delivered that praise through gritted teeth. Examples are rife throughout Shrayer’s book. Here are a few:
“He has discovered a whole new world, and for this we must be grateful to him” (56). “He’s a monster, but what a writer” (102). When they met later Nabokov asked Bunin, “What are you doing calling me a monster?” (111). Other of Bunin’s terms of endearment: he’s a “joker in a cheap sideshow” (shut balagannyj), he’s “a slapdash cabdriver outside a midnight dive” (likhach vozle nochnogo kabaka) (144),” he’s “a jackass buffoon” (shut gorokhovyj) (144), “a red-headed circus clown” (143). The thing about the circus clown here is in reference to the hated Aleksandr Blok, but Bunin sometimes saved time and energy by using the same invective for Blok and Nabokov (note, once again, the grudging admiration): “There you have probably the most adroit writer in all of the boundless realm of Russian literature, and he’s a red-headed circus clown. But, sinner that I am, I love talent, even in clowns” (this quotation is not in Shrayer’s book; it is cited in Aleksandr Bakhrakh, Bunin v khalate, 1979, p. 110).
At one point, before they had met, Bunin even applied one of his favorite theories on “degeneracy” to Nabokov: “’What does he look like?’ asked Jan [Bunin]. He doesn’t resemble his father, who was a nobleman (barin). With him you sense a definite degeneracy” (58—from the diary of Vera Bunina, Jan., 1931). On Bunin’s interest in degeneracy, see Ivan Bunin, Night of Denial (translation, critical afterword and notes by R. Bowie) Northwestern University Press, 2006, p. 579-80.
As is obvious by some of the quotes above, by the mid-thirties the antagonism between the two writers had become personal. In letters to his wife Nabokov emphasized how Bunin’s very appearance was repulsive. “Bunin is turning out to be nothing but an old vulgarian” (110). “He is “gruesome, pitiful, bags under his eyes, the neck of a tortoise, constantly tipsy” (111). Bunin in the mid to late thirties had become truly pitiful, after his lover and protégé Galina Kuznetsova left him. He never recovered from this loss (90-91). But are the pitiful ever pitied? Seldom. In English the words “pitiful” and “pathetic” have secondary, pejorative meanings.
Bunin did not include Nabokov among those he excoriated in his remarkably acerbic and bilious Reminiscences (1950), but Nabokov made mention of Bunin, both in his Russian memoirs, Drugie berega, and in his English-language Conclusive Evidence and Speak, Memory. In a letter to his wife Vera (sent Jan. 30, 1936), he describes a meeting with Bunin in a Paris restaurant (95-96), and he elaborates on that meeting (rather, he embellishes it) in the memoirs. Prof. Shrayer cites this passage in all its variants (95-100). Here is how it goes in Speak, Memory:
Another independent writer was Ivan Bunin. I had always preferred his little-known verse to his celebrated prose. . . . At the time I found him tremendously perturbed by the personal problem of aging. 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. He was basking in the Nobel prize he had just received [actually three years previous to the meeting here described—the basking was already over, URB] and invited me to some kind of expensive and fashionable eating place in Paris for a heart-to-heart talk. Unfortunately, I happen to have a morbid dislike for restaurants and cafes, especially Parisian ones—I detest crowds, harried waiters, Bohemians, vermouth concoctions, coffee, zakuski, floor shows and so forth. I like to eat and drink in a recumbent position (preferably on a couch) and in silence. Heart-to-heart talks, confessions in the Dostoevskian manner, are also not in my line. Bunin, a spry old gentleman, with a rich and unchaste vocabulary, was puzzled by my irresponsiveness to the hazel grouse of which I had had enough in my childhood and exasperated by my refusal to discuss eschatological matters. Toward the end of the meal we were utterly bored with each other. “You will die in dreadful pain and complete isolation,” remarked Bunin bitterly as we went toward the cloakroom. An attractive, frail-looking girl took the check for our heavy overcoats and presently fell with them in her embrace upon the low counter. I wanted to help Bunin into his raglan but he stopped me with a proud gesture of his open hand. Still struggling perfunctorily—he was now trying to help me—we emerged into the pallid bleakness of a Paris winter day. My companion was about to button his collar when a look of surprise and distress twisted his handsome features. Gingerly opening his overcoat, he began tugging at something under his armpit. I came to his assistance and together we finally dragged out of his sleeve my long woolen scarf which the girl had stuffed into the wrong coat. The thing came out inch by inch; it was like unwrapping a mummy and we kept slowly revolving around each other in the process, to the ribald amusement of three sidewalk whores. Then, when the operation was over, we walked on without a word to a street corner where we shook hands and separated (Speak, Memory, revised ed., 1966, p.285-86).
Can we ever really trust the reminiscences of a creative writer of fiction? A creative writer loves to make as much creatively as possible out of a remembered incident. One interested in comparing variants of the story related here, both in three different memoirs and a personal letter, may consult Prof. Shrayer’s book (95-100). Late in his life Bunin, exasperated by this tale, denied that it had ever happened, even denied that he had ever been in a restaurant with Nabokov (170-72).
Of course, even were the episode related with exactitude, Nabokov’s arch, condescending and supercilious tone here would have driven Bunin beside himself. But what really happened? Did Nabokov make up the whole thing? Not likely, since he wrote of it at the time to his wife (95-96), and he would have no reason to prevaricate in his letters to Vera, except when he was trying to conceal his affairs (see 109-111).
As described in the letter, the episode bears some resemblance to what later showed up in the memoirs, but telling details from the letter are missing. Nabokov writes how he was tired and cross that evening, how Bunin dragged him to the restaurant Chez Kornillof against his will. “I lost my temper (over going out to dine with him) as I have not lost it in a long time, but by the end and afterward, when we went out onto the street, there suddenly started flashing a few sparks of mutuality, and by the time we arrived at the Café Mjura [Le Murat]. . . . where stout Aldanov awaited us, things had become quite gay” (95). At the end of the letter (96) Nabokov tells how Bunin described his first marriage in Odessa, the death of his six-year-old son, and the inspiration for writing his long story “Mitya’s Love.” Nothing “eschatological” here, but Nabokov appears to have been interested.
Did Bunin really tell him he would die alone and in dreadful pain? It seems rather harsh, even for the “convulsive” Bunin. Wouldn’t Nabokov have mentioned such a remark to his wife in that letter? Maybe so, maybe no. The remark is repeated (cited exactly) in the memoirs (98-99), and in another letter to Vera, a year later (Apr. 2, 1937) Nabokov describes a gathering of writers, at which Bunin hissed at him, “You will die alone and in terrible agony” (Vy umrete odin i v strashnykh muchenijakh—110).
Most likely Bunin said this only once, and Nabokov took the phrase from the gathering in 1937 and stuck it into the restaurant conversation. The whole thing smacks of a kind of plagiarism from the hack critic Skabichesky, who once referred to Chekhov as “a mindless literary clown who will die in a ditch, forgotten by all” (cited in Simon Karlinsky article, in Welleck book, New Perspectives on Chekhov, p. 43).
What about the description of the recalcitrant scarf, which is also missing in the letter? This most likely was Nabokov’s invention. Prof. Shrayer suggests that this “allegory of the unwrapping of the mummy” and this dancing of the two writers around one another suggests Nabokov’s distancing himself not only from Bunin (who represented a living relic, the “last of the Mohicans”), but from the whole tradition of Russian culture. Nabokov’s Kafkaesque Invitation to a Beheading, a novel far removed from anything in classical Russian literature, was already running serialized in Sovremennye zapiski at the time, and The Gift was about to be published (100).
On Feb. 7, 1938 Bunin sent a postcard to Nabokov (113), ending it by saying, “I greet you and your spouse; in my thoughts I whip your heir” (“myslenno seku Vashego naslednika” [young Dmitri]. Prof. Shrayer takes this whipping joke as the title for his Chapter Three, making no comment upon it. The inference is obvious: Bunin knew who he’d really like to whip. Speaking of jokes, and “red-headed circus clowns,” the prankster Nabokov had played an April Fool’s joke on Bunin the previous year (Apr. 1, 1937). As he describes it in a letter to Vera (dated Apr. 12), Nabokov spread a rumor that while Bunin had been out carousing in the night his apartment was burgled. The news quickly spread, and that same day a reporter from the Russian newspaper Poslednie novosti showed up to interview the touchy ‘Convulsive One.’ “It seems he’s taken offense at me” (concludes Nabokov). . . . Then (tongue in cheek?), “I don’t understand what there is to be offended about” (110).
On Mar. 14, 1938, in Paris, Bunin attended the opening performance of Nabokov’s play Sobytie, only to find himself burlesqued in the character called Famous Writer (117). After the play was staged in New York (Apr., 1941) a critic suggested that “Sirin is settling scores with a certain writer. . . . whom we all know.” Nabokov wrote a heated (and surely prevaricating) missive of denial to the newspaper that had published the review (119), but the damage was already done.
By 1939 Nabokov had reason to regret burlesquing the old master. He needed a favor from him. On Mar. 28, 1939, Nabokov wrote a letter to Bunin that, given his pride and arrogance, must have been difficult for him to write. The Second World War was on the horizon, and Nabokov was looking for a way to get himself and his family out of France. He explained to Bunin that he was looking for a teaching position in a British or American university and needed testimonial letters from well-known figures in Russian culture, including Bunin. “You can write the letter either in English or French, whichever is convenient” (122-123). Neither was convenient. Bunin had practically no English, and his command of French, despite years of residence in the country, was weak.
As things turned out, Nabokov himself wrote the testimonial letter and sent it to Bunin to sign. Given the quite recent lampooning he had received in Nabokov’s play, and given what had by then become extreme antagonism between the two, Bunin’s willingness to sign such a letter is somewhat surprising. He did, however, sign it, adding “Nobel Laureate” after his signature, and even sent along with it a good-humored reply, in which he included an anecdote about the poet Balmont (127-28). Perhaps recalling the April Fool’s joke two years before that, Bunin dated the testimonial “Apr. 1st, 1939” (125).
The correspondence over the testimonial letter effectively marked the end of any and all intercourse between the two men. Long fed up with one another, they never corresponded again. Nabokov-Sirin soon left for the U.S., where he dropped the “Sirin” and began writing in English. Bunin remained in France, still grieving over his loss of Galina Kuznetsova. He struggled through the tribulations of life in wartime France, after the Nazis had come. He and his family eked out an existence in Grasse, with barely enough to eat. After the war ended, he went on struggling with the illnesses of old age, impoverished, surely aware that he was a literary anachronism.
It would be nice if there were a happy ending to the story of the rivalry, some sort of eleventh- hour reconciliation between the two great men of letters. But such was not to be. Rather, the story ends on a sour note. In a letter to Nabokov (Aug. 13, 1948) Mark Aldanov wrote, “If you are interested in Bunin (and I know you have love for him in your heart), then I have some bad news [literally, “I must chagrin you”]. His health is very very bad. And of the [Nobel] prize money nothing is left. I have been raising money for him here” (166).
But Nabokov could not conjure up any love for Bunin in his heart. In January of 1951 the solicitous Aldanov was helping organize an ‘evening’ for Bunin in New York, hoping to honor him, probably for the last time in his life, and to raise more money to support him. He wrote Nabokov:
“If there is any possibility [of your participating] I ask you not to let Bunin down. He is 81 now, very ill, and you are hardly likely ever to see him again. And you will have the pleasure of knowing that you’ve done a great service for him.” Bunin himself did not approach Nabokov directly, but in a letter to Aldanov (Feb. 9, 1951) he wrote, “I would be very grateful to V.V. Nabokov-Sirin if he would read something from my works at the event. Please send him a heartfelt greeting [serdechnyj poklon] from me” (168).
Nabokov had already forgotten how, in 1939, Bunin had graciously signed the testimonial for him, lending his prestige as Nobel laureate to Nabokov’s search for a university position. Nabokov refused to participate in the literary event. Here are parts of his letter: “As you know I’m not a big fan of I.A. I value his poetry highly, but the prose. . . . or the reminiscences in the allée. . . . You tell me that he’s 80, that he’s sick and poor. You are much more kind and indulgent that I am. . . . [How can I say positive things] “about a person who is in every respect alien to me, about a prose writer whom I rank lower than Turgenev?” (168).
And so on. Way back when Bunin met with V.D. Nabokov in 1921, the latter described his son as follows: “He’s a remarkable son, solicitous to extremes [redko zabotlivy], kind [dobryj]” (31). Maybe this was a good characterization of the young Nabokov-Sirin, but in his later years it’s doubtful that even Nabokov would describe himself as dobryj. Nabokov concludes his letter to Aldanov by saying that he has a memoir coming out, in which he openly expresses his view of Bunin’s works. In other words, he would look foolish and hypocritical, showing up in New York, at an event in honor of the old man.
All they were asking for was ten minutes of his time. Nabokov could have read a few of his favorite poems by Bunin, as he had done years ago, in Europe. But by this time he was already preparing to play the insane game of image building that became so important in his life after Lolita. The game of constructing the Image of the Great Writer, which Nabokov got his wife and son thoroughly involved in. Each of the three played that game of megalomania to the hilt, all the way to end of their lives on earth. So the myth would go, The Great Man had no antecedents, no influences, except perhaps for Pushkin and Shakespeare. Someone such as a mere Bunin would have to be expunged from the record of the Great Man’s past.
For some time Nabokov, his family and disciples did a good job at such expunging, but, of course, in the end all the documentation had to come out. And in writing this book, Prof. Shrayer has done a wonderful job of bringing more of it out. The book reveals the dirty secret that Nabokov and his family never would admit: the secret of the influence of Bunin’s prose style on the style of Nabokov’s prose works. In the process of revelation Shrayer is a (probably reluctant) contributor to the debunking of the Myth.
Prof. Shrayer concludes his book with a hypothesis that Bunin wrote his final collection of stories, Temnye allei, in a desperate attempt to win back the literary laurels that the younger writer had seized from him. This hypothesis is rather doubtful. The struggle between the two for supremacy was long over by the time the sick, demoralized and poverty-stricken Bunin wrote the last of his stories. Nabokov was the winner, and Bunin knew it. Looking at the works of the two writers from today’s perspective, Nabokov is still the winner. Whatever else you can say about the man, Nabokov, you have to admit that he’s a literary genius. Bunin is a good writer, at times a great writer, but he’s not a genius. Examples of Nabokov’s genius as a prose writer are rife. To take just one, I have never read a novel in which the narrative structure is so consummately unique as that of Nabokov’s Despair. It’s simply sui generis. Nobody else in world literature has ever done anything like this.
In the final chapter of his book, Prof. Shrayer explores differences in the worldview of the two writers. He emphasizes Bunin’s search for eternal verities in new words (in Temnye allei) through his airing out of the Eros-Thanatos thing that had long been central in his works (150-51). Shrayer makes the assumption (at least implicity) that Bunin found those new words in his final short stories. I personally, like Nabokov (159-60), find little new or particularly interesting in the love-death business of the allée stories. Bunin had already done this years ago, and better, in such works as “The Grammar of Love” and “Light Breathing.” I spent, on and off, roughly thirty years trying to translate Bunin’s prose into English, and, as the translator of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, the renowned Francis Steegmuller, has written, a translator “by the very nature of his effort becomes more intimate with the text than any reader no matter how critical.” Therefore, I think my objections to those who praise Temnye allei as Bunin’s best work are well founded. But since my case is stated elsewhere, in the critical afterword to my translations (Bunin, Night of Denial, p.664-66), there is no need to repeat it here.
Prof. Shrayer makes much, maybe too much, of the difference between Bunin’s and Nabokov’s conception of life and death, and life after death, as reflected in their works. Bunin, suggests Shrayer, whose stories have closed endings, cannot understand the way that Nabokov’s endings open up into other, transcendent worlds. “The reader has already parted with the heroes, but the music of Nabokov’s ending still continues sounding in his memory” (160). But then, is this really so different from the way a reader feels after the ending of any great work of art, including Bunin’s best? Great literature does open up doors into the transcendent, although no flesh and blood writer, including Nabokov, can ever see into that “otherworldly” realm. A good example of such opening of the doors is Bunin’s “Light Breathing,” one of his most musical and most lyrical compositions. The music plays on in the reader’s head after the story is finished. The story is sad, but the lyricism and the music make it beautifully sad, recalling the paradox of art once mentioned by Anthony Burgess: “The denial of joy is made through language which is itself a joy” (Harper’s, August, 1976, p. 80). The idea of the joy of beautiful language is central to the art of both Bunin and Nabokov.
Summing up. Prof. Shrayer is to be congratulated for his many years of labor over this book. He has ferreted out things of great interest to the world of Slavic literature. The book is fascinating, highly entertaining. It often even provides the reader with a good laugh. What more could we ask from a scholar of creative literature?