Sunday, January 11, 2015


Bust in Yelets, Russia

By the mid-thirties Nabokov-Sirin's position as the best prose writer of the emigration was solidified. Ivan Bunin, whose best works had long been written by that time, was not, however, one to cede his position gracefully to a writer thirty years his junior.

But despite his aggravation, 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 Maxim Shrayer’s new book, Bunin i Nabokov: istorija sopernichestva (M., 2015). Here are a few (all translations mine):

“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 ran into each other 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--143), he’s “a slapdash cabdriver outside a midnight dive,” 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 also used the same term for 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” (cited in Aleksandr Bakhrakh, Bunin v khalate, 1979, p. 110). 

As some of the quotes above make obvious, 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). 

Here is his amplification of the tortoise imagery:

"Bunin is so much like a scraggy old tortoise, who stretches out his gray, sinewy neck, with a dewlap instead of an Adam's apple, masticating and moving about his dim-eyed ancient head!" (104)

Unlike Bunin's statements, Nabokov's acerbic remarks about Bunin were seldom tempered with praise. As he grew older he became more and more critical of Bunin's prose, although he never wavered in his praise of the older writer's verse.

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