Best known for
his novels, The Village (1910), Dry Valley (1912), Mitya’s Love (1924) the autobiographical work, The Life of Arseniev (1933), and his numerous collections of short
tales, Ivan Bunin was one of the most revered writers of pre-Communist Russian
literature, and was the first Russian writer to win the Nobel Prize for
Literature, which he received in 1933. Bunin, however, was also the author a
several important collections of poetry.
He was born on his parental estate in the
Voronezh province of Central Russia, the third son of parents from a long line
of rural gentry with distinguished Polish ancestors, including the poets Anna
Bunina (1774-1829) and Vasily Zhukovsky (1783-1852).
Bunin reportedly lived a happy childhood
in Butyrky Khutor and Ozerky. His father was an intelligent, physically active
man, addicted to gambling. Before the Crimean War, in which his father served,
he abstained from alcohol, but upon his return he became a heavy drinker.
Bunin’s mother, however, was the one who introduced her son to the world of
Russian folklore and literature. Educated by a home, first by a colorful tutor,
Romashkov, and, later, by his university-educated brother, Yuly Bunin (a man
who had been deported for being a Narodnik activist, the Narodniks being a
socially conscious middle class movement that eventually opposed the Tsarists),
the young Ivan grew up with a passion for painting and poetry. He wrote both
prose and poetry from an early age.
By the late 1870s, however, the Bunins had
lost most of their wealth from the father’s gambling debts, and Ivan was sent
to a public school in Yelets. He never completed the course, having been
expelled from school in 1886 for failing to return to the school after Christmas
holidays, due to his family’s financial problems.
In May of the next year, 1887, Bunin
published his first poem in the St. Petersburg literary magazine Rodina (Motherland). His first short
story appears in 1891.
In the Spring of 1889, Bunin, like his
brother before him, moved to Kharkov, where he first became a government clerk
before moving to a position as assistant editor of the local paper. He also
worked as a librarian and a court statistician before moving to Oryol to work
as the de fact editor of the local Orlovsky
Vestnik newspaper, where he also published numerous of his stories, poems,
and reviews. In Oryol he also met Varvara Paschenko, whom he married.
Moving in with his brother Yuly in
Poltava, he found, with his brother’s help, a job in the local government
administration. His first collection of poetry, Poems 1887-1891 was published in Oryol in 1891.
During 1894 Bunin traveled throughout
Ukraine, where, as he described it: “I fell in love with Malorossiya (Little Russia),
its villages and steppes.” And the following year, for the first time, he
visted the capital, meeting the Marodniks Nikolay Mikyalovsky and Sergey
Krivenko, Anton Chekhov, Alexander Ertel, and the poets Konstantin Balmont and
Valery Brysov. A few years later he developed a close friendship with the
playwright and fiction writer Maxim Gorky, to whom he dedicated his 1901
collection of poetry, Falling Leaves.
From 1895 through 1896, Bunin traveled
back and forth between Moscow and St. Petersburg, as he continued to write
poetry and stories. In 1898 he published his second collection of poetry, Under the Open Skies.
In June 1898, he moved to Odessa, becoming
close to the Southern Russia Painters Comradeship, and developed friendships
with E. Bukovetski, V Kurovsky, and P. Nilus. In the next couple of years he
began attending the Sreda (Wendesday) literary group in Moscow, forging a
friendship with Nikolay Teleshov and others.
His third collection of poetry, mentioned
above, received positive critical attention from numerous writers and
journalists, including Alexander Ertel, Alexander Blok, and Aleksandr Kruprin,
who saw it as an antidote to the pretentiousness of “decadent” poetry. For that
third volume, as well as for his translation of the American Henry Wadsworth
Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha,
Bunin received his first Pushkin Prize.
Over the next several years, Bunin
continued to publish fiction, stories, and poetry, three volumes of which were
collected into Poems and Stories
(1907-1909), published by Obschestvennaya polza publishing house.
Throughout the 1900s Bunin traveled
extensively, regularly visiting Chekhov and his family until 1904. During the
October Revolution, Bunin was living in Yalta, Crimea, and he soon after moved
back to Odessa, developing in 1906 a passionate love affair with Vera
Muromtseva, with whom he not only defied social conventions but abandoned
Russia in 1907 for an extended tour throughout Egypt and Palestine, resulting
in numerous travel sketches.
Upon his return to Russia, Bunin wrote
some of his most noted fictions. In 1909 he was awarded his second Pushkin
Prize for Poems 1903-1906 and
translations of Lord Byron and, once again, Longfellow. He was also elected as
a member of the Russian Academy.
In 1910 he and Muromtseva again traveled
to the Middle East before visiting Ceylon. Upon their return to Russia they
discovered that conditions had worsened, and traveled between Moscow and the
Bunin family estate at Glotovo village. He wintered for three years in Capri
with Gorky, there meeting Fyodor Shalyapin and Leonid Andreev.
During the first couple of years of World
War I, Bunin and Muromtseva lived in Glotovo, while he worked to finish his
first volume of prose and verse Chalice
of Life, and composed perhaps his best known story, “The Gentleman from San
Francisco,” translated into English by D. H. Lawrence.
Throughout the war Bunin attempted to keep
aloof from contemporary literary and political debates, refusing to be pigeon-holed
into any literary school. “I did not belong to any literary school; I was
neither a decadent, nor a symbolist, nor a romantic, nor a naturalist. Of
literary circles I frequented only a few.” By 1916 Bunin had become deeply
depressed because of the war.
In October 1917, the Bunins returned to
Moscow, staying with Vera’s parents, while continued to attend meetings of the
Sreda circle. That same year, Bunin severed all ties with Gorky, who by this
time had become openly revolutionary, while he worked on the anti-Bolshevik
newspaper Iuzhnoe Slovo.
On January 26, 1920, Bunin and Vera
boarded the last French ship in Odessa, traveling to Constantinople, and, after
brief periods in Sofia and Belgrade, arrived in Paris, where he would live
until World War II. Continuing to write significant works, Bunin became one of
the major spokesmen for a generation of expatriates living abroad. Accordingly,
his award of the Nobel Prize was seen in the USSR as “an imperialist intrigue.”
Bunin donated some of his prize money to create a literary charity fund, but
his helpful attempts resulted in controversy among his émigré friends resulting
in a severing of friendships with Gippius and Merezhkovsky.
Although friends attempted to help Bunin, a
strong anti-Nazi spokesperson, out of France, Bunin determined to remain in
France at his mountain retreat in Grasse. There he was joined by Leonid Zurov
and Nikolai Roschin, sometimes joined by others, living in a commune system
attempting to survive. According to Zurov, who lived with the Bunins for the
rest of their lives, “Grasses’s population had eaten all of their cats and
dogs.” A visiting journalist in 1942, found a Bunin whom he described as
“skinny and emaciated…looking very much like an ancient patrician.”
Throughout the war Bunin risked his life by
sheltering several Jews and other fugitives, despite the fact that a heavily
guarded German headquarters stood only 300 meters from his home. Although Bunin
continued to write throughout the war, he published nothing.
With the war’s end, Bunin and Vera returned
to their 1, rue Jacques Offenbach home in Paris, with Bunin spending spells in
a clinic in Jan-les-Pins) convalescing. Bunin remained in Paris until his death
Poems (1887–1891) (1891, originally as a literary supplement to Orlovsky
vestnik newspaper); Под открытым небом, (1898); Листопад (Moscow, 1901);
Стихотворения (Stikhotvorenīia) (St. Petersburg: Znanīe, 1903-1906) (1903); Стихотворения,
1906); Poems of 1907 (Saint Petersburg, 1908); Selected Poems
(Paris, 1929); Stikhotvoreniia
(Petrozavodsk: Izd-vo “Kareliia”, 1978); Stikhotvoreniia
(Moscow: Sovetskaia Rossia, 1981); Listopad:
poèma (Moscow: Sovremenik, 1982); Stikhotvoreniia
(Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1985)
also appeared in several of Bunin’s
short story collections and in his books published in emigration.