Saturday, 19 April 2008

The Gentleman from San Francisco and other stories, by Ivan Bunin (winner 1933)

I am not often a fan of the short story - it's a bit of a tease really, drawing you in and then abruptly spitting you out, and in many of the stories in this collection, the ending comes abruptly indeed.

By far the best story in the collection is the first, 'The Gentleman from San Francisco'. Nothing much happens in it (only one key event which I won't recount here), but Bunin's decriptive powers are simply amazing. The gentleman himself is described as:

'Dry, of small stature, badly built but strongly made, polished to a glow and in due measure animated, he sat in the golden-pearly radiance of the palace...'

while this passage describes the workers on board the ship:

'As the gloomy and sultry depths of the inferno, as the ninth circle, was the submerged womb of the steamer, where gigantic furnaces roared and dully giggled, devouring with their red-hot maws mountains of coal cast hoarsely in by men naked to the waist, bathed in their own corrosive dirty sweat, and lurid with the purple-red reflection of flame. But in the refreshment bar men jauntily put their feet up on
the tables, showing their patent-leather pumps, and sipped cognac or other liqueurs, and swam in waves of fragrant smoke as they chatted in well-bred manner.'

As I read, I couldn't help but praise the translator, as well as Bunin, for these most felicitous phrases - turning to the front of the book, I found that it was translated by no less than D.H. Lawrence, S.S. Koteliansky & Leonard Woolf, so small surprise that it's well done!

Despite the often-lengthy sentences, the text somehow draws the reader along at a frenetic pace. It's the type of story that you want to devour like a delicious meal, even though you know you should slow down and savour it. In fact, I read it once, at the beginning of the book and then again when I had finished the whole collection. I had to force myself, the second time, to take my time and really pay attention to the words.

The story covers themes of death, of the deceptiveness of appearances, of the relationship between the rich and those who serve them, but its chief delight is in its decriptions.

Unfortunately, the rest of the collection didn't quite live up to 'The Gentleman from San Francisco'. Much of the rest was overwhelmingly Russian. (Incidentally, Bunin was the first Russian to win the Novel Prize.) I mean, I like Russian culture and so forth as much as the next man (probably much more, in fact), and I must say
many of the Russian-set passages made me nostalgic for Moscow. They probably made Bunin even more nostalgic for Moscow, given that he left Russia in 1918, an opponent of the Revolution (a couple of the stories are set post-1917, in Paris, but for the most part they look back to late-Tsarist Russia, some being written before 1917).
However, the themes of tumultuous affairs where the woman cheats on her husband, and gets murdered by him, or grows tired of her lover, and gets murdered by him, are a bit grating. That sort of alcohol-fuelled extreme passion inflamed by a mere bare ankle is a bit boring and unrelatable, to those of us with milder passions. Does make you glad not to have been a woman in Tsarist Russia. Or possibly in Russia at any time.

But really, you should hunt out the Lawrence, Koteliansky and Woolf translation of 'The Gentleman from San Francisco' and give it a read or two, a true masterpiece.

PS One of the true delights of the copy I had was its dust-jacket list of the other titles in 'The Landmark Library'. Must-reads include:

'The Story of Ragged Robyn' by Oliver Onions

'The Left Leg' by T.F. Powys

'Celibate Lives' by George Moore

'Rough Justice' by C.E. Montague

'His Monkey Wife' by John Collier

'Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman' by E.W. Hornung

'The Grasshoppers Come & Beany-Eye' by David Garnett

and many more... Hunt them down today!

No comments: