The Exile of Memory: Bunin

George Pahomov, Bryn Mawr College

The significance of memory and nostalgia in shaping Bunin's art has been acknowledged by critics through time and across ideological gulfs. Critics on both sides of the old Iron Curtain saw emigration as the prime cause of Bunin's nostalgia and the wellspring of his art. Thus, typically for his school, Afanas'ev asserts that Bunin's "lyrical prose" which is the direct expression of the author's feelings is determined by "toska pisatelja...po pokinutoj im rodine." Another critic links Bunin's creativity with the sadness of emigration ("pechal' po ostavlennoj im navsegda Rossii, po rodnomu domu"). Western critics, less interested in politically driven psychologism and working in a more descriptive mode, also place memory at the center of Bunin's creativity, either explicitly or tacitly recognizing the rupture of revolution and exile. James Woodward speaks of an "immortalizing memory" as the "theme that was to acquire increasing prominence in Bunin's works of the twenties."

But the role of memory is already prominent in Bunin's works written throughout the 1890's and comes to a culmination in "Antonovskie jabloki" (1901). Very many of the early stories begin with a remembrance or are permeated by an anamnestic mood. The narrator frequently dwells on the past, the passage of time, and on the very act of remembering. This is while he is still young, still in Russia, and well before emigration to France where memory leavened the reverie of an aging exile.

My reading of Bunin suggests that the narrator carries a secret injury, a sense of expulsionfrom a state of well-being. This brings about yearning which is expressed throughout his art. The critic Julian Connolly asserts that Bunin's "emphasis on the themes of individual dislocation and alienation, the loss of the past, and the search for positive values in a seemingly senseless world" make him a modern writer. One could go further and say that Bunin's sense of a lost past and the constant effort at its re-covery constitutes an attempt at a continuous re-creation of self that links Bunin with another Modernist, Proust. In both writers, as modern depth psychology puts it, "the starting point for the human form of cognitive activity is loss of a loved reality." And this reality could only be recaptured in inner exile. There one could internalize the past and find nourishment in it.