Bunin and Sazonova

Keith Tribble, Oklahoma State University

This study of Bunin and Sazonova is based firstly on an analysis of Bunin's letters to Sazonova and of her answers to them, secondly on Sazonova's five articles about Bunin and, in particular, on her use of elements of personal biography and personal interpretation of his own work divulged to her by Bunin in his letters. The present study emphasizes the innovative aspects of Sazonova's portrait of Bunin.

Ivan Alekseevich Bunin was known as a very private writer, secretive about his personal life. In 1952, critic Julija Sazonova wrote to Bunin requesting information about him for a book she was writing; from this beginning ensued a unique exchange of letters in which he offered personal insights into the creative process, personal judgments on his own work, his assessment of its place in Russian letters, explanations of the origins of particular works in events of his own life. Basing myself on traditional principles of literary-historical analysis, I would like first to summarize the strange history of the writing and preservation of these letters, then list some of the salient aspects of style and theme that Bunin thought noteworthy enough to mention in the letters and finally to distill the essence of Sazonova's interpretation of Bunin from her several articles on his work.

Bunin emphasizes that his unique position in Russian letters is due to the variety of his opus and his perfectly fluent mastery of "many Russian languages, the languages of many castes." Sazonova found this statement so remarkable that she proposed it as epigraph for the book she was planning to write about Bunin. Bunin explains that his childhood habit of lying re-emerged in adulthood in literary form. Contradicting critics who praise his powers of observation, Bunin states that he has "a poor recollection of the details," but "an acute perception of the whole" out of which his fictions were born. Consciously unfaithful to the pathetic essence of events experienced in his youth, Bunin dwells in his letters on the personal drama that lay at the core of The Life of Arsen'ev, his non-autobiography.

In reviewing The Life of Arsen'ev Sazonova focused on three themes central not only to the quasi-autobiographical novel, but to Bunin's work as a whole, and demonstrated the interrelatedness in Bunin's work of the theme of Russia, the theme of life and death and the theme of love. The unity of man with nature is so acutely felt in this novel, because this unity is related to death which in turn makes one more aware of the beauty of the surrounding universe.

Bunin has often been relegated to the status of an anachronism in Russian literature, of a writer following in the mid-twentieth century the nineteenth century path of Turgenev and Tolstoj. From Sazonova's critique of Bunin emerges another portrait, that of a great innovator, a bold creator of a new path for Russian letters. The most striking feature of this innovative style is its extreme concentration of a whole poetic world into such a series of dense and intense miniatures as Dark Avenues, which, Sazonova considered his greatest accomplishment. Thus, a reconsideration of Sazonova as critic opens new vistas on Bunin as writer.