Ivan Bunin - Biography

Portrait of Ivan Bunin by Leonard Turzhansky, 1905

Born into a family of impoverished landowners who descended from an ancient and noble family, he spent his childhood in the countryside, which left a great impression on him. Bunin would later write that his childhood was a life close to ‘the field and peasant huts.’

His early attempts at poetry were made in the first grade, although Bunin was forced at one point to abandon his schooling due to financial difficulties until his elder brother Julius Bunin came to his aid, putting him through high school and most of university.

After the publication of his first poem in 1887 in St. Petersburg’s Rodina newspaper, Bunin moved to Kharkov, where Julius lived, and started to work. In less then a year he became a court statistician, a librarian and even handled a book shop, until settling to work at Orlovsky Vestnik, a local newspaper.

There he met Varvara Pashchenko, whom he soon came to love. Their relationship lasted until 1894 and became an inspiration for “Life of Arseniev” published in 1930.

After his break-up with Pashchenko, Bunin was quick to enter an abrupt marriage with Anna Nikolaevna Zakhni, the daughter of a Greek revolutionary, in 1898. The marriage soon ended after Bunin’s only offspring, his and Zakhni’s son, died tragically at the age of five.

Meanwhile, Bunin began a correspondence with Anton Chekhov and fell heavily under the influence Leo Tolstoy. He even visited some of Tolstoy’s followers’ communes in Ukraine. However when he met Tolstoy himself in 1891, the master played down the role of his followers, urging Bunin not to get too involved in the movement.

In his early years Bunin was also close with Maksim Gorky, but when the latter wrote about Bunin’s Antonov Apples, the short story seen by some as Bunin’s ‘birth certificate’ written in 1900, that they ‘do smell good, but they smell not at all democratically’ the two grew more and more distant.

Next in the list of authors who influenced Bunin is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In 1890 Bunin taught himself English and translated Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, which was published as a supplement to the Orlovsky Vestnik.

The iconic Ukrainian Taras Shevchenko was also among the authors whose works Bunin translated in his early years.

In 1895 Bunin moved to St. Petersburg and subsequently to Moscow where he met many of Russia’s literary elite. It took Bunin two years to finish his first book of short stories, and six to complete his first collection of poems entitled Listopad (Leaf Fall).

Bunin’s first major award – the Pushkin’s prize for Listopad and the Song of Hiawatha – came in 1903. By then Bunin had undergone a major transition from poetry to writing short stories, which was seen by many as a wrong move, including most notably, Vladimir Nabokov, who held Bunin’s poetry in very high esteem, while his prose less so.

Settling down in Moscow was obviously going well for Bunin. After publishing a number of successive novels such as The Village and Dry Valley, he was considered a major Russian writer. He met and married Vera Muromsteva in 1906, and travelled with her to the Middle East. An array of successive books and translations of Byron, Tennyson, and Musset brought Bunin his second Pushkin prize which landed him in Russia’s Academy of Science.

After spending the winters of 1912-1914 with Gorky on the Italian resort island of Capri, Bunin wrote probably his most famous short story The Gentleman from San Francisco. It deals with the dramatic death of a retired U.S. nouveau riche at a pompous Capri hotel, during his travels in Europe.

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