“Dark Avenues” by Ivan Bunin

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Ivan Bunin’s Dark Avenues has been on my bookshelf since I requested it as a Christmas present last year. Why I had asked for it, where I’d heard about Bunin and what I’d heard about Bunin are questions that slip merrily through the sieve of my memory. We undoubtedly all have these forgotten books on our shelves – I know I have many more! – and it was intriguing to pluck Dark Avenues out and read these marvellous stories, wondering where the bloody hell I had found out about this great author. I guess I’ll never know, but I am thankful to my former self for putting Bunin on my bookshelf.

 

A collection of 38 stories plus additional material, notes and appendices, Dark Avenues, I think, gives you a good grounding on what Bunin is all about as a writer. His tales can be sporadic and the collection takes you across the continent, through a dark, sprawling Russia onto neighbouring Ukraine, onwards towards Austria, Italy, Paris, the South of France and as far west as Madrid. They say variety is the spice of life, but I’d say that the spice of Dark Avenues is in what remains constant. The beauty of Bunin’s prose, for me, lies in his attention to detail, his ability to evoke landscapes, characters, emotions, actions, all of which he does with an astounding efficiency and charm. Each story is a microcosm contained within itself which sucks the reader in. There were so many times I got to the end of a story and felt like I knew the characters fairly well, I empathised with them, I had breathed the air of their landscape. But then I’d flick back to the beginning and realise that the story was only 1, 2 or 3 pages long. Bunin has this magical way of writing with such clarity, purpose and efficiency that he is able to portray so much information in a scarily short amount of space. If you are engaged in the narrative you might not really notice it, but once I’d cottoned on to his terseness I begin to look more meticulously at the mechanics of his language. And it is often at the beginning of his stories where a lot of the magic comes to life. In one or two paragraphs Bunin (and credit to the translator here for translating this quality into English!) will set the scene, the characters, and their backgrounds, only including information that the reader will need at some point in the story. He will never use too many characters, describe something in too much detail or indeed describe something at all if it is unnecessary.

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I particularly enjoyed Bunin’s characters, who are typically peculiar, mysterious but essentially interesting to read about. He has a deep fascination with youth and young love, one of the unifying motifs of Dark Avenues. Several of his stories depict the first seeds of a relationship, or a love encounter between two characters. They are often physical, sensual passages and it is the universality of this theme that will allow Bunin’s stories appeal to a large audience. I think we all remember our first kiss, our first sexual encounter, our first relationship with a certain affection, often as defining moments in our young adult lives, and you can understand why Bunin may be interested by this period in his characters’ lives. In fact, many YA and indeed adult authors write about these periods in their characters’ lives as they develop from naïve adolescents into adults. Think Harry Potter, The Fault in our Stars, Twilight or many more YA hits that have been piled high in bookshops in recent years. Before this all goes a bit pear-shaped, I am not trying to categorise Ivan Bunin as a YA author alongside Stephanie Meyer and John Green, but it is fascinating to consider how this early 20th century Russian Nobel Prize for Literature winning master was drawing on his characters’ younger years to engage his reader just as many YA authors do today.

 

Another aspect of Dark Avenues I adored was its insight into Russian culture. Proceed through the stories, you are given a flavour of the period and the culture with the samovars, the dark, expansive, brooding landscape, the strange-sounding soups, inevitable vodka, the old carriage trains and chilling Eastern climate. The beauty of young Russian ladies is frequently apparent, with Bunin often conveying the almost ‘translucent’ paleness of their skin juxtaposed with the smooth, shining black darkness of their eyebrows and hair. In fact, Nabokov famously called Bunin a ‘connoisseur of colours’ and it is true that Bunin frequently draws on colour in his stories with aplomb, another feature which gives his work its vivid, ‘colourful’ aspect. Bunin is a masterful writer who works with the precision of a poet, and I would urge every writer, and especially short story writers, to study the mechanics of Bunin’s stories as a model for how to write a successful, purposeful short story. I will certainly be revisiting this collection in the past and look forward to exploring his other works. If you would recommend any, I would love to hear from you!

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Dresden, Germany: Top Ten Must-dos For Germany’s Hippest City

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There’s no doubt that Dresden is one of Germany’s most vibrant, modern, cultural cities. On one side of the Elbe is the Old Town, obliterated during the infamous Dresden bombings during the Second World War but recently restored to its former splendour and offering visitors a trove of historical and cultural gems, while on the other side of the river lies the beloved Neustadt, a proudly anti-fascist, hippy-like, artistic quarter brimming with creative modernity, youthfulness and looking as if itself had endured multiple explosions of colour and art. All in all, Dresden has easily enough attractions to merit a claim as Germany’s most visit-worthy cities. But often used as a stop-off point on journeys either northwards towards Berlin or eastwards towards Prague or ailleurs, it can be problematic deciding which of Dresden’s hotspots to dedicate your time. Having returned from a third visit to the city this Wednesday, and to compensate for the absence of a book review, I thought I might lend a hand with my top ten things to do and see in Dresden.

#1Die Bunte Republik Neustadt (BRN) Festival

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The principal reason for my visit to Dresden, the BRN festival sees the entire Neustadt district relocate outdoors for the weekend for what is essentially a city-wide party. The streets are lined with bars and restaurants selling a panoply of freshly cooked street food, beers and cocktails amongst which are sporadic tents  filled with all sorts of live music, DJs and performances which continue long into the night. Above, on apartment balconies, loudspeakers blare yet more music and on busy street corners DJs, or just ordinary residents, orchestrate a street-party for the crowd below which ebbs and flows to the beat of the surrounding music. However this organised mayhem cannot exude its charm all year round and the BRN  (unfortunately) takes place on one weekend per year, in June around the 15th, so if you’re lucky enough to be in Dresden around this time don’t let yourself down by missing this wonderful festival.

 

#2 Kunsthof-passage

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       Hof der Elemente                                                                               Feng Shui-Haus

Famous for its singing-in-the-rain Hof der Elemente (above right), the Kunsthof-passage is a labyrinthine passage of shops and cafés whose façades are decorated with refreshingly colourful and inventive artworks. However my favourite, must-visit atelier in the Kunsthof-passage is the serene haven of the Feng Shui-Haus (above right). Once you have bypassed the shop-front you find yourself in the unconventional café area which consists basically in a matted floor and an assembly of alluring cushions which leave you with no option but to take your shoes off, whack out your finest yoga pose and order in one of the cool, fresh teas and a bite to eat. The oriental background music and the dim lights provide a soothing ambience and a pleasant hideout from the hustle and bustle of the streets outside.

 

#3 Albertinum Museum

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A modern art gallery situated in the Old Town of the city whose New Masters Gallery holds glorious works by the likes of Caspar David Friedrich, Gerhard Richter, Monet, Klimt, Klee, Gauguin and Picasso. Arguably pricey at 8 Euros per person, but it is certainly a collection which merits the price.

 

#4 Dresdner Schloss

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Inside Dresdner Schloss

One of Dresden’s eldest architectural feats, the palace was another of the buildings ruined by the ravages of war and rejuvenated by recent reconstruction. Now nearing full completion, the Schloss pays homage to Dresden’s royal past and is typical of the Baroque architecture which characterises the city’s skyline. Also look out for the Meißen porcelain bells running alongside the clock face, Meißen being a relatively small town just 16 miles down the Elbe and famous for its production of porcelain (definitely worth a visit if you have the time).

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Meißen Porcelain Bells

#5 Schokoladenbar

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A funky bar which, as its name denotes, specialises in a particularly seductive variety of hot chocolate. It is thick, gloopy, fulfilling melted chocolate which mayalso be accompanied with a base of sponge cake at the bottom of your cup. But if hot chocolate isn’t your thing, don’t worry! I tried their Sri Lankan Chai Tea and it was probably the best cuppa I’ve ever had – a home-made bag comprising of nettle, cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper, lemongrass, red pepper, ginger, plus other ingredients I can’t fathom to remember. As if this isn’t enough flavour, it is joined by crystallised pineapple-flavoured sugar which dissolves in your tea for a mightily-sweet kick that will empower you for the rest of your trip.

 

#6 Frauenkirche

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The Frauenkirche, or Church of our Lady, is the defining shape of the Dresden skyline and symbolic of the city’s modern renaissance. Completely destroyed during the Dresden bombings, like numerous other buildings in the city the church was reconstructed to its former beauty using the bricks of its very own ruins after the Second World War. This painstaking and impressive labour took 45 years to complete and since 2005 this piece of architectural history has once again attracted admirers from around the globe. The inside is certainly worth a visit and if you have some spare you might want to ascend to the top of the building for the magnificent vista stretching along either side of the Elbe.

 

#7 Barbecue Beside the Elbe

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If you descend on Dresden, as I did, in the warm summer months, you should capitalize by relaxing beside the Elbe after a day traipsing around the city. My favourite spot is the one above, across the river from the Frauenkirche and the Schloss and situated conveniently just beside a beer garden and a set of toilets. Drop by the supermarket on the way down, pick yourself up a disposable barbecue, a few bratwursts, some burgers, beers and you have you’re perfect way to unwind as the sun descends beyond the city.

 

#8 Flea Market

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Taking place every Saturday morning on the banks of the Elbe (just to the right of the Käthe-Kollwitz-Ufer), Dresden’s flea market is full of fascinating objects, delicious food and a great way to experience the vibrant hustle and bustle of the city’s people. I came across a lot of intriguing historical items at the market, from watches containing stones from the desecrated Frauenkirche, to World War medals and uniforms, objects relating to the DDR and then many other medals and historical objects coming east from Russia. Elsewhere a man was selling rails of clothing, including fur coats and leather jackets, for the astonishing price of 20 cents per item and a lady was freshly baking pretzels and other wonderful condiments in a blazing wooden oven. The perfect place to pick up some souvenirs for your vintage-yearning friends!

 

#9 Barneby

In the heart of Neustadt there are so many bars you’re spoilt for choice. If you’re looking for a quiet, social beverage and chatter with friends, try Barneby. With a good assortment of beers, wines and cocktails you won’t be disappointed. But more importantly, Barneby offers you a huge selection of board games to play at your will, from Jenga to Dominoes, Trivial Pursuit to Scrabble, they literally have them all.

#10 Katy’s Garage

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A large space on the corner of Alaunstraße and Louisenstraße, Katy’s Garage caters to all. If you want to relax outside on a lounger sipping a cocktail in the cool Dresden evening eating some warm greasy pommes-frites or dance along to your favourite indie-rock tunes downstairs in the garage, Katy’s Garage is the spot to go. One downside of Germany is their unfortunate attachment to cheesy Eurovision-esque music which typically dominates nightclubs, but fortunately you can escape this here. A bit behind the times in terms of music, yes, but if you enjoyed indie/rock/pop of the last 4/5 years then you might find yourself at home in Katy’s Garage.

 

Thanks for reading. If you’re heading off to Dresden soon, Gute Reise! And if you have any other suggestions, fie away below, I’d love to hear about them.