“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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“What good were the words?”: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

With The Book Thief Zusak has achieved a rather charming novel which recounts the bittersweet struggle for humanity in provincial Nazi Germany.

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It’s safe to say that Liesel Meminger, the novel’s dainty protagonist, isn’t granted the easiest of lives by its narrator. It’s 1939 and Liesel (LEE-zul) is just nine years old. Yet despite her tender age she has already witnessed the death of her six year old brother, has been torn away from her mother and re-established chez the Hubermann’s on Himmel Street, Molching, a small (fictitious) German town just beyond the outskirts of Munich. All she has to remind her of her previous life is a book, The Gravedigger’s Handbook, surreptitiously amassed at her brother’s funeral. Despite her inability to read, this is the object to which she clings for safety and comfort as she settles into life on Himmel Street, and it is this book, the first of the book thief’s booty, which leads her on the path to her new life.

 

For me, the main strength of this novel is the panoply of characters who make Himmel Street it’s dynamic, intriguing and entertaining self. In the Hubermann household there is Papa, arguably the novel’s hero, an accordion-playing, story-telling, mischievous paternal charmer who teaches young Liesel to read during secretive 3am visits to her bedroom and thus revealing to her the power and beauty of literature and language, all the while bearing the brunt of his wife’s foul mouth. The cantankerous Mrs Hubermann is a woman with a big mouth but a bigger heart and despite the incessant train of Saumensch, Arschloch, and Saukerls which steam 100 miles per hour from her choppers, she never fails in her unwavering support and love for her family (often provided in the form of watery soups). Leisel’s acquires a lemon-haired local friend, Rudy, who adds the zest of youth with his passionate love of life which on many occasions leads to bouts of charming humour (in one such incident, he paints himself in mud and races down the local track in imitation of hero Jesse Owens, a stunt not appreciated by Aryan-idealising Nazi-supporting locals). These characters, plus a host of others including Max Vandenburg, Isla Hermann and Alex Steiner, give the street its great variety. But collectively what ties this eccentric gang together is essentially their innate humanity. Through his microscopic inspection of Molching, Zusak drills home the emotional complexities of human relationships and demonstrates that, despite being fooled by a man with a moustache, these people were human and such people must have existed among the dreadful monster that emerged from Germany between 1939 and 1945.

“Sometimes people are beautiful.
Not in looks.
Not in what they say.
Just in what they are.

Yet this is not the only uniting element. Every character contained in the novel is part of the thread that makes up the rope of the narrative, a narrative spun and dictated by its narrator. It seems fitting, then, that personified Death tells this tale and dictates the movement of the narrative’s rope. Yet Zusak’s personification of Death is by no means a traditional one and is perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of the novel. This is no rapacious, black-hooded reaper trawling around seducing everybody with his scythe, and Death himself mocks this naïve conception of his persona by mankind. As the characters dwindle along their paths towards him, there is almost a melancholy in the tone of Death’s character, a melancholy that he too is forced to accept the inevitability of his own existence. An interesting alternative, which enriches the tragic sadness of the story. Even he is mesmerized by the power of humanity, tenderly collecting the victims of a man-made mess, and is forced to admit by the novel’s end that it is he who is “haunted by humans”.

 

I only really had two issues with the novel on the whole: the first is the occasional clichés in the language which, despite on the whole being well-written and is strong enough to support what is a winsome story, can fall into patterns of predictability and did not seem to arrest me or shock me at any point. It flowed along quite comfortably, which I suppose is what a novel of this genre should do. The second thing is a confusion in plot; throughout the novel we are pretty certain that it is Death narrating the story, yet towards the end we discover that actually Death picked up Liesel’s book, The Book Thief, which is what we are now reading. So in that case, did Liesel write her own life story from the perspective of a personified Death (quite advanced for a 13 year old…)? I understand why Zusak uses Death to narrate his story, and I can also understand why, for the story to be Liesel’s personal story, she would have had to have narrated it. It seems that the author perhaps couldn’t make his made up and thus this confusion arises. It doesn’t, of course, affect the novel’s poignant message, but I guess this is but a small detail and just me being pernickety! (My apologies…)

 

What will win over many a bibliophile in this novel, including myself, is the central theme of the power of literature as a source of empowerment during the bleakest moments of life, and indeed the bleakest periods of human history. Today, in a society where 63% of men rarely read, this may seem a tad hackneyed, far-fetched and ideological. Yet literature is the power which wakes our protagonist in the middle of the night, compels her to climb through windows to grab new material, gives her a direction and comfort in her new life, a new life which is eventually saved through writing a book (in more than one way) at the denouement of the book. With a message like that, surely there is only one thing you can do from here?

 

“Words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this. Without words, the Führer was nothing. There would be no limping prisoners, no need for consolation or wordly tricks to make us feel better. What good were the words?”

Thanks for reading, give it a go and let me know what you think below!

 

Check out The Book Thief here

Check out Markus Zusak on Twitter

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