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The Gentleman from San Francisco and In Paris by Ivan Bunin
Two stories about abrupt deaths, both beautifully written, both very different. The Gentleman from San Francisco is about the transitory nature of existence. A bit like Dostoevsky’s Bobok, it shows how a lot of the things we think are important are rendered irrelevant by death. The gentleman from San Francisco is very wealthy and is treated with exaggerated deference by the staff at a hotel in Italy, but when he dies suddenly he becomes a source of irritation and shame. His wife asks that his body be taken back to his room, but the hotel owner refuses, saying that the news would be known all over Capri and nobody would take the suite afterwards. The corpse, in fact, must be removed immediately – no coffins would be available so soon, but “the English soda water came in large strong boxes if the divisions were removed.” The contrast is stark and powerful.
In Paris, on the other hand, is based on Bunin’s emigré life in Paris, and describes the meeting of two lonely people and their falling in love. Abruptly, though, the man dies just after they have got together. It’s a very short story, and I liked how it appeared to fulfil all the credentials of a good romance, until the man’s sudden death changed everything.
Love and A Family Journey by Teffi
One story about childhood, another about marriage, and I liked the childhood one better. Love is about a nine-year-old’s innocent childhood infatuation with a serving girl called Ganka. She steals an orange and gives it to Ganka, hoping to show her something new and wonderful, but Ganka doesn’t know it has to be peeled, and just bites into it, makes a horrible face and spits it out, throwing what’s left into the bushes. The story really captures the sensitivity of the child, how obsessed she became with pleasing Ganka, and how, when Ganka spat out the orange, it seemed like “Everything was over. I had become a thief in order to give her the best thing I knew in all the world. And she hadn’t understood, and she had spat it out. How would I ever get over this grief and this hurt?”
In A Family Journey, we follow the family from hell – wife and mother-in-law nagging a hen-pecked non-entity of a husband in a hot, stuffy train carriage. It’s an amusing scene, and I did feel for the husband, but it felt like just that – a scene – and I expected something else to happen but it never did.
The Lion by Yevgeny Zamyatin
Quite a nice little tale about a man who becomes infatuated with a policewoman, and when she says she might fall for a man who’s an actor, he volunteers to stand in for someone playing a lion at the theatre. It was enjoyable, but not really very memorable.
Quadraturin by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
Krzhizhanovsky was, in his own words, “known for being unknown”. He lived from 1887 to 1950, but his first book was only published in 1989. Perhaps he should have considered a pseudonym. This story was very well done, and reminded me a little of Kafka. Quadraturin is a miraculous new invention that increases the size of a room when applied evenly to the walls and ceiling. The name and description mimic science and marketing, and the obsession with the size of living quarters is familiar from other Soviet-era writers. When Sutulin applies it, his tiny little room does indeed begin to expand exponentially. This is not, however, the unqualified success you’d expect. It goes from being a cozy room to a huge cavern, still lit by the same weak bulb and so full of shadowy corners. He ends up getting lost in it and panicking, calling out to his neighbours from the wilderness. It’s a wonderful closing image to a clever little story.
Lalla’s Interests by Vera Inber
Inber was forced to do a lot of patriotic writing – being Trotsky’s cousin, she was always under suspicion and had to work hard to prove her loyalty. But this story is about children in an apartment block meeting secretly to discuss their interests and organise against their parents. It was an interesting idea, but didn’t really come off for me. The ending felt as if it was supposed to be a twist, but it was for me only confirming what I’d already understood to have happened. So not one of my favourites.
The Embroidered Towel by Mikhail Bulgakov
This story appears as a fairly simple account of a young country doctor operating on a young girl and unexpectedly saving her life. But being set in 1917, it could also be read as a veiled attack on Communism, the young girl representing Russia, mangled and bloodied but just about surviving. According to the introduction it could also be about initiation into manhood and sexuality, but I didn’t really get that from it.