Mike Smith reflects on a short fiction by Russia’s first Nobel Laureate, Ivan Bunin. Could it be a precursor to flash fiction?
‘Un Petit Accident‘ (A small Accident) is one of those tales which will need more words to discuss than will be found in it.
First published in the late 1940s as part of a trio of short pieces this little tale might be seen as a forerunner of our present-day flash fictions and micro fiction. Yet it is in a tradition that stretches back through the prose poem or Illumination to the anecdotes and exemplars of much earlier times. Only recently cast into English, this translation is attributed to Maria Bloshteyn and dated 2017.
Ivan Bunin (1870-1953) fled to France in 1920 in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution but unlike many émigrés he was already an established writer and his work is not solely related to the experience of exile.
‘Un Petit Accident’ in my paperback copy of Russian Émigré Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky (ed. Bryan Karetnyk, Penguin Classics), runs to a mere 29 lines, yet it packs a punch you might think would need a much wordier arm behind it. For me it’s both a master work and a master class in the short story, illustrating perfectly Hemingway’s ‘iceberg’, and his advice to ‘take everything out that isn’t the story’.
Like a slow camera pan, it traverses the cityscape of Paris. It takes in the sunset, the Palais Bourbon, the Seine, the Place de la Concorde and the Eiffel Tower, before zooming in, near The Madelaine, on the rushing, choking traffic of a Parisian evening. The final shot, in what, to twist the metaphor slightly, might be thought of as a slideshow rather than a moving picture, focuses on a single detail, the significance of which we are left to consider.
There are no named characters, seemingly no protagonist and antagonist, no obvious cycles of increasing jeopardy. The ‘Inciting Incident’, if it is not that sunset, might be in our imaginations and for later. Or perhaps the ‘Obligatory Scene’, if it is that final image, must serve the function of both. It seems that everything that happens in this story has already happened by the time we see it. Yet there is no sequence of actions as such, only the sequence of images that we might mistake for mere setting.
As with much longer short stories, there is the vestige of that common structural oddity of placing the most striking event or revelation slightly ahead of the actual ending, making it part of the preparation and contextualisation of the true ending. And following that shock there is a little addition which poses the question, raises the issue, on which I believe the author wishes us to ponder; the view to which he has brought us.
The collection is furnished with a section of notes about both the writers and individual stories. What they say about this story reveals a lesson in the form. Bunin is quoted; “ ...even with the greatest writers, there are only isolated good passages, and between them – water…”
Karetnyk’s notes go on to say: “these miniatures are an attempt to distil prose into its purest form.” Presumably, that is by getting rid of all that water.
Earlier in the piece he has described Bunin’s tales as ‘terse’, but in this case I did not find it so. Rather the opposite. I’d want to use the word lush. That opening sunset, painted in a three and half line, verbless sentence – which a professor of English in the nineteen seventies categorized because of that lack as being a ‘label’ rather than a ‘message’– is rich with colour: “…the enormous panel of sky covered in strokes of murky colours, mellow and many hued…” The city too is awash with description: ‘Slim spikes of greenish gas flames are strewn throughout the pistachio haze of the city,’
It’s one of the most description packed little tales I’ve read. It brought to mind the startling contrast with an earlier and longer tale by Mary Mann, in which a bare half dozen words sprinkled throughout describe the rural Norfolk in which her story is set. It is sometimes averred that description kills story, disrupts the narrative, brings action to a halt, but here Bunin’s tale is almost all description, a colourful, noisy kaleidoscope of sights and sounds. “Now darkness falls, and the candelabra of the Place de la Concorde cast their reflective silvery glow, while up in the black summits the lugubriously flowing lights of the Eiffel Tower flicker like lightning.”
The sequence is constructed of easily imaginable images, and when we have reached the ending and come to re-read the piece, we might pay more attention to the ambience of those sounds and sights. They are what make the context for our arrival at the final image. They are what prejudice our frame of mind for understanding and speculating about the deeper meaning of what we are being brought to encounter. The purpose of the story, and you might argue, the storyness of it, is in our reaction to what we ‘see’. Conrad is quoted as saying he wanted to “make us see” in his writing and Bunin here does just that. But it is up to us alone to grapple with the significance of what we have been told.
On closer inspection we might see that Bunin has given us more than just intense colour, form, and movement. That it is a single paragraph story is notable. In a story of thirty lines there is room for a handful of paragraphs, but the fact that Bunin uses one alone need be no ‘petit accident‘. It gives the story a structural unity, such as you might expect to find in a painting or photograph.
The painting has it for me, with those ‘murky’ and ‘many-hued’ colours, but a painting of what? Despite the lack of protagonist or antagonist, at first glance, there is the anonymous man on whom our gaze comes to rest at what might be called the ‘crisis’ of the action, and there is one other ‘character’, referred to rather than present, and whose ‘unseen hand is smoothly conducting’. At this change point in the story, as the traffic locks and our focus is narrowed down onto and into a single vehicle, it ‘seems as if the hand has flinched’.
‘Seems’ is one of those words that, in a short story especially, should set our radars tingling, because it usually denotes, or at least raises the possibility, that what seems is not what is. And whose hand might that be which might be doing something other than flinching? It certainly isn’t a human hand. Is it a hand that has acted decisively? And the ‘fiery Babylon’ that Bunin describes with its ‘spikes of greenish gas’, its ‘darkness’ blazing, might seem more Hellish than Heavenly. I was reminded of apocalyptic visions in John Martin’s paintings.
My last paragraph contains a ‘spoiler’, and those who read to find out what happens next might prefer to stop here!
When we reach the story’s end, we are told of a “fast little auto, vividly yet softly lit inside” where a man in evening dress is “slumped over his steering wheel“. The narrative thread is almost imperceptible. The movement, lights and sounds, have seemed random rather than directional. Bunin’s tale has been told in the present tense, yet here, at the sticking point of the end, we are seeing events not so much unfold as having already unfolded. The focus neatly closes in, with mention of ‘matte top hat’, then closer still: “His eyes are closed…” The final words pull back a little, as we have recoiled from what we have recognised: “his young, tritely classical face is already looking like a mask.”
It is a mask, we understand, from behind which the spirit of life has already withdrawn.
Mike Smith lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays, usually on the short story form in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com
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