Categories
Essay

Reflections on Nobel Laureate Bunin’s ‘Un Petit Accident’

Mike Smith reflects on a short fiction by Russia’s first Nobel Laureate, Ivan Bunin. Could it be a precursor to flash fiction?


Portrait of Ivan Bunin by Leonard Turzhansky, 1905. Courtesy: Wiki

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.

Russian commemorative coin issued on Bunin’s 125th birth anniversary. Courtesy: Wiki

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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Categories
Musings

The Bookshelf And The Lockdown

By K. R. Guruprasad

I have always wondered, when I am not at home, do the inhabitants of my bookshelf come alive like those children’s playthings in Toy Story? Apart from what their titles bind them to narrate, do my books have other stories to tell? Is my bookshelf some sort of a universe in itself with each compartment and the contents – an entity of its own? Are there dimensions to a bookshelf that we, humans, are not aware of – something that is beyond our realm?

For a while now (for me, a year since my last job as a journalist), Monday mornings do not come with blues attached. Moreover, since the lockdown, it hardly registers. However, this time I woke up to a message from a friend. She sent me a picture of her bookshelf. Pristine. Clean. I kept looking at the picture and zoomed in to see if I could read the titles of the books. The low-resolution nature of the photograph offered me a little chance to do so. Some I could read, some covers I was familiar with, and a lot many I could not figure out. 

However, the shelf stood proud. The big brown square with sixteen shelves held its own against a lighter coloured background. The books despite not being arranged in perfect rows -‑ some standing, some lying flat — presented a scenic contrast and appeared orderly on the whole. 

I shifted my gaze to my bookshelf and a quote, I had read a long time ago, came to my mind — “If you do not keep on sorting your books, your books unsort themselves”.

My bookshelf is chaotic. It’s like the city I live in — Mumbai. Each book jostling for space and complaining and, yet, wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

But I like it the way it is. I have heard that people who keep pets end up looking like each other after a while,  and behave similarly too. Many dog owners have told me this. I don’t know much about it but I have seen it happen with one of my friends. But that is not the point. Drawing an analogy, there is a thought germinating and it asks, after a while, does a bookshelf reflect the mind of its owner? I look at my bookshelf and I seem to know the answer. I am just not sure if I should put it out here.

Going back to that quote — do the books really want to “… unsort themselves?”  I’m thinking of a counter narrative here.

What if my books want to be sorted. Will they secretly, when I am not home, rearrange themselves in an order that would make a librarian proud? Or, will they rise in rebellion against me to drive home the point? 

Will a book ‘accidentally’ fall on my head and ensure that it drills some sense into me and goad me to impart some sanity to my bookshelf as well. I am relieved that I have kept all the heavy hard cover books on the lowest shelves. Of course, back then I had no inkling of any rebellion by the books. I had done that just to add solidity to the shelf. It is supposed to be a strong foundation.

If the books were to sort themselves, then they must be interacting. I hope they are. For all the disorder that my shelf displays, it aptly houses James Gleick’s Chaos. Does this book try to make sense and explain to others the lack of planning and logic in the way I have maintained the bookshelf? 

Does Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace talk to others about why I am oblivious of their realm? Does Milan Kundera’s Joker still sit sulking in a corner because I have only read about seventy to eighty pages and have kept it back with a bookmark sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb? And does Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations complain, “Why on earth have I been placed next to Charles Bukowski’s The Pleasures Of The Damned and what on earth am I supposed to do here?”

I’m quite sure my PG Wodehouse’s Carry On Jeeves treats its neighbour Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence like its own butler and comments on its sartorial sense or rather the lack of it. Despite the crowding, there is, however, one hollow space that makes me well up. The emptiness of the space where I had kept my copy of One Hundred Years Of Solitude. I gave away Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece to a friend —  a young writer and a book lover himself. I hope to buy another copy soon. I will.

There is no thought behind the way the books are arranged on my bookshelf. Bill Bryson’s The Road To Little Dribbling is shoulder-to shoulder with Peter Carey’s True History of The Kelly Gang. My Kannada books are strewn all over with a couple of them holding their own against Howard Jacobson and John Steinbeck on either side. 

There is Rushdie with Hemmingway, Coetzee and Murakami are neighbours filled with warmth. There is my collection of National Geographic Magazine somewhere deep down there and on top of this stack is a potpourri of books including my sketch book.

That’s not all. There are layers I cannot reach. And I don’t know when I will unravel them. Behind the proud frontline are rows of books I bought but never read. It makes me shudder to even guess what they must be thinking. Would they consult J Krishnamurthy’s The Awakening Of Intelligence to understand and counsel themselves as to why they are the neglected children?

And then there is a book Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy. It knows it doesn’t belong here but has somehow been at home among my books for more than a decade. I had borrowed it from a colleague in 2008 and have not returned it so far. I promised him that I would, and I intend to keep that promise. So, this copy knows it is not permanent here. Must be a miserable feeling to be somewhere for that long and yet not belong. 

I have often felt like that in between shifting residences in Mumbai. Most of my contracts have ended in eleven months and sometimes maybe twenty two months. But the current place has been my residence for six years now. Do I feel like this copy of Douglas Adams’s work here? Sometimes, I do. 

It is a studio apartment. And it doesn’t offer me space for another bookshelf. In fact the top left square of my bookshelf is where I have kept all the photos of Gods and holy books, including Shrimad Bhagavad Gita. In the lower squares I have made space for my watches and bottles of cologne. And now in the lockdown, there are bottles of hand sanitisers too. The shelves are so stacked that there is no place for The Shadow Of The Wind, which interestingly (ironically?) is the part one of The Cemetery Of Forgotten Books series, and it finds itself on top of the bookshelf gupshupping with a straw hat. 

It appears that my jostling for space in the apartment is a concurrent and a similar theme to the way my books are stacked. Whenever I am vexed with all this struggle, a walk by the sea rejuvenates me. But what about my books?

It maybe fantastical to think that whenever I step outside, they crib about me. But being privy to the way I live, it wouldn’t take too much imagination to believe that they do. There is an unread copy of Hilary Mantel’s A Place Of Greater Safety and a partially read The Second World War by Antony BeevorAnd I wonder if these books would put the idea of a revolution and war in the minds of the other books. Maybe I should keep these books in good humour. A transparent polythene cover and proper dusting should do the trick. 

I do not want to return to my flat one day and find my books in regimental rows and columns with their guns trained on me. It would break my heart to see my favourite A Farewell To Arms pick up a gun again. 

Perhaps before the lockdown ends, I will dust all the books, the bookshelf and rearrange them in a way they might prefer. Perhaps Hemingway wants to be with Alistair McLean. Maybe all my Kannada books want to be together and even share some space with a few Hindi books. I should also make it a point to read all those books sulking behind the front rows. 

All this was in my top five things-to-do-in-the-lockdown list and I haven’t come around to doing any of them so far. Despite my counter narrative to the quote, I believe in what Georges Perec wrote in his Thoughts Of Sorts.

Deep down at a subconscious level, I’m happy with the way my bookshelf is. I’m beginning to understand as I write this piece that the state of the bookshelf does indeed reflect my state of mind.

My bookshelf, along with its inhabitants, is a thriving ecosystem. A being of its own with its blood lines and nerve centres. Despite its constant state of ‘unsort’, I gravitate to it whenever I’m in need of a friend or solace. Sometimes I wonder if it owns me instead of the other way round. Perhaps in some dimension, of which I’m unaware, my bookshelf and I are a single entity. I sure do hope so.

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K.R. Guruprasad has been associated with the sports pages of several newspapers over the last 16 years, as Sports Editor of DNA and previously the Indian Express and Hindustan Times. Guru has developed a finesse at zooming out of the myopic view of any sport, instead looking at sports as a coming together of the players’ lives and struggles, skills and technique and much more. His book ‘Going Places. India’s Small-Town Cricket Heroes’ by Penguin is a great testament to this approach. While his professional career has been focused on writing about sports, he is an avid reader and writer of varied subjects.  An alumnus of Asian College of Journalism, was born in Bellary, Karnataka and later pursued his education in Mumbai.