Short fiction by Gogol, Chekhov and other 19th century Russian writers occupies a distinguished shelf in any collection of traditional literature by Russian authors from before the Bolshevik Revolution. Less well known are many stories by those who left the country following 1917 and continued to write and publish as exiles in Europe. Newspapers and periodicals in Russian flourished in Berlin and Paris, printing short stories not only by famous authors such as Bunin and Nabokov, but also from a multitude of lesser known writers.
Penguin Classics recently published Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky, an anthology of over 400 pages of English translations by Bryan Karetnik and others of 35 examples of this little-known literature. The stories themselves are preceded by a detailed chronology of events 1914 — 1940, a sixteen page introduction to the world of exile experienced by the authors, suggestions for further reading, and followed by a list of Russian émigré newspapers and periodicals, author biographies, & detailed footnotes to the stories.
The lengthy introduction notes “…by 1921 over 130 Russian newspapers had been established worldwide, as well as journals filled with poetry, short stories and excerpts from novels and reviews, as well as political, social and philosophical essays and criticism.”
This flourishing was brief however, for with the rise of fascism and then the second world war the hothouse culture of Russian writing withered and was mostly forgotten. Exceptionally, Ivan Bunin was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1933, and is represented with four stories in this collection.
The early work of Vladimir Nabokov only became resurrected and translated after he became famous as a writer in English, starting with the notorious Lolita (1955). His Borgesian story The Visit to the Museum (1939) was first published in English in Esquire in 1963.
Other émigré Russian writers such as Teffi, Lukash, and Gazdanov reveal the sensibility of the exile, creating visions in one’s first language while surrounded by an alien culture.
A sense of nostalgia seasoned by regretfulness and at times horror creates a powerful mood, associated with a sense of loss, the disappearance of not only a vanished past now embedded in an alien culture. The new availability of these texts reveals to the English reader a lesser known chapter of world literature.
Summing up, the editor writes, “. . . these works represent some of the most talented Russian writing of the last century, and moreover a unique confluence of European and Russian literary traditions. Their primary vehicle, born of necessity, was the short story, and it is for this reason that we present them here, with the aim of giving them a new lease of life, a new journey under foreign skies, in a new language.”
January 15, 2019