What the Swedes Read

A Reader Makes His Way Through One Book By Each Nobel Laureate

by Daniel Handler
  • LAUREATE: Ivan Bunin (Russia, 1933)
  • BOOK READ: The Gentleman from San Francisco and Other Stories, translated by David Richards and Sophie Lund

On the back of my battered copy of Ivan Bunin’s The Gentleman from San Francisco is a quote encouraging me to read Bunin because he “represents the last flowering of the great tradition of Turgenev and Tolstoy,” the umpteenth perfect example of the publishing industry shooting itself in the foot. With all due respect to London Magazine’s April Fitzlyon, whom Wikipedia tells me was quite the Russian scholar, it’s hard to think of a less effective inducement to reading a guy than saying he helped usher the vanishing of a tradition practiced by two very famous, very well-regarded writers of whose work practically none of us have read enough. It feels something like “You absolutely must try this restaurant, it’s the third-best Mexican restaurant in Pittsburgh.”

If I were in charge of the publishing industry—and I heard you snorting—I’d market The Gentleman from San Francisco to Goths. The seventeen stories in this volume all exude the dark and stormy dread found in the best singles by Joy Division. Picture yourself, fifteen years old, eyelinered up and in a trenchcoat, reading something like this:

He smoked cigarette after cigarette, strode through the mud along the paths or sometimes entirely at random, through the long wet grass under the apple trees and pear trees, bumping into their crooked and gnarled branches which were covered with patches of grey-green, sodden lichen. He sat on the swollen black garden benches or went off to the hollow to lie on the damp straw in the hut on the very spot where he had lain with Alyonka. The cold and the icy damp air had turned his large hands blue and his lips mauve, while his deathly-pale face with its sunken cheeks had taken on a violet tinge. He lay on his back with his legs crossed and his hands behind his head, staring wildly at the black straw roof which was dripping heavy, rust-coloured drops. Then his face twitched and his eyebrows started to dance. He impulsively jumped up, pulling out of his trouser-pocket the stained and crumpled letter he had received late the previous evening (it had been brought over by a land surveyor who had come to the estate for a few days’ work); he had already read it a hundred times, and now, for the hundred and first time, he avidly devoured it once more.

And get this, here’s the letter:

Dear Mitya,
Don’t bear me any grudges. Forget, forget everything there was between us. I’m wicked, vile and depraved, I’m not worthy of you, but I’m madly in love with art. I’ve made up my mind, the die is cast, I’m going away—you know who with. You’re sensitive and intelligent, you’ll understand. I beg you, don’t torment yourself and me. Don’t write, it’s pointless.

Pointless! I love it. The book is saturated with this saturated kind of stuff, each emotion very emotional and each situation extremely extreme. If there are teeth, they are gnashing. If there’s a storm, it’s the stormiest in a hundred years. When Bunin introduces a gun, you don’t have to guess what might happen with it.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please visit our store to purchase a copy of the magazine.

Daniel Handler writes books under his own name and as Lemony Snicket.

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