Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Bunin v. Gorky
This book just gets curiouser and curiouser, as Alice would say. Volkov devotes much of Chapter 6 to the battle for the Nobel prize in liiterature between Bunin (the White expatriate) and Gorky (the Red socialist). Bunin had fled to Paris during the civil war and was part of a large emigre community in the City of Light. He was considered the leading light among the Russian expats. Nabokov provided a wonderful vignette of his meeting with Bunin in Speak, Memory.
Volkov sets up the story by telling how the Nobel prize committee had repeatedly overlooked Tolstoy, which was a major sore point among Russian emigres. Tolstoy was expected to receive the first Nobel prize for literature in 1901, as he was at the height of his international popularity. When the prize went to Sully Prudhomme, a relatively obscure French poet, Volkov noted that upset Swedish writers wrote an apology to Tolstoy. It didn't seem he much cared one way or the other. By this point, he had renounced his artistic endeavors and devoted his energy to his Utopian ideals.
Bunin was a great champion of Tolstoyism and devoted much of his time extolling the virtues of the literary giant, even if this respect was not reciprocated. Tolstoy apparently preferred Gorky as a writer, even if Gorky considered Tolstoy's idealistic peasant pure fantasy and would distance himself from Tolstoy in later years.
It had been more than 30 years since this gross oversight and the Nobel committee seemed to narrow their choice down to between Bunin and Gorky. Bunin was very well respected by the international community and good friends with the Nobel family, who actively petitioned the Nobel prize committee on his behalf. Meanwhile, Gorky, who had already been shortlisted a couple times for the prize, was being actively promoted by Stalin, who felt the prize would give greater legitimacy to the acculturation process he and Gorky had initiated in the Soviet Union. So, it became a Red v. White battle with the prize ultimately going to Bunin, as many European socialists had become soured by the Bolsheviks. Bunin gave a rather muted acceptance speech, but later became harshly critical of the Stalin regime.
Volkov felt that this "loss" soured Stalin, and lowered his estimation of Gorky. Their relationship cooled after that incident, although Gorky remained a deeply revered figure in the Soviet Union.