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Nicholas J. L. Luker

Alexander Kuprin

Alexander Kuprin
This monograph in the Twayne series surveys the varied life and work of Kuprin, who with Chekhov and Gorky was one of the best-known Russian prose writers of the early 1900s. Beside his contemporaries he has received scant critical attention, and within the limits imposed by the series, this study with its bibliography aims to redress the balance.
Boston, G K Hall, USA 1978


  1. About the Author
  2. Preface
  3. Chronology
  4. Biography and Literary Beginnings
  5. Kiev Years
  6. Petersburg
  7. The Duel
  8. 1905 and After
  9. War and Revolution
  10. The Twilight Years
  11. Epilogue
  12. Notes and References
  13. Selected Bibliography

The Twilight Years

I Emigration

Even during his brief stay of 1919-1920 in Finland, Kuprin sensed that the life of an emigre was not for him. The next seventeen years in Paris not only witnessed the decline of his creativity, but eventually broke his spirit. Grieved at his separation from Russia and never truly at home among his fellow emigres, he became lonely and withdrawn. Though he himself criticized the Bolshevik regime in several articles of the early 1920s, he was annoyed by the rabidly anti-Soviet attitude of many emigres. In his article "Nansenovskie petukhi" ("Nansen's Cockerels," 1921) he likened them to Nansen's rooster on the Fram which, disoriented by the polar darkness, went out of its mind crowing at the sun that refused to rise.1 The social pressures of emigre circles irked him too. "Living ... in Russian emigration." he wrote, "is like living ... in a crowded room where a dozen bad eggs have been smashed . .. we've tasted to excess all the vileness of gossip, bickering, pretense, intrigue, suspicion ... stupidity, and boredom."2 The family's poverty only made the situation worse. "I'm left naked ... and destitute as a homeless old dog," Kuprin wrote to a friend.3 But his separation from Russia pained him most, for it hindered his writing. "The more talented a man is," he told a reporter in 1925, "the harder it is for him without Russia."4

Kuprin's nostalgia does much to explain the predominantly retrospective quality of his work in emigration. He returns to familiar themes from his earlier writing and dwells on personal experiences linking him with the homeland he has lost. However varied his sixty or so works of these years may be - they range from travel sketches and animal tales to poetry and the film scenario (* 148) Rakhil' (Rachel) - they introduce little that is new.

Perhaps the most effective are those pervaded by longing for Russia. The distant tsarist past is the basis for several historical works. Thus "Odnorukii komendant" ("The One- Armed Commandant." 1923) tells of the Skobelevs, a military family renowned for its bravery, and "Ten' Napoleona" ("The Shade of Napoleon," 1928) is a humorous account of the absurd attempts by officials in 1912 to locate veterans who had seen Napoleon at Borodino a century before. More interesting is the anecdotal tale "Tsarev gost iz Narovchata" ("The Tsar's Guest from Narovchat," 1933) which sketches Kuprin's native town and describes the visit paid by a laughable local landowner to Alexander I. Reminiscent of Nikolay Leskov's historical pieces, these tales have an old-fashioned, musty flavor stemming from their archaic vocabulary and unhurried narrative. Akin to them are several fables and legends. The sinister "Skazka" ("Fairy Tale," 1920) was followed by the exotic Eastern legend "Sud'ba" ("Destiny," 1923), first entitled "Kismet." and by the more traditional tale "Siniaia zvezda" ("The Blue Star," 1925), a story of a Utopian land where people never lie. Rather different is "Gero, Leander i pastukh" ("Hero. Leander and the Goatherd," 1929). an irreverent variant of the classical legend in which Kuprin's satyric goatherd seduces Hero as she awaits her beloved. "Skripka Paganini" ("Paganini's Violin") of the same year tells how Paganini sold his soul to the devil and achieved fame, but learned at his death that true art is the gift not of Satan but of God.

Treasured memories of Kuprin's past gave rise to another group of Parisian tales. Such are the hunting stories "Noch' v lesu" ("A Night in the Forest," 1931) and "Val'dshnepy" ("The Woodcock." 1933), both set in Ryazan Province, and "Zaviraika" (1928), subtitled "A Dog's Soul," a recollection of Danilovskoe. Like the latter are Kuprin's many tales about animals and birds - "Bal't" ("Bait," 1929), "Barri" ("Barry," 1931), "Udod" ("The Hoopoe," 1932), and "Zolotoi petukh ("The Golden Cockerel," 1923), one of the best works of his emigration. His own experiences are reflected too in several circus tales in which he recalls performers' courage and skill. Among them are "Doch' velikogo Barnuma" ("Great Barnum's Daughter," 1927), "Olga Sur" (1929), and "Blondel" (1933). Other works are variants or extensions of earlier material relating to Kuprin's past. Thus "Ferdinand" (1930) echoes Olesya, "The Swamp," and "Black Light-(*149)ning" in its enumeration of the extraordinary things seen by Kuprin, while the Balaklavan sketch "Svetlana" is a nostalgic postscript to The Lestrigons of two decades earlier. More original are the many sketches that convey Kuprin's impressions of life abroad. His visit to southwest France in 1925 inspired "Puntsovaia krov'" ("Crimson Blood," 1926), a colorful account of a bullfight in Bayonne and a hymn to the matador's skill. It was followed in 1927 by "lug blagoslovennyi" ("The Blessed South"), four sketches on Gascony and the Hautes Pyrenees, in which Kuprin admires the vivid beauty of the South with its quaint towns steeped in history and its towering mountains with their countless torrents. Similar but less evocative are the predominantly urban sketches in Yugoslavia, the product of Kuprin's visit to Belgrade in 1928 to attend a conference of emigre Russian writers. From Belgrade itself, he turns to Yugoslav hospitality, the beauty of their women, and the details of national dishes. More intriguing are his sketches of Paris. The cycle Domashnii Parizh (Domestic Paris, 1927), touches on many features of Parisian life, from the city's vanishing fiacres to fishing on the Seine, from the demolition of old taverns to the modernization of Passy, once so full of Russian emigres. "Parizh intimnyi" ("Intimate Paris," 1930) is a short piece on the family life of Parisians which refutes the notion that French women are immoral.

For all their praise of France and her people, these sketches are tinged with the retrospective sadness characteristic of Kuprin's work in emigration. Nostalgic echoes of Russia sound again and again in these works, reminding their author that he is an alien. While the little town of Auch in Gascony recalls Mogilev-on-Dnieper, its young people out walking in the evening remind him of Kolomna, Ustyuzhna, and Petrozavodsk. Likewise, as he sits on the veranda of a cafe, Kuprin imagines himself in the garden of a Tiflis dukhan (Caucasian tavern). Though majestic, the Pyrenees are not so magnificent as the mountains of the Crimea or the Caucasus. "But ... it's long been well-known." he exclaims, "that everything's better in Russia!" (VII, 350). In Domestic Paris he wonders why the city so often reminds him of Moscow, and ascribes this to "painful shades of nostalgia" (VII, 405). Saddest of all is Mys Guron (Cape Huron, 1929), a cycle of sketches inspired by Kuprin's visit to Provence that year. Describing fishermen at work near Le Lavandou, he wistfully recalls his beloved Balaklava, lost now forever in the distant past. (*150)

II Last Major Works

Three works of Kuprin's Parisian years deserve special mention - The Wheel of Time (1929), The Junkers (1932), and Zhaneta (Jeannelte, 1933), all steeped in nostalgia for Russia and the past.

Though styled a novel, The Wheel of Time is actually a collection of thirteen sketchlike chapters, seven of which appeared in the Paris paper La Renaissance between February and May of 1929. Taken together, they constitute a protracted reminiscence by their

Russian narrator Mikhail of his love affair with a beautiful aristocrat in Marseille. The Wheel of Time abounds in echoes of Kuprin's earlier work, notably his visit to Marseille in The Cote d'Azur and his impressions of Balaklava in The Lestrigons. But its central theme stems from Sulamith and "The Bracelet of Garnets": a great love that is the rarest of gifts bestowed on man. However, while those works stressed the reciprocity of intense love, either in life or death, The Wheel of Time describes a relationship that founders because one partner loves more than the other. Mikhail cannot love Maria with the generosity with which she loves him; sated with her adoring love, he grows complacent, then indifferent, and she leaves him forever. Too late he sees that his dry intellectualism has prevented him from loving her with the spontaneity she deserved. But he submits to fate, he concludes sadly, for the wheel of time can never be turned back. Filled with memories of a vigorous past when happiness was at its zenith. The Wheel of Time is an elegiac testimony to its author's sadness at the onset of old age.

The Junkers is more nearly autobiographical. A lengthy personal memoir begun in 1911, it was finally published serially between January 1928 and October 1932 in La Renaissance. Intended as a continuation of the autobiographical tale "At the Turning Point," it was designed as a prologue to The Duel. Its inordinately long period of composition helps to explain the work's structural flaws. Moreover, its three parts were not written in order. Instead, Part II was written first, followed by Parts I and III, the latter being the least polished of all. This disordered composition produced poor linkages between chapters, confused chronology, repetition, and narrative heaviness. The most glaring inconsistency occurs in Part III, where no reference is made to the hero Alexandrov's love for Zina Belysheva, whom he swore to marry at the close of Part II. Kuprin appears to have completely forgotten this important element of his story, and in Part III simply allows Alexandrov's love to evaporate. (* 151)

Saddened by the Parisian present, Kuprin retreated gratefully to the Russian past. His Junkers is an old man's reminiscence of vanished youth, glimpsed through the mists of time and surrounded with an aura of alluring charm. Through Alexandrov, his younger self, Kuprin looks fondly back on his years in the Military Academy in Moscow as an ideal time, when love was novel and life just beginning. "Father wanted to forget himself," writes Kuprin's daughter Kseniya, "he wanted to compose something like a fairytale." As Soviet critics are quick to note. The Junkers lacks the sharply critical tone of "At the Turning Point" and The Duel. Instead, Alexandrov's years as a junker are an idyll in a delightful establishment whose staff are benevolently solicitous of their charges and never resort to the rod. Time had clothed the past in a rosy light for the author who had so often denounced violence. Yet for all its sentimentality, Kuprin's idealized picture of bygone days lends The Junkers an indubitable charm. With a sad lyricism tempered by the boisterous optimism of youth, he explores such signal moments in Alexandrov's life as the first stirrings of love and the blossoming of literary creativity. Kuprin did not conceal the fact that Alexandrov was his younger double, and in Part I devotes two chapters to his earliest writings and his first tale, "The Last Debut." In view of this, it is odd that elsewhere Kuprin attempts to distance himself from his hero, notably by having him become not a writer but a painter.

The Junkers is valuable in the documentary sense not only for the light it sheds on Kuprin's early years but also for the picture it provides of his milieu. Many of its secondary characters are real and appear under their real names, from Alexandrov's friends to officers and teachers at the Academy. No less interesting are the festive glimpses of Moscow at Shrovetide and Christmas in the 1890s, with the thrill of high speed troika rides through the snowy streets and the glittering magic of winter balls at the Ekaterinsky Institute for girls. Yet colorful as they are, such decorative scenes only emphasize Kuprin's nostalgia for the Moscow of his youth and heighten the sadly retrospective flavor of his lyrical memoir.

A more moving evocation of the life of an emigre is Jeannelle, the last significant work of Kuprin's career. Begun in the early 1920s and set in Passy, it describes the affection felt by an elderly professor. Simonov, for a little girl in his neighborhood. Though Simonov's biography and character differ from Kuprin's, his sadness and loneliness are clearly the author's own. Moreover, his (*152) memories of bygone years and the numerous reflective digressions in the tale contain many echoes of Kuprin's own past. In his tomb-like garret or on his lonely walks in the Bois de Boulogne, Simonov recalls his unhappy past, with its hasty marriage, divorce, and the daughters he never saw grow up. When into the sadness of his life little Jeannette bursts like a gay tornado, she releases all his pent-Lip affection. This impish creature, with her grubby face and hair as black as a Japanese doll's, transforms his life. But his happiness is cruelly brief, for the girl's mother leaves Paris and he loses Jeannette forever. Now his solitude is more painful still as, surroLinded by the fog of a Parisian evening, he sits in his dark room with only his cat for company. Imbued with the sadness of solitary old age and with regret for the irrevocable past, Jeannette is a moving distillation of Kuprin's own feelings in the last years of his emigration.

The 1930s brought increasing hardship to Kuprin and his family. The difficulties caused by poverty were intensified by his sinking morale and declining health. The long separation from Russia was taking its toll, as he had confessed to the artist Ilya Repin in 1924: "Emigre life has completely chewed me up, while remoteness from my homeland has flattened my spirit to the ground."6 Always preferring to portray life as he himself had lived it, he found it increasingly difficult to write about Russia from a distance and from memory. "The cocoon of my imagination has unwound," he wrote sadly in 1924, "and there are only five or six turns of silk thread left in it!"7 His despair at his failing creativity led to the heavy drinking that dogged his Parisian years. After 1932 his sight began to deteriorate, and his handwriting became so impaired that after Jeannette he wrote only four short tales.

Kuprin's longing for Russia grew more acute with every passing year. "It's the duty of every true patriot to return there," he wrote, "and it... would be sweeter and easier to die there."9 When visas were granted early in 1937, Kuprin and his wife arranged to go first, leaving their daughter to follow (in the event she did not do so until 1958).10 Thrilled at the prospect of returning to his beloved Russia, Kuprin believed he stood on the threshold of a new life.

  • 1 See IX, 156-58.
  • 2 Kuprin о literature, p. 246.
  • 3 Letter to Ivan Zaikin of spring 1924, Ш, р. 258. 4Kuleshov, p. 503.
  • 5 Krutikova, pp. 112-13.
  • 6 K.A. Kuprina, Kuprin - moi otets (Moscow, 1971), p. 173.
  • 7 Kuprina-Iordanskaia, Gody molodosti, p. 323.
  • 8 See V. Unkovsky, "O Kuprine," Grani (Frankfurt). 21, pp. 79-82. A much more attractive picture of the aging Kuprin is painted by L. Arsen'eva, ("O Kuprine," Grani, 43, pp. 125-32), who disagrees with Unkovsky's account.
  • 9 Kuprina-Iordanskaia, Gody molodosti, p. 323.
  • 10. Though Kuprin's wife and daughter certainly encouraged him to return and made arrangements for the journey, Bunin was guilty of exaggeration in asserting that Kuprin's role was purely passive: "He did not go to Russia - he was taken there, very ill, already in his second childhood" (Bunin, pp. 96- 97). Similarly, Unkovsky maintains that Kuprin knew nothing about his return to the USSR and did not understand what was happening when he left Paris.

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