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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


Though bewildered by the immense changes he found in Moscow, Kuprin resolved to assimilate his countless new impressions and make his contribution to Soviet life. But the long years in Paris had broken his health and transformed him into an old man. The tragic change was noticed by the writer Nikolay Teleshov, his friend of the early 1900s. Visiting him shortly after his arrival, Teleshov found him confused, rambling, and pathetic. "He left Russia ... physically very robust and strong," he wrote later, "but returned an emaciated. ... feeble, weak-willed invalid. This was no longer Kuprin - that man of outstanding talent - it was something ... weak, sad, and visibly dying."' Such was Kuprin's debility that he wrote practically nothing after his return to Russia. The two short pieces he did produce appeared in newspapers in 1937. To mark the first anniversary of Gorky's death in June, Izvestiya published Kuprin's "Otryvki vospomi- nanii" ("Fragments of Memoirs"), which described his meetings with Gorky and paid homage to him as a writer. October saw the publication of the sketch "Moskva rodnaia" ("My Native Moscow"), the result of an interview given to the paper Komsomolskaia pravda (Komsomol Truth, organ of the communist youth organization), in which Kuprin expressed his joy at returning to Moscow and his gratitude for the welcome he had received.3

However, it seems he was not as euphoric about his return as his official interviews assert. In her revealing account of Kuprin's last months, Lidia Nord paints a picture of a disillusioned old man who felt he was a stranger in his native country.4 Indignant at the censor's removal of The Pit from a proposed edition of his works, Kuprin criticized Soviet notions of morality. Objecting to pressure (*154) put on him to write on contemporary Soviet subjects, he said: "Collective farm themes are not for me: I never wrote about the peasants before and 1 hardly know them.... There's no music to me in the sound of machines.... 1 know very little about the life of workers.... These themes have never interested me."5 But even worse than this was the knowledge that he was being watched - something he had feared before he left France. Embittered by the authorities' apparent mistrust of him, he concluded that all the fine things said to him in Paris about his being necessary to Russia were only empty words.

January of 1938 brought a deterioration in Kuprin's health, and he realized that he would never write the great work of which he had dreamed on his return. By early July his condition was grave, and death was only a question of time. Though sadly it had stimu- lated no new creativity, his return to the USSR had fulfilled the dream of his long years in emigration. "One should die in Russia, at home," he once told a Parisian journalist, "just like a wild animal in the forest that goes off to its lair to die."6

Kuprin's position in the history of Russian literature is highly significant, if not unique. Born into an age overshadowed by the great Russian novel, which had reached its zenith in the 1860s. he turned to the short story as the genre suited both to his own restless tem- perament and to the manifold preoccupations of his generation. In both war and peace that generation was to witness social and political upheaval on a scale unprecedented even in Russia's tortured history, and in his writing Kuprin would reflect the turmoil of his time. With his contemporaries Chekhov, Gorky, and Bunin. he brought the genre of the short story to an efflorescence without parallel in Russian letters. What he conceded in restraint to Chekhov, conviction to Gorky, and subtlety to Bunin, Kuprin made up for in narrative pace, construction of plot, and richness of theme. These latter qualities, coupled with his abiding interest in the human soul, make him still very readable today. As this study has shown, Kuprin was a writer of lived experience par excellence, and it is his constant focus on the details of actuality that lends his work its convincing power. His lifelong conviction that art should be fused indissolubly with reality explains the irritation and even hostility he felt toward contemporaries who ignored or denied that fusion. His strong dislike of the Symbolists and Decadents around the turn of the century illustrates the point. (*155) While Gorky's Knowledge of which Kuprin was a member, became the center of progressive literary activity of a realistic kind, an opposite camp was formed by Symbolist and Decadent writers. Konstantin Balmont. Valery Bryusov, Dmitry Merezhkovsky, and others were primarily writers for the few: they resented the great success of Knowledge with the reading public and attacked what they considered vulgar, outmoded realism. Kuprin made no secret of the fact that he had nothing in common with such "high priests of the celebrated 'new beauty' " (IX, 79), as he called them, and was contemptuous of their work because it bore so little relation to actuality. For the same reason his opinion of much of Leonid Andreev's work, with its complex metaphysical abstractions, was generally unfavorable. And yet, despite his affinity for both the Wednesday and Knowledge circles, Kuprin was never truly at them. His was too vigorously dynamic, too fiercely independent a spirit to suffer for long the constraints inevitably imposed on the individualist by a coterie whose growing tendentiousness was epitomized by Gorky. Thus Kuprin cannot correctly be viewed as belonging totally to any literary grouping of his time. Instead, he might best be described simply as one of the most distinguished Russian realistic prose writers of the early 1900s. As in his immensely varied life, so in his writing, he traveled his own road.

* * * *

Kuprin's talent is essentially optimistic, assertive of life in all its manifestations. Despite the gloom of his declining years, his career was devoted to the exaltation of man and the beauty of natural things. Perhaps the most eloquent summary of his art may be found in his own words on the death of Tolstoy in 1910, for they apply equally well to himself: "He showed us. who are dull and blind, the beauty of the earth, the sky, men and animals. He told us, who are mean and distrustful, that everyone can be good, compassionate, attractive, and beautiful at heart" (IX, 122-23). As generous and all-embracing as the life it extols, Kuprin's giant spirit strides the pages of his works with a vigor time cannot diminish.

  • 1 N. Teleshov, Zapiski pisatelia (Moscow, 1943), p. 87.
  • 2 See IX, 65-66.
  • 3 See VIII, 553-56.
  • 4 Lidia Nord. "Vozvrashchenie A.I. Kuprina," Inzhenery dush (Buenos Aires, 1954), pp. 60-64.
  • 5 Ibid. p. 61 6 Kuprina, p. 234.

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