The Life of Arseniev

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The Life of Arseniev
First edition
Author Ivan Bunin
Country France / USA
Language Russian
Genre autobiographical novel
Publisher Chekhov Publishers
Publication date
Media type Print (Paperback & Hardback)
Pages 388

The Life of Arseniev (Russian: Жизнь Арсеньева) is an autobiographical novel by a Nobel Prize-winning Russian author Ivan Bunin seen by many as his most important work written in emigration.[1] The Life of Arseniev was being written and published in parts in the course of the 12 years, in 1927-1939, in France. In 1952 the New-York-based Chekhov Publishers released the first edition of the novel as a whole, entitled The Life of Arseniev. Youth.[2]


Bunin started writing the novel in 1927 and was publishing fragments of throughout the late 1920s and all of the 1930s. By 1929 the basic Books I-III had been finished. Then, while different parts of the work were appearing in different French literary magazines, in 1932-1933 Book IV appeared.[3]

The novel, subtitled Days' Outset (Истоки дней) came out in 4 parts. Book I was finished on September 21, 1927. Book II - on September 27, 1927, Book III on September 30, 1928 and Book IV on July 30, 1929. In the process of publishing the original text was being changed continuously: autobiographical details being cut off, real names changed. For example, the Gendurist family Bunin knew in Poltava, featured as the Bogdanovs in the latter versions.[3] Sister Nadya who died at the early age, was called now Sasha. Some ideologically charged fragments went out too, like the one in Chapter 9 of Book IV where Arseniev spoke of narodniks's circle and his own views on one's social responsibilities.[4]

In 1939 the Book V, entitled: The Life of Arseniev. Novel. Lika, was published by the Petropolis in Brussels in 1939. It was supposed to be included into the Vol.12 of the Petropolis’ Complete Bunin, but in 1939 the publishing house closed as the World War II having broke out.[2] According to Vera Muromtseva-Bunina, "Ivan Alekseyevich wanted desperately to include the <final part> into the novel but the latter has been published already and so he released it as a separate edition as soon as the chance presented itself.[5] According to Mark Aldanov, "many people were trying to convince <Bunin> he should start the 2nd part but he was always saying the same thing: 'That one's been written about people gone and deeds done, long ago. How am I suppose to write fiction about people who are still alive?'"[4]

In 1952 the New-York-based Chekhov Publishers released the first edition of the novel as a whole, entitled The Life of Arseniev. Youth. That same year Bunin edited the text again for future re-issues. The date of his last edit was March 17, 1952.[2]

Concept and realization[edit]

Anna Muromtseva-Bunina wrote: "Ivan Alekseevich seldom spoke of his plans. For the first time he told me of his intention to write a book about his life was on his 50th birthday, October 23, 1920. But those were the times he was very ill and still suffered from nervous exhaustion. He started writing Жизнь Арсеньева in 1927 in Grasse".[6] On the envelope of the manuscript's first version Bunin wrote: "Biographical notes and some fiction - for the novel in three parts. Started on 21.VI.1927".[3]

The idea of "resurrecting some kind of faraway image of youth, and may be an imaginary younger brother who might have left this world many years ago, taking his infinitely distant times away with him..." came to Bunin much earlier. In 1929, publishing the new version of At the Outset (1906) novella, Bunin re-titled it as The Mirror, adding a sub-title: "The Life of Arseniev's earlier sketch".[7] Another novella, Eight Years (known variously as "In Corn Fields", "Distant Things" and "The Dream of Oblomov the Grandson") has been acknowledged as another fragment of Life of Arseniev's earlier version.[3]

Bunin's major motive for writing The Life of Arseniev was his own deep-seated "fear of oblivion" which he from time to time expressed. "Life, arguably, is given to one only as a weapon for one's contest with death, which man has to fight even beyond his grave. Death steals his name, yet he writes it on a cross or on a gravestone. She shrouds his lifetime with darkness, but again he resurrects his name using a written word", he wrote.[8]

The Life of Arseniev, as both Bunin and Muromtseva-Bunina were keen to stress, was not an autobiography, but a work of fiction, interspersed with autobiographical details, not necessarily chronologically congruous. Vladislav Khodasevich called the book "a made-up character's autobiography".[9][10] Bunin wrote:

Everybody tends to read The Life of Arseniev as the account of my own life. That is not so. Reality is something that I am totally incapable of writing about directly. Even the heroine here is cooked up. But so immersed into her being I was that I came to believe in her, as if she were a real person, and so strong was that belief that I that couldn't help crying as I was writing about her. She visited me in dreams, even.[11]


  1. ^ Smirnova, L. (1993). "I.A. Bunin. Russian Literature in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (И.А. Бунин "Русская литература конца XIX - начала ХХ века")". Enlightenment Publishers (Просвещение). Retrieved 2011-01-01. 
  2. ^ a b c Иван Алексеевич Бунин. Собрание сочинений. Том 6. Жизнь Арсеньева. Примечания, стр. 333-334.
  3. ^ a b c d Иван Алексеевич Бунин. Собрание сочинений. Том 6. Жизнь Арсеньева. Изд. Художественная литература, 1965. Стр. 324-325.
  4. ^ a b Иван Алексеевич Бунин. Собрание сочинений. Том 6. Жизнь Арсеньева. Стр. 327-329.
  5. ^ И.А. Бунин. Повести, рассказы, воспоминания. Москва, 1961, стр. 614-615.
  6. ^ Moskva magazine, 1961, #7, pp.146-147.
  7. ^ Poslednye Novosty, Paris, 1929, #2203, December 29.
  8. ^ И.А. Бунин. Повести, рассказы, воспоминания. Москва, 1961. стр. 616.
  9. ^ Vozrozhdenye, Paris, 1933. #2942, June 22.
  10. ^ Иван Алексеевич Бунин. Собрание сочинений. Том 6. Жизнь Арсеньева. Стр. 311-312.
  11. ^ Poslednye Novosty, Paris, 1933. #4621, November 16.