From variations on a theme we now turn to a complementary case: different uses of a formal pattern. Just as in the preceding chapter the common denominator had extended from the thematic to the structural (‘before-after’), the texts we will be examining now share not only a formal feature but elements of content as well, making comparison more graphic. The rereading of primary texts will again affect their critical echoes; in fact, the secondary prong of the argument will have to be even sharper than usual: while accepted thematizations tend to be impersonal, “universal,” it takes a strong theoretician to articulate a response to structural patterns. The discussion will focus on the treatment of compositional framing in Ivan Bunin’s 1916 short story “Gentle Breathing,” as identified by Lev Vygotsky,1 and will enter, in an attempt to revise this double, literary — and — critical classic, a field of strong reinterpretive forces.

The story’s writing and its theoretical reception belong to a period of sweeping ideological and stylistic change, which was accompanied by a massive reformulation of the literary tradition and modes of theorizing, involving such critical schools as symbolist, Marxist, sociological, formalist, Freudian, and Bakhtinian. Structurally, framing is a narrative device directly engaged in rereading the fabula, or ‘story’ proper, in the terminology the Russian Formalists introduced to distinguish ‘story’ from ‘discourse,’ or siuzhet.2Distinguish to the point of opposing, because in the revolutionary spirit of the time they insisted on emphasizing the antagonistic struggle: extratextual, between literary trends, and intratextual, between components of the work, particularly between ‘form’ and ‘material.’

Form was, of course, their favorite: a technique of purposeful reshaping of “reactionary” and inert matter. They visualized matter not necessarily as “raw” but rather as imprisoned in the worn-out shell of tradition, from which it had to be liberated by a new, “defamiliarizing” formal effort in a dialectical negation of negative old forms. Hence the theoretical myth of siuzhet’s creative and desirable dictatorship over fabula, a logical product of the activist, world-remaking mentality of the avant-garde. In a characteristic utopian gesture, the Formalist critics extolled framing as a means of destroying the story’s given chronological order and thus releasing it from the clutches of empirical history into a new, timeless life. Also, the “noticing” and upgrading of various traditionally subordinate, peripheral, and “irrelevant” elements of the text, by writers and critics alike, led to a rearrangement of the narrative hierarchy in a move cognate with the parallel promotion of the cacographic “lower” voices discussed in Chapter 1. (The Formalist theory of literary evolution as canonization of the “junior branch” prefigures Deconstruction’s attention to the marginal, with the difference that the latter is somehow supposed to become privileged without taking over the center.)

The approaches pursued by individual scholars were not uniform. In rejecting the “organicist” tradition (epitomized by Belinsky and Potebnia), some, like Victor Shklovsky, were extreme “destructionists,” believing that mere ‘negation’ (today’s ‘subversion’) was all that had to be, and was, accomplished by art. Others, for instance Sergei Eisenstein, took a more dialectical path. On the one hand, he stressed the conflict between ‘content’ and the techniques of its expression, preferring a contrapuntal, ‘cheerful’ portrayal of ‘sadness’ to the organic ‘sorrowful sorrow’ and ‘joyful joy’ (1949: 150-53). But he always insisted on controlling the production of specific meanings, which are inherent in the material/content and must be brought out by manipulative framing.

Eisenstein’s analysis of the portrait of Ermolova by Valentin Serov (1905), a contemporary and, roughly speaking, painterly counterpart to Bunin, will illustrate Eisenstein’s ‘synthetic’ approach.’3

Eisenstein begins by stating that the painting, despite its austerity (monotony of colors, static pose, scanty setting), successfully conveys the inspirational power of the actress. This is achieved by innovative compositional means as the lines of the background (floor, mirror, ceiling reflected in the mirror) cut up the picture into several “frames” (in the cinematographic sense): from a long shot of the standing figure to a midshot of the torso, to a bust portrait, to a close-up of the head. This gradual enlargement is accompanied by a parallel shifting of perspective from the downward view of the feet to the level view of the middle part of the body to the upward foreshortening of the top, with the additional effect of the head’s projection against the ceiling, thanks to the complex mirroring. These (and some other devices) impress on the viewer the sense of literally ‘looking up’ at (and to) the actress, or, what amounts to the same thing, of her ‘growing’ on the viewer.

Emphasizing the innovativeness of Serov’s framing, Eisenstein claimed that it anticipated the use of frames in cubist painting and even in cinematic montage: “The means used here lie … already beyond the boundaries of that stage of painting to which the picture still belongs…. A great work of art always … contains as a partial device elements of what … will constitute the principles and methods of the new stage of that art’s progress.” (377) 4

Where did Lev Vygotsky stand? In theory, he echoed Shklovsky’s ,antithetic’ view of form; accordingly, he spoke of the “destruction of content by form” (1971: 156) and made a point of contrasting Bunin’s material (‘vulgar life’) with the meaning read into it by the framing devices (‘lightness’). But by the same token, in his practical analysis he ascribed a quite definite content value to the essentially negative operations.5/p>

In what follows I try to bridge the gap (unwittingly leapt over by Vygotsky) more or less along Eisensteinian lines. The identification of ‘the metaphors that underlay Vygotsky’s criticism is supposed to alert us to the misreadings they may have imposed on the author (Bunin), whose strategies may or may not have coincided with the critic’s. On the whole, the proposed close rereading of “Gentle Breathing” claims, in a traditional way, to retrieve the story’s “true” structure by revising an earlier interpretation and turning for evidence to the “text itself” as well as to intertextual parallels and counterexamples.

The thrust of Vygotsky’s argument was that Bunin avoided writing up the short and insignificant — “turbid” (mutnaia) — love life of Olia Meshcherskaia as a romantic thriller.

The third-person narrative begins by Olia’s grave and outlines her adolescence as a provocatively vivacious schoolgirl who virtually drives a schoolmate to suicide. The principal reprimands Olia on her prematurely bold feminine ways only to be told that she has already been deflowered, and by none other than the principal’s brother. A month later, Olia is shot dead by another lover, whom she had refused to marry and had provoked even more by showing her diary entry about the original seduction. The narrative then shifts to a spinsterly classmistress visiting Olia’s grave, reminiscing about Olia’s short-lived charms, and recalling Olia’s fascination with the idea that she did have light breathing, an epitome of feminine beauty according to an old book she had read. This light breathing, concludes the narrator, has now dispersed itself in the wind blowing at the cemetery.

To set in relief the deliberate lack of suspense in Bunin’s narrative, Vygotsky sketched an alternative, traditionally fabulaic treatment of the plot, against which the actual “Gentle Breathing” is to be read.

If the story of [her] life were told to us in chronological sequence, suspense would be almost intolerable until the moment of her death…. The suspense of our interest, which each new episode … stresses and directs toward the next solution, would have filled this short story to excess. . . . We would learn how Olia seduced the officer, how she began a liaison with him, how she swore she loved him and talked about marriage, and how she began to make fun of him. We would witness the scene at the railway station, and with almost unbearable suspense would be there watching her during those last moments when the officer, her diary in his hands, steps onto the platform and shoots her…. It is the culmination. (P. 155)

To instantiate this kind of writing, one can turn to a real contemporary text. Alexander Kuprin’s very popular and much anthologized “The Garnet Bracelet” (1911, see Proffer 1969: 403-46) can indeed be envisaged as a virtual negative inspiration for “Gentle Breathing.”

The story of the poor telegraphist Zheltkov’s fatal love for the perfect — unattainable, beautiful, noble, rich, and happily married — Princess Vera is told by an impersonal omniscient narrator mainly in chronological order, with a suspenseful deceleration toward the dramatic culmination. The action begins on the day of Vera’s birthday. Zheltkov, who for years has bombarded Vera with letters of loving veneration, sends her a garnet bracelet, connoting love and violent death. Pressured by Vera’s family to stop pursuing her, Zheltkov commits suicide, his last wish being that Vera listen to a Beethoven sonata, which she does after first visiting his body and depositing on its “cold, moist forehead a long, affectionate kiss.” She imagines him speaking to her with love and forgiveness (“Hallowed be thy name!”) and realizes that an exceptional love had passed her by. Bathed in tears, she feels reconciled with life and herself.

Thematically, Kuprin’s story (not unlike Bunin’s) is about overcoming death. Fabulaically, it stresses the modest insignificance of the hero and his class inferiority to the heroine, features reverent ‘graveyard witnesses,’ and uses nature (an autumnal landscape) to foreshadow death, and memory and art (music) to transcend it. Compositionally, it foregrounds a symbolic detail (the bracelet); includes several framed texts (other stories of love; Zheltkov’s letters; the newspaper item about his death; the husband’s cartoon spoofs of the telegraphist’s love for Vera), thus deviating to an extent from temporal linearity and structural tightness; and presents some events as fulfillment of wishes and fears (Vera has a premonition of Zheltkov’s suicide; he predicts her visiting his dead body; her friend Jennie empathetically chooses to play the right sonata).

Kuprin puts all this to remarkably traditional use. Death is transcended (contrary to Bunin’s story) not by ‘life as is’ but by a ‘great love,’ whose modesty is only a romantic appearance concealing inner uniqueness. This love is overdramatized by its platonic nature, princely object, self-sacrificial ending, and tear-jerking social casting (romantic underdog victimized by high society). Of ‘graveyard witnesses’ there are, despite the absence of a literal graveyard, no fewer than two, both presented in dead seriousness: the pianist and the landlady (to whom Zheltkov is “like a son” and through whom he prearranges his posthumous communication with Vera and the final sanctification of the bracelet, to be hung on the image of the Holy Virgin). Art and cultural memory are represented by their most sublime icons (Christianity, Beethoven, Pushkin, and Napoleon; the dead protagonist’s face is compared to the “death masks of two great martyrs, Pushkin and Napoleon”).

Compositionally, the narrative lacks framing, beginning as it does with a lengthy landscape and ending with a lengthy musical recital (cum otherworldly voice-over). The many embedded stories openly function as parables for the main plot, and in the one case where the plot is duplicated by its framed stylization, the strategy is unabashedly romantic: the tragifarcical cartoons precede the melodramatic denouement, which thus has the earnest last word.

This can be seen as a clumsy imitation of the use of pictures in “The Stationmaster” (see below). In fact, one of the cartoon vignettes is a clear allusion to Pushkin’s “Domik v Kolomne”: “Here, dressed as a countrywoman, he takes up the duties of dishwasher in our kitchen. But the excessive favor which Luka the cook bestows upon him puts him to flight.”

As for the story’s emblematic detail, it is a hackneyed valuable (“precious stone”), heavily overplayed throughout the plot but deprived of the closural role by a succession of other “strong finales.” These include the parting posthumous kiss, the posthumous note about Largo Appassionato, the actual music playing, the chantlike refrain “Hallowed be thy name!”, the concluding reflections, and the tears. One wonders whether Kuprin intended to imitate some of Beethoven’s interminable endings.

It is difficult to separate the structural flaws of Kuprin’s story from its general narrative overkill, which after all is the reverse side of the story’s kitschy romanticism. Quantitatively, the overkill takes the form of excessive length, twin characters (Vera and her flirtatious sister; Vera’s nice husband and his meaner brother-in-law Nikolai; the two ‘graveyard witnesses’), and other redundancies and longueurs. Qualitatively, the author always plays it safe, trying to have it both ways.

For instance, Vera both gets her ‘great love’ and remains faithful to her husband, and this is repeated in her sister, ostensibly a flirt but actually another faithful wife. Vera is both the cause of the hero’s death and our perfectly good heroine. Similarly, her husband can afford to be a ‘nice guy’ while his brother-in-law plays ‘bad cop’ to his good one. And finally, the mix of the ‘poor clerk,’ the Bible, Beethoven, Pushkin, Napoleon, and the “beautiful people” — the Prince and the Princess — lacks any common denominator other than a general romantic blur.

On the whole, Kuprin’s narrative remains, despite all its frames and redundancies, basically unframed, fabulaic, and suspenseful, while its counterpart in Bunin is, as we will see, trim in the very way it creates the impression of anticlimactic looseness. In “Gentle Breathing,” according to Vygotsky, Bunin systematically disrupts chronology and undercuts suspense to perform a miraculous purification of life’s “turbid waters.” This reading, however, leaves many questions unanswered. Was Olia’s fabulaic ‘life as is’ all that meaningless? Can purely disruptive strategies be responsible for the effect of ‘lightness and clarity’? Is that effect the most accurate thematization of the story? In particular, should not the spatial, contiguous (and thus atemporal) aspect of ‘framing’ find its place in the picture? What is the historical context of Bunin’s narrative innovations?

The adversative relation between story and discourse is an age-old device, in Russian literature going back at least as far as Pushkin. In fact, a Pushkin narrative underwent spectacular critical rereading at a date halfway between Bunin’s writing and Vygotsky’s reading of “Gentle Breathing.” It took Russian literary criticism some ninety years and a modernist focus on framing to notice in “The Stationmaster” (1831) the writing on the wall of the station: as pointed out by Mikhail Gershenzon (1919), the funny German pictures illustrating the parable of the prodigal son form an ironic counterpoint to the heroine’s actual success story. The facts of Dunia’s life belie the sentimental fictions of the prodigal-son cartoons as well as the more transparent Karamzinian subtext, “Poor Liza.”6/p>

Pushkin’s techniques laid the foundations for later play with frames, in particular by Bunin, whose strategies were, however, clearly different, a difference that underscores the problem of identifying precisely which framing devices are responsible for which specific effects.

“The Stationmaster”: Bracketing Reality

Pushkin’s narrative abounds in framing patterns.

First of all, there is the hierarchy of narrating sources: Pushkin (author), A. P. (publisher), I. P. Belkin (collector-editor), A. G. N. (primary first-person character-narrator), Samson Vyrin (protagonist-narrator), Van’ka (minor character-narrator), plus the many extra- and intratextual voices: Viazemskii, Radishchev, Dmitriev, Karamzin; the doctor, the cabdriver.

Then there are the pictorial frames: literal — the prodigal-son pictures — and figurative — the three “stills,” or tableaux, that stop the action. These include the kiss given by Dunia to the primary narrator in the hallway of the station and summed up in retrospect by a verse quotation; the stylized genre painting of Dunia and Minsky glimpsed by Vyrin through the doorframe; and Dunia’s prostrate pose on her father’s grave, as seen and reported by the boy Van’ka.

In each case, frames, stylization, and their subsequent ironization by further framing overshadow the “reality” they bracket. They serve not so much to set off the story as to distance it from the reader. Moreover, since much about the heroine’s actions remains unspecified (e.g., the cause of her fainting and her marital status in the end), the narrative amounts to a carefully framed three dots (O’Toole 1982: 10710): the frames, which ironize each other, occupy, as it were, center stage, obtruding the view of that framed reality in the name of which they are created and subverted. “Life” takes place behind and in between the frames and cliches, so that the sense of genuine reality is created in a deliberately negative way — by omission and implication.

Emblematic of these strategies is the disembodied way in which the narrator relates his only but quite close encounter with the heroine. He dryly gives the facts, an evaluation, and a literary quote, but keeps out the physical and emotional details of the kiss. In fact, he omits a description he (or rather, Pushkin) had drafted of Dunia’s “languid eyes, her suddenly disappearing smile, . . . the warmth of her breath and the fresh imprinting of her lips” (Pushkin 1937-49, 8: 644; the last word is gubok, “little lips”). Important for the narrator are Dunia’s actions, which contribute to her characterization and foreshadow her moves in the main plot.

Similarly fabulaic is the role played by the pictures on the wall: together with the Karamzinian subtext, they form a false counterplot, a foil to the actual course of events. In the same spirit, the narrative design relies largely on chronological progression: the narrator’s three visits to the station motivate the three installments (two of them successive flashbacks) of the sad story of the little man’s gradual demise. The sum total of these fabulaic scripts and counterscripts spells out the message of “The Stationmaster”: ‘beware of cliches, or you may end up a prodigal father.’ The parable is inverted, but the narrative remains within the confines of essentially parabolic discourse.

Pushkin’s innovatively antithetic framing both reacted against and grew out of the organic design exemplified by “Poor Liza”‘s almost exclusively “sorrowful sorrow.” Karamzin’s first-person narrator begins with a lengthy introduction about his love of “sad subjects,” proceeds to relate his tearful fabula (practically without temporal shifts or suppression of information),7and closes the frame on his nostalgic reunion at the heroine’s grave with the repentant protagonist. The sentimentalist ‘love of sadness,’ however, is a contradictory ideological position, and it is unwittingly taken to an absurd extreme (by the protagonist and the narrator-author alike) in Erast’s “listen[ing] with unfeigned pleasure” (p. 61) to the sad story, told by Liza’s mother, of her husband’s death in her arms.

Moreover, the naive confirmation of sentimentalist values, which takes place in the frame, conflicts with their metaliterary critique in the fabula. Erast falls in love with Liza because she embodies his idyllic bookish fantasies: “He often read novels and idylls; he … transported himself mentally to those times (real or unreal) when, if we are to believe poets, all people wandered carefree across meadows … [etc.]. It seemed to him that in Liza he had found what his heart had been long seeking … and decided — for a while at least — to abandon high society.” In the end, he becomes disenchanted partly for similar value-laden reasons — because “platonic love had given way to feelings of which he could not be proud.” The italics are Karamzin’s, highlighting reference to the fashionable discourse of the time (which is in accordance with Girard’s [1965: 1-52] theory of ‘mimetic love,’ mediated by culture or other third parties).

The contradiction is patched over in the frame with the help of ‘sadness’: sentimentalism ends up feasible — if not as idyllic pastoral, then at least as graveyard elegy. Yet the seeds of metaliterary irony have been sown. Another major contradiction involves the treatment of the cultural motif of ‘money.’ Erast keeps trying to buy Liza’s love and forgiveness and sells his own affections to the rich woman he marries. But the narrator has no part in this, and even Erast is brought to repent it in the unambiguously naive frame closure.

Pushkin’s travesty of “Poor Liza” reacts to and inverts both of its ‘cultural’ strands: (1) it builds on Karamzin’s mimetic view of love by inscribing it into the numerous frames and subtexts only to subvert it in the end (Liza and Minsky live happily ever after despite all sentimentalist expectations), and (2) it develops the mercantile theme in a similar way.

Pushkin makes money matters pervade the fabula, often in a clear echo of Karamzin’s situations: Minsky generously overpays the services of the stationmaster, bribes the doctor to fake illness and stay at the house while he courts Dunia, keeps Dunia in money and luxury, and tries to pay off her father’s claims on her.

Moreover, Pushkin introduces financial considerations into the frame, where the primary narrator repeatedly mentions his disbursements. A. G. N. keeps track of paying the various drivers who bring him to the station — and the stationmaster himself — and what is more important, he “purchases” Vyrin’s narrative with a glass of punch, just as in the end he “buys” the story’s denouement from Van’ka.

A link between the framing and framed stories in this respect is provided by Dunia’s kiss, “bought” by A. G. N. Thus, the “realistic” motif of ‘acquisition for money’ subsumes the fabula and the frame: Pushkin ironically transforms the Karamzinian narrative contract (between the narrator, characters, and readers), based on the aesthetic value of suffering, into a commercial one (both stories and beloveds can be bought).8/p>

Pushkin’s framing strategies are epitomized by the closing scene:

A red-haired, one-eyed little boy in tatters ran up and led me straight to the edge of the village…. We arrived at the graveyard, a bare place, exposed to the winds, strewn with wooden crosses, without a single sapling to shade it. I had never seen such a mournful cemetery.

“Here’s the old stationmaster’s grave,” said the boy to me, jumping on a mound of sand with a black cross bearing a brass icon.

“And the lady came here, did she?” I asked.

Aye, she did,” replied Van’ka; “I watched her from afar. She threw herself on the grave and lay there for a long time. Then the lady came back to the village, sent for the priest, gave him some money, and went on her way, and to me she gave a silver five-kopeck piece — a wonderful lady!”

I too gave five kopecks to the urchin, and no longer regretted either the journey or the seven roubles spent on it. (Pushkin 1983: 102-3)

One protagonist’s visit to the grave of the other is relayed to the reader by the limited primary narrator, who sees it through the eyes — indeed, the single eye — of a little peasant boy who had watched the scene earlier “from afar.” This sighting is encased in and practically obscured by a fourfold framework of monetary transactions: between the priest and Dunia, Dunia and Van’ ka, Van’ ka and A. G. N., A. G. N. and the cabdriver.

This ending pointedly contrasts with that of “Poor Liza,” in particular in the treatment of the ‘graveyard witness’ motif 9and of ‘nature.’ The onetime visits of Dunia (a past farewell) and A. G. N. (a curiosity detour on one of his business trips), guided by the careless Van’ ka, who “desecrates” the grave by his stomping, are in clear opposition to Erast’s and the reliably authorial narrator’s reverent commemoration of Liza’s grave. In fact, even Liza herself is a definite, if figurative, presence there: according to the superstitious villagers, the wailing of the wind, to the accompaniment of which her story is being recalled, carries the groans of “poor Liza.”

This sad but effective union with a force of nature, underscored by the grave’s location “by the pond, under a grim oak-tree,” the narrator’s favorite spot, caps Liza’s consistent identification in the story with flowers and the natural. Erast and Liza meet outdoors. The “hand of her dear friend” plays with her hair together with “the zephyrs.” Abandoned, she sheds her tears and heaves sighs in the woods. Her wailings merge with the plaintive voice of the sad she-dove, and so on. (Dunia is seen mostly in interiors.)

All this is starkly reversed in the final picture of the desolate and treeless grave of the stationmaster — only to be curiously recycled in a graveyard story written some hundred years later.

Indeed, “Gentle Breathing” begins exactly where “Poor Liza” and “The Stationmaster” end — at the graveyard — and it manages an unlikely hybrid. A sophisticated distancing of fabula by frame manipulation a la Pushkin is combined with the posthumous veneration of a young victim through more organic framing reminiscent of Karamzin. I will first explore the ‘destructive’ hypothesis proposed by Vygotsky and then advance a more constructive reading of Bunin’s narrative.

“Gentle Breathing”: Destabilizing the Narrative Worldview

Temporal shifts dominate the composition of “Gentle Breathing,” working both to subvert (“lighten”) fabulaic suspense and to strengthen some of the narrative contrasts and emotional jolts (Woodward 1980: 153). Whimsical as these shifts are, they shuttle more or less regularly between the present and the past in a pattern that as such can help both to defeat and to build suspense: 10

from the present (at the grave) to the past (Olia’s school years), which almost reaches the present (her murder and its investigation), back into the past (the story of her fall), again into the present (the classmistress on the way to Olia’s grave), into the past (of the classmistress), again into the present (the grave), into the past (the conversation about gentle breathing), into the present (windy cemetery).

But Bunin further unsettles the orderliness of the shifts by uneven and disproportionate duration. Some major past episodes are cursorily summarized, while less important ones are developed into detailed scenes. Two major “close-ups” are Olia’s conversation with the school principal and her final monologue about gentle breathing, both of no real fabulaic consequence, whereas a chain of dramatic events is related in one almost absurdly long and compressed sentence:

And Olia Meshcherskaia’s unthinkable confession, which had staggered the school principal, was completely confirmed: the officer stated to the coroner that Meshcherskaia had led him on, been intimate with him, promised to marry him, and then, on the day of the murder, at the station, while seeing him off to Novocherkassk, had suddenly told him that it had never entered her head to love him, that she had only been making fun of him with all that talk about marriage, and then let him read the page in her diary that concerned Maliutin.

There are similar disproportions at the intrasentential level. The “norms’ of relative semantic weight of the syntactic constituents are repeatedly distorted, as in the sprawling sentence that “muffles” the fatal shot by dispensing with it literally in one word (Vygotsky 1971: 156): “And a month after this conversation, a Cossack officer, ungainly and of plebeian appearance, who had absolutely nothing in common with Olia Meshcherskaia’s circle, shot her on the platform of the railway station, in a large crowd of people who had just arrived by train.” A similar effect is achieved by the immediately following description of Olia’s “last winter”:

The winter was snowy, frosty, the sun would go down early behind the grove of tall fir-trees in the snowy school garden, [the sun being] unfailingly serene, radiant, promising frost and sunshine again tomorrow, more strolling along Cathedral Street, skating in the city park, a pink sunset, and that swarm of skaters perpetually moving in all directions, among whom Olia Meshcherskaia seemed to be the best-dressed, the most carefree, and the happiest.

The sequence of urban festivities that includes the depiction of the heroine and occupies two-thirds of the sentence is syntactically marginalized, shifted to a modal (“promised”) tomorrow and tucked away in a participial phrase at the end of a series of absolute attributive constructions. As for Olia, she appears in a subordinate clause further down in this long participial phrase. In addition to thus violating the hierarchy of signification, the sentence also exhibits a characteristic temporal merging (of ‘today’ and ‘tomorrow’) and the Proustian technique of neutralizing the difference between recurrent and singular events by endowing the former11 with the detailed uniqueness of the latter (Genette 1970).

The effect of temporal irregularity of the narrative is further enhanced by the heterogeneity of flashbacks, some of which comprise several temporal frames while others are onefold. Moreover, even had they been rearranged in linear order, the reported events would not cover Olia’s biography without significant gaps. Conspicuously loose is its correlation with the life of the classmistress, so that the epiphanic conversation about gentle breathing remains unattached to the chronology of Olia’s vagaries (before or after the fall? before or after the affair with the officer?). This loosening up of the narrative fits in nicely with the absence of a centralizing narrator-character of the kind used in “The Stationmaster.”

Thus, whereas in Pushkin’s story the flow of time in the frame organizes a similar progress in the fabula, in “Gentle Breathing” time is on the one hand stopped (at the graveyard) and on the other moves chaotically back and forth, with irregularities and interruptions, that is, is both transcended and energized. Suspense is not completely blunted either,12 for advance information of Olia’s death weakens interest in the denouement but not in the peripeties that will bring it about (Connolly 1982: 71). The suspense is even intensified by the way the story of Olia’s fall is first skipped over, then interrupted (in the scene with the principal), and only after these retardations presented through her retrospectively introduced diary (Whalen 1986: 12-16).

Yet the traditional presentation of the fabula definitely is subverted in “Gentle Breathing.” One innovative device consists in leaving a number of loose ends, i.e. omitting not so much the causes of events as their effects.

We never learn about the outcome of Olia’s schoolmate Shenshin’s attempted suicide, the ending of Olia’s dramatic encounter with the principal, the subsequent development of Olia’s and her parents’ relations with her seducer and their friend Maliutin, 13 the resolution of Olia’s despair after her fall (“There is only one way out for me now … I’ll never get over this!”). At the same time, the narrator indulges in a detailed characterization of the fabulaically irrelevant classmistress and finds room for the completely peripheral Tolia (her brother?) and the “tall, plump Subbotina.”

The fabulaic material that does get narrated lacks traditional narrative focus. Rather than telling the story of one fatal love (as in “Poor Liza” and “The Garnet Bracelet”), “Gentle Breathing” chronicles the heroine’s interactions with various characters disparate in time and space. Even the participants in the main triangle (Olia, Maliutin, officer) are never brought together, and Maliutin’s reactions, if any, remain unknown. In fact, the antideterminist, “pro-chance” principle of narration characteristic of the time (in particular of Chekhov’s “incidentalist” narrative [Chudakov 1983]), is almost directly stated in “Gentle Breathing” on several occasions. For instance, Olia’s beauty came to her “without a thought or an effort on her part,” and “for some reason [pochemu-to] no one was more popular with the junior classes” than Olia, while her murderer “had absolutely nothing in common with Olia Meshcherskaia’s circle.”14

This centrifugal privileging of ‘extraneous factors’ returns us to the topic of manipulative framing. “Gentle Breathing” far outstrips “The Stationmaster” in filtering the fabula through various perspectives.

Namely: those of the impersonal omniscient narrator; city gossips; Olia’s diary, later shown to the officer and mentioned in the story still later in the context of the trial; the classmistress; and Olia’s favorite book. At every juncture, Bunin accentuates both the obliqueness inherent in framing (narrator, rumors, diary and the circumstances of its reading, daydreaming spinster, temporally distant conversation of two schoolgirls, “funny old book”) and the immediacy of the embedded reality (e.g., Olia’s emotions and other details of the seduction episode and her almost audible breathing in the end).

Thus Bunin moves away from Pushkin’s ironic detachment and toward genuine sentimentality, as is especially clear in his treatment of the ‘graveyard witness’ figure. The fantasies of Olia’s classmistress are unexpectedly endorsed by the narrator as the two voices subtly merge in the story’s closing frame (Vygotsky 1971: 158).

“And now this gentle breath is dissipated again in the world, in this cloudy sky, in this cold spring wind.” The main verb of this sentence, rasseialos’ (lit. “has disseminated itself,” also translated as “vanished … into” and “wafted through”), is a subtle pun, combining the semes of ‘dispersing, disappearing’ and ‘spreading’; it also makes for a very oxymoronic closure: the story ends on the note of a (half-)opening to the world.

As is often the case, narrative framing is echoed by the use of framed pictures in the literal sense. One such picture appears in the opening sequence, describing Olia’s grave:

A rather large, convex medallion made of porcelain has been let into the cross itself, and on the medallion is the photograph of a schoolgirl with joyous, wonderfully vivacious eyes.

It is Olia Meshcherskaia.

The theme of vitality’s escape from confining frames (the grave, the cross, the medallion, the picture) is signaled by the immediacy of the heroine’s coming alive in the flashback prompted by the medallion. This narrative resurrection15 and transcendence of boundaries is triggered by that emblematic one-sentence paragraph — “It is Olia Meshcherskaia” — written in the present tense and without reference to the picture.

Another picture that comes alive in the story is the portrait of the “young Czar, painted full-length in a splendid hall,” that hangs over the principal’s desk. In fabulaic terms, the picture of the supreme authority serves to redouble the hostile oppressiveness of the school principal (Woodward 1980: 151-52). But Olia eludes the deterministic constraints of the fabula: she “like[s] it in the office” (more about this presently) and is accordingly shown “glanc[ing] at the young Czar” with pleasure, that is, obviating the intermediary of the frame.

The transcendence of frames, figurative and literal, is not confined to the sphere of discourse. In the fabula it takes the form of the repeated violation by the heroine of norms of behavior and physical boundaries. She dresses too boldly, defiantly talks back to the principal, and does not play by the rules with her suitors (Shenshin; the Cossack officer). And the silk handkerchief through which she is first kissed by Maliutin proves insufficient to keep her within permissible limits.

In sum, Vygotsky’s schema covers much of the ground but not all. The fabulaic element is both lightened and activated—destabilized–while frames, rather than obstructing “reality,” are overwhelmed by and fused with it. This calls for a reformulation of the text’s dominant.

“Gentle Breathing”: Shift of Focus

The generic theme of “Gentle Breathing” is the time-hallowed one of ‘life and death,’ with a none too original hint of ‘bittersweet victory in defeat.’ The life-death opposition underlies

the narrative’s ‘graveyard’ genre;

— the consistent juxtaposition of episodes bubbling with life and those bringing or symbolizing death;

— the character of the heroine, who is not only both vivacious and prematurely dead herself, but who influences others in the same way (provokes her schoolmate to attempt suicide, her fiancé to commit murder, and the classmistress to worship her death);16

— the set of other personages — all studies in hybridization of “sexy” vitality with lifelessness: the teenage suicide Shenshin; the “youngish, but gray-haired” principal; her brother, Maliutin, who is “fifty-six, but still very handsome”; the classmistress, “a girl no longer young [nemolodaia devushka], . . . living on … illusion … in the place of real life”; and her brother, who dies young; 17 and

— the details of the setting, which invariably combine pleasant and lively warmth, light, freshness, and so on with their mortifying opposites, a principle epitomized by the coupling, in the story’s opening line, of “cemetery” and “cross” with such epithets as “fresh,” “strong,” and “smooth,” and the leitmotif prominence in the text of lexemes denoting ‘life,’ ‘death,’ and ‘killing.’

The new twist to this age-old topos is given by Bunin’s very own and yet typically modernist treatment of ‘transcendence.’ Both in the fabula and the siuzhet, Olia easily transcends boundaries, challenging conventions, jumping the stages of the life cycle (from childhood to youth to womanhood to death), and escaping death itself. Like a butterfly, she flutters out of frames, ages, life, grave. Two related semes control the narrative embodiment of this dominant: ‘lightness’ (highlighted by Bunin and noted by Vygotsky) and ‘overstepping.’

‘Lightness.’ The heroine and the narrative alike free themselves from the rigid determinism of moral and fabulaic constraints. Hence the choice of the story’s title trope, which identifies the most spiritual of corporeal attributes; hence also the entire aesthetic of foregrounding discourse, memory, fantasy, style, and tropes. Yet the overall effect is far from one of disembodied flights of stylistic fancy, albeit counterbalanced by life’s fabulaic ‘troubled waters.’ Such an alignment of values (proposed by Vygotsky as the story’s thematic dominant) would ill agree with Bunin’s keen appreciation of the material world. Bunin therefore performs an original tour de force in the handling of ‘matter’ itself, in accordance with the story’s second dominant seme (‘overstepping of boundaries’) and the general artistic spirit of the epoch.

‘Overstepping’ is reified as a literal ‘shift of focus’ from everything pivotal and central to the contiguous, peripheral, and superficial. In the fabula, it spawns inclusion of previously irrelevant factors, in particular new ways of linking characters and plot with setting and physical detail. In the siuzhet, the shift means positive interaction with frames and privileging less important facts, subordinate clauses, linguistic texture, and synecdoches. Let us examine some of the displacements at work in Bunin’s story.

The sentence about the shot is remarkable not only for its negative thrust, which can be summarized as ‘muffling the usual with the extraneous,’ but also for the positive panning to the “big picture” — the crowd at the railway station. In fact, this is one of the many scenes that show Olia as part of a crowd — in a characteristic anticipation of the Pasternakian poetics of contiguity, “the sense of being related to the beauty of the entire spectacle.” 18

As a little schoolgirl, Olia is fully merged with the crowd; then she stands out from it as “the best-dressed, the most carefree, and the happiest,” as in the description of her last winter, or is seen against its background, as when she delivers her monologue about gentle breathing “during the noon recess, while strolling in the school garden.”

The garden is Olia’s typical “Pasternakian” background. The “sun … goles) down early behind the … fir-trees in the snowy school garden.” Cilia strolls in the garden (as well as in the fields and woods) while expecting Maliutin, then together with him in the garden, which is (lit.) “flooded with sunlight.” The cemetery is described as a “large low garden,” reached by the classmistress after walking across various parts of the city and a field.

Other macroexteriors include the cityscape, skating rink, railway station, fields, woods, wind, sky, and finally “the world” (in the concluding sentence).

Nor are interiors, despite being enclosures, hostile to the heroine.

Olia is at home in the hall, where she runs around with her schoolmates; the glassed-in veranda, where she “falls”; the “brilliant hall” in the czar’s portrait. Especially telling is Olia’s counterfabulaic enjoyment of the principal’s office — its cleanness and spaciousness, the warmth of the Dutch fireplace, the freshness of the lilies of the valley (incidentally, poor Liza’s emblematic flowers), the youthfulness of the pictured czar, and even the smoothness of the part in the principal’s hairdo.

In saying to Olia, “You will attend badly,” the principal unwittingly formulates the story’s narrative program: the heroine’s attention is focused not on her fabulaic antagonist but on the setting. Olia is not so much in conflict with the principal as in love with the “young Czar” and the Dutch fireplace, which is almost personified (the Russian word gollandka can also mean “a Dutchwoman”).

On the smallest scale, the change of narrative orientation results in highlighting the material manifestations of the setting and the characters’ appearance. The world of “Gentle Breathing” (as, indeed, Bunin’s world in general) is consistently, provocatively physical.

We can clearly see, hear, feel the smooth heaviness of the oakwood cross, the whistling of the wind through the china wreath, the outline of Cilia’s developing breasts, her disheveled hair and the baring of her knee by her running around, the principal’s knitting rolling away on the floor, and so on. Every character has a distinct physical presence: the Cossack officer is nekrasivyi, “ungainly, ugly”; the classmistress, “a girl no longer young,” “a little woman in mourning, in black kid gloves, and with an ebony sunshade”; even Subbotina, who appears only once, is “tall [and] plump.”

A peak of ‘physicalness’ is attained in the description of the “fall.” Penned by Olia herself, it lovingly details Maliutin’s horses, clothes, beard, eyes, and his English cologne, “except [she] didn’t like that cape he came in.” Characteristically, in contrast to Leo Tolstoy, who understands but disapproves of Natasha Rostova’s unexpected physical infatuation with Anatole, Bunin not only fails to condemn his heroine but actually rather relishes the shallowness of her emotions. Thus he pushes to an extreme something subtly implicit in Tolstoy, whose “natural” heroine acts out her frustration with the abstinence imposed on her by the rationalistic Bolkonskys, father and son. As the impressionist narrator of a contemporary French novella aptly put it, “For me, there is enough depth on the surface of things” (Jean Giraudoux 1955 [1911], 1: 134). Bunin’s reluctance to morally judge his heroine is part and parcel of the turn-of-the-century culture’s revision of the entire “traditional/positivist” chronotope and value system.

Attention to detail produces sequences where a general view is followed by a synecdochic close-up.

Thus, the picture of the “gray-haired” but “young-looking” principal and her office narrows down to the description of the “smooth part” in her hairdo. Incidentally, this close-up may go back to Afanasii Fet’s poem “Tol’ko v mire i est’, chto tenistyi …” (“In the World There Is Only the Shadowy …”; 1883), which begins with a picture of a garden and then gradually zooms in on the heroine’s probor, “hair-part.”

The pars pro toto principle is introduced earlier in Olia’s biographical sketch, where she is part of “the noisy crowd of little brown uniforms,” and even before that in the sentence that equates the heroine with her graveyard photo, to say nothing of the synecdochic title.

In fact, the title, as spelled out in the closure, is emblematic of the shift of compositional focus from the fabulaic relations among characters to the continuum that subsumes the fabric of their individual beings and the surrounding macroworld. Characteristically, the heroine’s gentle breathing does not refer to her interactions with the other protagonists (unlike, for instance, the garnet bracelet in Kuprin’s story); it links her to her reading, her self-image, the impression that lives on extrafabulaically in the memory of her classmistress, and to the cemetery wind. This latter effect is carefully prepared.

The ‘wind’ motif appears in the very first framing scene and returns in the last, where it pervades the classmistress’s visit to the cemetery. It is absent from the episodes of Olia’s life, where it is tactfully replaced with its human-size counterparts — Olia’s “whirlwind” (vikhrem) rushing and her “deep breath” (glubokii vzdokh) — and it reappears in the last sentence, where the micro- and macro-winds meet.

Several less conspicuous foreshadowings of the finale are insinuated through subliminal wordplay, thus bringing us to the activization of yet another “extraneous” element: language.

Very early, Olia is referred to as vetrena, “flighty,” lit. “windy”; the implied environmental connection is not only linguistic but intertextual and mythological: it goes back to Fedor Tiutchev’s poetic line about vetrenaia Geba, lit. “the windy Hebe,” who combines anthropomorphic and meteorological features (“A Spring Storm,” 1829).

Later, Olia’s love of the principal’s office is subtly motivated by the wording of its description, which has “the office [kabinet, masculine] breathing so well … with [exuding or inhaling] the warmth of the shining Dutch oven [gollandka, feminine],” and thus encapsulates the overall pattern of the heroine’s union with the respiration of the world at large. (The words for ‘world’ [mir]and ‘wind’ [veter] are masculine; the mediating ‘breathing’ [dykhanie], neuter.)

Furthermore, the root of the key word of this phrase, dyshavshego, “[that was] breathing,” links it to several other lexemes prominent in the text of the story: vzdokh, “sigh, breath”; dykhanie, “breathing”; vzdykhaiu, “[I] am sighing, breathing”; vozdukh, “air.” The entire cluster is foregrounded by the title and the concluding episode, where breathing is read about, discussed, demonstrated, and promoted to closural trope.

The key phrase legkoe dykhanie (“gentle, light breathing”) itself is a miniature poem, subtly metered

(x _ _ _ x _ _) and onomatopoetically alliterated (in -kh- ).

The ‘importance of the word’ is clearly articulated in “Gentle Breathing.”

Paradigmatically, it is overdetermined by the Old and New Testament equation of what was “in the beginning”: the Spirit/Wind that moved upon the waters(Genesis 1: 1-2) and the Word (John 1: 1).19

Quite early, the narrator employs the hackneyed romantic figure of doubting the adequacy of human words to depict the heroine’s physical charms: “all those [bodily] forms whose charm has never yet been expressed by ordinary human words.” 20

Olia’s confrontation with the principal revolves around the semantic problem of whether Olia is a “little girl” or a “woman”; and the classmistress wonders “how one can connect this pure gaze and the horror now linked with the name [!] of Olia Meshcherskaia.”

The resolution of the tension between Word and Flesh defines the peripeties of the narrative. In the spirit of the Silver Age (of which Bunin was if not part at least a reluctant partner), with its replay of the romantic and Platonic primacy of Word and Idea over Life, reality is shown imitating, conversing with, and embracing the word.

Thus, the outcome of Olia’s terminological discussion with the principal had been predetermined by the wording of her reaction to the summons — “the quick womanly movement, already a habit,” with which she arranged her hair — while the disclosure of the fall is presented as a “confirmation” of Olia’s previous “unthinkable confession.”

Similarly, the culmination of the fabula is a self-fulfillment of Olia’s forebodings and a result of the diary page being somewhat futuristically brought out into the world, into the midst of the railway commotion. 21

The story concludes with a manifold demonstration of the power of the word. The control exercised over reality by the verbal portrait of ideal beauty in the “funny old book” is confirmed both by a cumulative finale and by its careful foreshadowings, recognized in retrospect.

As one reaches the description, one realizes that the recipe has all along been embodied in Olia, in particular, the prescribed “arms longer than usual” (reminiscent of Olia’s consistent excessiveness) and “shell-pink knees” (referring back to Olia’s knee bared as she rushes).

Then the portrait’s breathing comes spectacularly alive. It merges with this breath drawn by the heroine and this wind blowing at this moment at the cemetery. To do so, the bookish ‘breathing’ has had to traverse numerous boundaries and frames: the covers of the old book, read long ago; the inset of Olia’s conversation with her friend; that of the classmistress’s recollections; and the major compositional distinction between a sentimental character and the “objective narrator.”

The sentimental classmistress, whose fantasies thus get narratorial approval, is, as we remember, fabulaically unconnected with the heroine. Instead, she is attached to Olia’s story by the essentially lyrical motif of ‘memory,’ especially characteristic of Acmeist poetry and Proustian prose. The role of memory as a cultural force combating time and death is stressed by Olia’s recollection of a passage from the “funny old book” 22 and the classmistress’s remembrance of Olia’s quoting it in a relay that is then taken over by the narrator and the author, who place it in the most prominent final position. This in turn accentuates the numerous literary reminiscences in the text, some of them full-blown, others latent. To those already mentioned (from Tiutchev, Fet, probably Akhmatova) we may add Maliutin’s direct reference to Faust, the inevitable interplay with Anna Karenina’s “railroad” death, and the poetic connotations of two proper names.

The heroine’s family name, insistently recurring throughout the story, brings to memory Derzhavin’s poem “On the Death of Prince Meshcherskii” (1779), which treats the transitory nature of pleasures, beauty, love, and life itself. The name of Olia’s suicidal schoolmate, Shenshin, coincides with the Russian surname of the poet Afanasii Fet. Fet was Bunin’s favorite poet, and in The Life of Arsen’ev (192839),23 his semiautobiographical protagonist defends Fet’s notoriously “non-civic” poetry by “arguing that there is no nature separate from us, that every slightest movement of air is the movement of our own life [!]” (Bunin 1965-66, 6: 214).24 In this context it seems likely that the title of the story has as its literary prototype a similar phrase from a famous Fet poem, “Shopot, robkoe dykhan’e, treli solov’ia” (“Whisper, timid breathing, nightingale’s warbles,” 1850).

Commentary and a Further Comparison: “Spring in Fialta”

It now becomes clear how the tenor of Bunin’s manipulative framing differs from Pushkin’s. In “The Stationmaster,” the composition is ironic and negative, displacing the fabulaic reality so that it can barely be glimpsed through the cracks in the multilayered frames. In “Gentle Breathing,” the compositional displacement is, rather, positive and inclusive as it widens the focus from just one aspect of real-life material, the fabulaic, to encompass its other, “contextual” aspects, fusing a variety of natural, physical, social, cultural, linguistic, and literary motifs into a strong aroma, which is brought up close to the reader. Bunin, so to speak, reclaims Dunia’s kiss from the draft’s limbo. Having distilled it into pure breathing and separated it from the fabula and his heroine’s love life in general, he informs the entire narrative with its subliminal presence and lets it sweep the frame and the world itself in a replay of poor Liza’s strong posthumous presence.

Pushkin too had “taken notice of” and spotlighted elements of setting. But when these (e.g., the prodigal-son pictures) came out almost literally of the woodwork in his story, they did not free themselves from their ironic framing and continued to function in a traditional, fabulaic manner. In short, if in Pushkin the frame became “fabulized,” Bunin by contrast “pictorialized” the fabula (and its environs). This painterly approach anticipated the poetics of Pasternak, who in turn saw a kindred stylistic spirit in Bunin’s senior contemporary:

Chekhov … inscribed man in a landscape on equal terms with trees and clouds; … as a dramatist he was against the over-rating of the social and the human; … the conversational texts of the plays are not written in obedience to any logic of interests, passion, characters, or plots . . . , the cues and speeches are … snatched out of the space and the air they were spoken [in], like spots and strokes of a forest or a meadow … to render the true simultaneous resemblance … to life in the far broader sense of a unique vast inhabited frame, . . . to life as a hidden mysterious principle of the whole. (Pasternak 1960: 4)

In general, Bunin’s narrative art has much in common with a wide range of stylistic phenomena representative of his transitional epoch.

Especially significant are his affinities with metonymic writing (e.g., Belyi and Pasternak); lyrical, fragmentary, and ornamental prose; “cinematic” montage of heterogeneous narrative fragments; urbanist (and unanimist) depiction of crowds; Proustian play with time and memory; the art-into-life sensibility of the Symbolists; and the Acmeist cult of literary reminiscences.

This jumble of seemingly disparate features had an identifiable core: for all his modernist and aestheticizing tendencies, Bunin was a descendant of the Russian realist tradition, representing its late, naturalist/impressionist/prefuturist stage. The “contextual” shift of focus, which we found to be the narrative dominant of “Gentle Breathing,” was as much a departure from the nineteenth-century obsession with life’s plots as a continued and expanded scrutiny of reality. Thus, Bunin’s poetics — incidentally, not unlike Pushkin’s25 — combined on an essentially conservative base several successive trends. And in his long life, which straddled both centuries, he could witness the emergence and passing of multiple “isms” as well as a post-Symbolist revindication of his pre-Symbolist position.

But these differences do not make the two framing strategies incompatible. Just as Bunin managed to loosen Pushkin’s ironic grip on Karamzinian emotionalism (without slipping into Kuprin-like frameless Romanticism), a later modernist (and closet romantic), Nabokov, undertook what he might have seen as a reencasing of Bunin’s gushingly open-framed narrative in stricter, more suspenseful Pushkinian forms. His “Spring in Fialta” (1936) 26 is a study in consummate synthesis of most of the narrative means discussed above.

In theme and plot, Nabokov’s “Spring in Fialta” recycles the same old story, featuring a bold woman, kisses, love triangle, rejection, heroine’s untimely death, and an organicist narrator (“Were I a writer, I should allow only my heart to have imagination, and for the rest rely upon memory, that long-drawn sunset shadow of one’s personal truth,” 299). Narratively, it is decentered enough to compete with “Gentle Breathing”:

Both of its main protagonists lead family lives that in no way interfere with their romance. The heroine has other lovers and does not always take the opportunity to make love with the narrator. They have repeatedly met by chance for years without any buildup of tension. And the heroine’s death results from an accident (rather than murder, suicide, or alcoholic self-destruction).

The composition works in several directions at once. First of all, it helps tighten and dramatize the fabula. A major step in this direction is the choice of first-person narrator as the main protagonist: it is as if Nabokov had combined in one figure Pushkin’s A. G. N. or Bunin’s classmistress (observers and fantasizers) with Bunin’s Cossack officer or Kuprin’s Zheltkov (rejected lovers). In fact, the ‘kiss-breathing’ that was narratively stifled by A. G. N. and blown up by Bunin’s classmistress is promoted in “Spring in Fialta” to the story’s culmination, where the framed fabula (the chronicle of the protagonists’ past meetings) and the frame (the current encounter) finally meet as the hero declares his love:

Nina, who stood on a higher ground, put a hand on my shoulder and smiled, and carefully, so as not to crumple her smile, kissed me. With an unbearable force, I relived (or so it now seems to me) all that ever had been between us, beginning with a similar kiss . . , but something like a bat passed swiftly across her face, a quick, queer, almost ugly expression, and she … became embarrassed.

The compositional focus on the last meeting is coupled with perspectival and temporal enlargement, conferring suspenseful importance on what is fabulaically another inconclusive kiss that just happens to precede the heroine’s death.

The dramatization of this nonstory is further enhanced by the parallel intercutting of the present moment (which lasts one morning and the length of the story) not only with flashbacks of the past (spanning some fifteen years) but also with as many foreshadowings of the heroine’s imminent death (which follows an hour or so later and is reported in the next day’s newspaper). Some of the foreshadowings are explicitly anachronistic flashforwards, while others take the hidden form of circus posters, seen by the narrator on every corner but ignored by the reader until the closural mention of the fatal collision with the circus’s truck.

This compositional device combines Bunin’s shift of focus to the setting, allowing it to intrude “accidentally” upon the main story (as in the picture of the czar in the principal’s office or the “extraneous” shot at the railroad station) with Pushkin’s fabulaic, albeit counterpredictive use of pictures. A major difference, however, is that Nabokov’s ironic framing calls into play not the inset pictures but rather the ‘liveliness’ and ‘mortality’ that pervade “real” life, as, for instance, in the parting scene — where else but at a railway station — saturated with elaborate framing:

She … climbed into the vestibule, disappeared; and then I saw her through the glass settling herself in her compartment, having suddenly forgotten about us or passed into another world, and we all, our hands in our pockets, seemed to be spying upon an utterly unsuspecting life moving in that aquarium dimness, until she … raised her eyes, fumbling at the frame as if hanging a picture … and … leaned out, audible and real, beaming with pleasure.

In fact, the narrator comes close to formulating his role as a medium of heightened perception very early, when he compares himself to an eye opening in the middle of a street to “take in everything at once.” 27

But the multiple frames also serve to control and detach, like the train window that makes Nina look otherworldly. The dotted-line double exposure of the hero’s romance and his married life, led “as if in a picture,” further defuses the fabulaically unrealized potential conflict, turning it into a kind of game or artistic curio. On occasion, Nina is described through a quote from the book authored by her husband, about whose writing the narrator is very ambivalent. In fact, it is no chance that the two contenders for her love are professional authors, one a writer, the other a moviemaker. Moreover, there is a third quasiauthorial presence, “the Englishman of the solid exportable sort,” a Nabokov look-alike, who appears at several focal points in the narrative to establish the equations between his eyes and the ‘I/eye’ of the narrator and between the heroine and the “furry moth [nochnaia babochka], which he deftly slipped into a pill-box” (309).28 This ‘encasing act’ is emblematic of the entire narrative: the world is a circus, the kiss should not crumple the smile, the close-up of life and death is best framed by the narrator’s final word.

Indeed, the ending of “Spring in Fialta” is a perfect instance of frame flooded by fabula yet containing the flood. On the one hand, there is the poignantly accidental death of the heroine, accompanied in the chronotope of the narrative by the miraculous and ungrammatical leap from the last farewell in Fialta to the moment when the narrator learns the tragic news at “the station platform [!] of Mlech [Milan, in the Russian version].”

We stood for a little longer by the stone parapet, and our romance was even more hopeless than it had ever been. But the stone was as warm as flesh, and suddenly I understood something I had been seeing without understanding — why a piece of tinfoil had sparkled so on the pavement …: somehow, by imperceptible degrees, the white sky above Fialta had got saturated with sunshine, . . . and this brimming white radiance grew broader and broader, all dissolved in it, . . . and I stood on the station platform of Mlech with a freshly bought newspaper, which told me that the yellow car … had suffered a crash beyond Fialta, having run at full speed into the truck of a traveling circus.

On the other hand, Nina’s death is distanced by its occurrence “out there,” in the framed fabula, rather than up front in the frame; by its being reported in a brief summary of what the narrator read in a newspaper; and, finally, by the abstract, almost Platonic, terms in which the concluding sentence recasts it: rather than merely dying, Nina has “turned out … mortal.” 29

* * *

As we have seen, manipulative framing of the fabula has more uses than one, and so cannot be responsible for the specific cumulative impact of the narrative. The expressive potential of framing comprises such effects as destruction or intensification of suspense, distancing of or close-up focus on facts, fabulaic comment on ‘reality’ or pictorial foregrounding of context, closure or open-endedness. These effects are not mutually incompatible. “Poor Liza” is framed in a suspenseful, fabulaic, close-up, closured way; “The Stationmaster” in a suspenseful, fabulaic, distancing, open-ended way. “The Garnet Bracelet” is frameless, fabulaic, suspenseful, close-up, closured; “Gentle Breathing,” ” framed, unsuspenseful, close-up, open-ended, both fabulaic and “contextual”; “Spring in Fialta,” framed, suspenseful, unfabulaic, closured, both close-up and distanced.

On balance, Vygotsky’s reading ends up being an overinterpretation (boiled down to ‘light breathing’) of an incomplete structural analysis (that alleges ‘purely antifabulaic framing’). Guided by the activist spirit of his epoch, Vygotsky seems to have read into “Gentle Breathing” more modernism than was warranted by Bunin’s actual writing, and missed the less extremist but quite original part of its dominant (the ‘shift of narrative focus’). In a more general sense, however, Vygotsky and his contemporaries the Formalists were in tune with the direction in which the modernist aesthetics was moving. It was this awareness, coupled with their activist approach to form, that made possible their major contributions to the theory of story and discourse,30 as well as their powerful rereadings of Russian literary texts. The completion of the formalists’ project by structuralists and the current poststructuralist climate set the stage for rereadings of their own work, having laid bare their assumptions, metaphors, and strategies. 31


1 “Legkoe dykhanie” (lit. “Light Breath[ing]”) was first written and published in 1916 and slightly reedited in 1953 (see Bunin 1965-66, 4: 355-60, 464, 490). I use (and emend) the translations in Bunin 1922: 41-50 and Brown 1985: 59-65. Vygotsky wrote his analysis, “Bunin’s ‘Gentle Breath’” ” (1971: 145-65) in 1925 as chap. of his Psychology of Art, which remained unpublished until 1965. His ideas have been developed in Connolly 1982, Kucherovskii 1980, Langleben 1991, Spain 1978, Whalen 1986, Woodward 1980.

2 Vygotsky used, respectively, the terms ‘disposition’ and ‘composition’; for a modem systematization of these concepts, see Genette 1970, Chatman 1978. In these pages I will occasionally use the form ‘fabulaic’ as an adjectival reference to ‘story.’

3 Characteristically, this approach was developed only toward the end of the following decade; see Eisenstein 1964 [1937]: 376-82.

4 For a presentation of Eisenstein’s theory of art as a machine of pure persuasion, see Zholkovsky 1984a: 35-52; for a modification of that view, emphasizing the dependence of Eisenstein’s theory on avant-gardist concepts and his own personal myths of power, see Zholkovsky 1992g.

5 Cf. Eisenstein’s positive ‘growing on’ and ‘looking up to’ (his actual Russian terms are vyrastanie, “growing [up],” and kolenopreklonenie, “genuflection”) with the rather subtractive freshness of perception owing to Shklovsky’s defamiliarization (1965a [1917]), semantically close to ‘lightness.’

6 Gershenzon’s insights were developed by Bocharov (1974: 157-74), O’Toole (1982: 99-112), Debreczeny (1983: 119-37), and others.

7 One major exception is the story of Erast’s marriage, which is given in retrospect during his last meeting with Liza; on the narrative structure of “Poor Liza,” see Anderson 1974: 72-85, Hammarberg 1987.

8 An interesting European parallel is provided by the play with narrative and commercial contracts as emplotted in Balzac’s contemporary story “Sarrazin” (1830) and analyzed by Roland Barthes (1974a: 212-13). In sociological terms, this can be connected with Pushkin’s role and self-image as the first professional writer; see his semijocular poetic maxim: “The inspiration is not for sale, /But one can sell the manuscript” (“A Dialogue Between a Book Seller and a Poet,” 1824). On the gradual transition among Russian literati from ‘patronage’ and ‘familiar associations’ to ‘professionalism’ and the place occupied in this process by Karamzin and Pushkin, see Todd 1986: 45-105.

As for the Balzac connection, note Pushkin’s references to and near-quotations from his Physiologie du mariage (1829), mentioned by Akhmatova (1968 [1936]: 256), among them “in ‘The Stationmaster’: ‘Dunia, odetaia so vsei roskosh’iu mody, sidela na ruchke ego kresel, kak naezdnitsa na svoem angliiskom sedle.’ Cf. in Balzac: J’apercus une jolie dame assise sur le bras d’un fauteuil, comme si elle eut monte un cheval anglais.’”

9 This motif is part of the topos of ‘death’ (see also Chapter 3) and of the sentimentalist canon in particular, beginning probably with Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1750; translated into Russian by Zhukovsky twice: 1802, 1839).

10. See below on Nabokov’s “Spring in Fialta.”

11. Note the imperfective opuskalos’, “[the sun] would descend.”

12. That blunting is the centerpiece of Vygostky’s reading, supported by parallels with Shklovsky’s (1965b [1921]) concept of Sternian digressiveness (in Tristram Shandy and Eugene Onegin). For a view to the contrary and a formulation of an elaborate deep structure underlying “Gentle Breathing”‘s chaotic surface plot, see Langleben 1991.

13. Olia’s parents are mentioned only in passing and are absent during Maliutin’s visit. Remarkably, before giving herself to Maliutin (a surrogate lecherous father figure), Olia “took a nap in Papa’s study” (cf. Minsky’s sleeping in the stationmaster’s bed during his “illness” /courtship of Dunia). In archetypal terms, Olia’s death reunites her with her absent parents, in particular the father, whose book turns out to have literally inspired her whole being and given meaning to her death.

14. Cf. in “Poor Liza,” the narrator’s programmatic love of “wandering about . . . without plan, without goal” (p. 53). According to a Soviet critic (Kucherovskii 1980: 235-37), however, the focal point of Bunin’s sentence is the “plebeian appearance” of the murderer, signifying the historical demise of gentry culture.

15. According to Langleben (1991), at the deep structure level, “Gentle Breathing” (written for Easter in March 1916), is a story of death, resurrection, and transmigration of souls.

16. In this, Olia develops the “fatal” potential of poor Liza, who manages to “grab” Erast even from beyond the grave (on the links between Liza, Pushkin’s mermaid, and Dostoevsky’s Nastas’ia Filippovna, see Matich 1987). Equally traditional are the heroine’s sexual boldness (Liza “threw herself into his arms,” Dunia is a “little coquette,” and so on, including Nabokov’s Lolita and his Nina, about whom see below) and her death, caused by her lover (Erast “considered himself Liza’s murderer”; cf. the murder of Nastas’ia Filippovna). Woodward (1980: 152-53) goes so far as to see the motif of Parcae in the principal’s jerking the ball of yam she is knitting.

17. On the symmetries and contrasts between the two siblings as well as between Olia and the class mistress, see Langleben 1991.

18. This stress on the relation to the total picture distinguishes Pasternak’s heroes’ love from the romantic “blaze of passion” (Doctor Zhivago, 16: 15; Pasternak 1959a: 580/1958: 501) and is akin to his prosaic privileging of contiguity over similarity and metonymy over metaphor (as identified in Jakobson 1969).

19. Cf. Pasternak’s treatment of wind in the eponymous poem from Doctor Zhivago (Zholkovsky 1983a).

20. Cf. the archetypal romantic poet Vasilii Zhukovsky’s lines: “Imia gde dlia tebia? / Ne sil’no smertnykh iskusstvo / Vyrazit’ prelest’ tvoiu!” (“K nei”).

21. The image of a printed, written, or drawn page struggling in the wind is a recurrent motif in Pasternak (Zholkovsky 1984a: 81); cf. also the introduction of the written word into the urbanistic collagelike compositions of Braque, Picasso, and their Russian counterparts.

22. The actual book could be the same as the one referred to in Bunin’s short story “Grammatika liubvi” (“A Grammar of Love,” 1915; see Kucherovskii 1980: 213; Blium 1978: 62) — a treatise on love (Mol’er 1831) translated from the French (Demoliere 1829) at the time Pushkin wrote The Tales of Belkin.

23. See Zhizn’ Arsen’eva, Bunin 1965-66, vol. 6. Its early version has been translated as The Well of Days (1933). The quotations that follow, however, are taken from the untranslated part (bk. 5, “Lika”).

24Zhizn’ Arsen’eva is in many ways cognate to “Gentle Breathing.” On literature’s proper subject: “To write! Yes, one must write about the roofs, galoshes, [people’s] backs, and not at all in order to ‘fight against arbitrary rule and violence, defend the oppressed and deprived, typify vivid characters, paint broad pictures of modem public life, its moods and trends’! . Life is horrible! But is it strictly ‘horrible’? Maybe it is something totally other than ‘horror’? … I entered a cab-drivers’ tea-room … looked at the meaty, ruddy faces, the red beards, the rusty, peeling tray, on which there sat before me the two white teapots with wet strings attached to their lids and handles…. Observing ‘the people’s way of life’? Wrong! — just this particular tray, this particular wet string!” (pp. 233-34).

On the power of place-names, which determine the hero’s itineraries: “When I finally arrived in the real Polotsk, I … found it absolutely unlike the imagined one. And yet, even to this day there are in me two Polotsks: that imagined and the real. And this real one I also see now poetically: downtown it is boring, wet, cold, dark, and grim, while at the railroad station there is this warm big hall with large arched windows, lights are already on” (pp. 269-70).

25. Cf. Mirsky’s (1958: 74) remarks about the confluence of classicism and romanticism in the poetry of the Golden Age.

26. See Nabokov 1978 (7-35) and Nabokov’s own English translation in Richards 1981 (289-311).

27. This is especially pronounced in the Russian version. The recurrent attention to the eye focusing on Nina, as well as the narrator’s professional connection with cinema and some other cinematic effects (e.g., the final “dissolve”), make doubly intriguing the temporal coincidence of “Spring in Fialta” (1936) and Eisenstein’s analysis of Ermolova’s picture (1937).

28. Perhaps Nabokov’s favorite lepidopterological motif can be seen here as a reification of the ‘butterfly’ theme we have proposed for “Gentle Breathing”; then the two stories could be correlated with the myth of Psyche, whose name means “soul, breathing, butterfly” in Greek (on Psyche, see also Chapter 10).

29. On “Spring in Fialta,” see also Saputelli 1988 and Zholkovsky 1991b.

30. These would be later generalized by Gerard Genette 1970 (see also Chatman 1978: 62-84).

31. See Steiner 1984; Zholkovsky 1992g; cf. to the contrary my earlier references to Eisenstein and Vygotsky as objective poetic “scientists” (see Shcheglov and Zholkovsky 1987: 84-86, 92-94, 288).