Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
“The Gentleman from San Francisco” by Ivan Bunin, translation by D. H. Lawrence and S. S. Koteliansky
Card picked: Jack of Hearts
The gentleman from San Francisco–nobody either in Capri or Naples ever remembered his name…
With that, Bunin sets up this story. The Gentleman from San Francisco is an industrialist, a wealthy man who has decided to take his wife and daughter on a two-year holiday to see the world. First stop, Europe. We are given lots of details of the scheduled activities during the ocean voyage, especially as they pass Gibraltar, and the entertainments at Naples and Capri. Despite those details, we never learn the Gentleman from San Francisco’s name, his wife’s name, his daughter’s name, the name of the Asian prince who is traveling incognito… In fact, we don’t get any names until Capri when we hear of Carmela and Giuseppe, dancers at the hotel. By then though, it’s seemingly too late. The Gentleman from San Francisco dies of a heart attack and is shipped back home on the same vessel that brought him to Europe.
Throughout, there’s a definite contrast between the “haves” and “have nots.” For every description of luxury, we’re also shown the misery of the sailors and servants. Indeed, the Gentleman from San Francisco has made his riches off the backs of others:
He had worked incessantly–and the Chinamen whom he employed by the thousand in his factories knew what that meant.
There’s another contrast though that I think might be more important. Against both luxury and misery is nature. Storms seem to dog the Gentleman from San Francisco’s sea voyages and it felt to me like the grandeur of cathedrals and cemeteries in Naples was ruined, not by character indifference, but by the weather. It is, in fact, nature that does in the Gentleman from San Francisco (although it could be argued that it was his decadence that helped). It is with the weather that this cheery Russian tale leaves us:
…nor did any one know of that thing which lay deep, deep below at the very bottom of the dark hold, near the gloomy and sultry bowels of the ship that was so gravely overcoming the darkness, the ocean, the blizzard…
We may be indifferent to each other, but nature in indifferent to us, and death is indifferent to everything.
About the Author: Ivan Bunin won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1933, but he was already a two-time Pushkin Prize-winner when “The Gentleman from San Francisco” was written and published in 1915. This is my first experience with Bunin.