‘At Sea, at Night’ by Ivan Bunin, translated by Sophie Lund

Now I suppose, approaching the halfway point of this highly personal anthology, it is a not unreasonable time to confess that I am myself, oh yes, a dabbler in the fine art of fiction. Oh yes! I have myself written more than one short story. Although I should always be getting on with something else (commissioning a review, reading some long-deferred classic etc), and therefore seldom begin, let alone threaten to complete, something on a grander scale than a short story. I love a short story. My boss expressed not so long ago, in podcast form, his mystification at the idea of short fiction being fulfilling but, alas, we feel differently on this point. Long books daunt me but also, obscurely, move me to annoyance. What is the point of them? Why use many words when few will do? Alas – here we are. And, sure enough, here is Ivan Bunin. A master of the form. This particular instance, about a dialogue between two men meeting on the deck of ship ‘on its way from Odessa to the Crimea’, is economic yet quite open to vistas of . . . life. They are a ‘pair of celebrities’; yet here they are alone, struggling to come to terms with one another. Personally, I find it quietly, desperately riveting.

First published 1923. Collected in The Gentleman from San Francisco and Other Stories, Penguin, 1992