Ivan Bunin made history as the first Russian writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. The immediate basis for the award was the autobiographical novel The Life of Arseniev, but Bunin's legacy is much wider in scope. He is regarded as a master of the short story, described by scholar Oleg Mikhaylov as an "archaist innovator" who, while remaining true to the literary tradition of the 19th century, made huge leaps in terms of artistic expression and purity of style. "[Bunin's] style heralds a historical precedent... technical precision as an instrument of bringing out beauty is sharpened to the extreme. There's hardly another poet who on dozens of pages would fail to produce a single epithet, analogy or metaphor... the ability to perform such a simplification of poetic language without doing any harm to it is the sign of a true artist. When it comes to artistic precision Bunin has no rivals among Russian poets," wrote Vestnik Evropy.
Bunin's early stories were of uneven quality. They were united in their "earthiness", lack of plot and signs of a curious longing for "life's farthest horizons"; young Bunin started his career by trying to approach the ancient dilemmas of the human being, and his first characters were typically old men. His early prose works had one common leitmotif: that of nature's beauty and wisdom bitterly contrasting with humanity's ugly shallowness. As he progressed, Bunin started to receive encouraging reviews: Anton Chekhov warmly greeted his first stories, even if he found too much "density" in them. But it was Gorky who gave Bunin's prose its highest praise. Till the end of his life Gorky (long after the relationship between former friends had soured) rated Bunin among Russian literature's greatest writers and recommended his prose for younger generations of writers as an example of true and unwithering classicism.
As a poet, Bunin started out as a follower of Ivan Nikitin and Aleksey Koltsov, then gravitated towards the Yakov Polonsky and Afanasy Fet school, the latter's impressionism becoming a marked influence. The theme of Bunin's early works seemed to be the demise of the traditional Russian nobleman of the past – something which as an artist he simultaneously gravitated toward and felt averted from. In the 1900s this gave way to a more introspective, philosophical style, akin to Fyodor Tyutchev and his "poetic cosmology". All the while Bunin remained hostile to modernism (and the darker side of it, "decadence"); Mikhaylov saw him as the torch-bearer of Aleksander Pushkin's tradition of "praising the naked simplicity's charms."
The symbolist's flights of imagination and grotesque passions foreign to him, Bunin made nature his field of artistic research and here carved his art to perfection. "Few people are capable of loving nature as Bunin does. And it's this love that makes his scope wide, his vision deep, his colour and aural impressions so rich," wrote Aleksander Blok, a poet from a literary camp Bunin treated as hostile. It was for his books of poetry (the most notable of which is Falling Leaves, 1901) and his poetic translations that Bunin became a three time Pushkin Prize laureate. His verse was praised by Aleksander Kuprin while Blok regarded Bunin as among the first in the hierarchy of Russian poets. One great admirer of Bunin's verse was Vladimir Nabokov, who (even if making scornful remarks about Bunin's prose) compared him to Blok. Some see Bunin as a direct follower of Gogol, who was the first in Russian literature to discover the art of fusing poetry and prose together.
The wholesomeness of Bunin's character allowed him to avoid crises to become virtually the only author of the first decades of the 20th century to develop gradually and logically. "Bunin is the only one who remains true to himself", Gorky wrote in a letter to Chirikov in 1907. Yet, an outsider to all the contemporary trends and literary movements, Bunin was never truly famous in Russia. Becoming an Academician in 1909 alienated him even more from the critics, the majority of whom saw the Academy's decision to expel Gorky several years earlier as a disgrace. The closest Bunin came to fame was in 1911–1912 when The Village and Dry Valley came out. The former, according to the author, "sketched with sharp cruelty the most striking lines of the Russian soul, its light and dark sides, and its often tragic foundations"; it caused passionate, and occasionally very hostile reactions. "Nobody has ever drawn the [Russian] village in such a deep historical context before," Maxim Gorky wrote. After this uncompromising book it became impossible to continue to paint the Russian peasantry life in the idealised, narodnik-style way, Bunin single-handedly closed this long chapter in Russian literature. He maintained the truly classic traditions of realism in Russian literature at the very time when they were in the gravest danger, under attack by modernists and decadents. Yet he was far from "traditional" in many ways, introducing to Russian literature a completely new set of characters and a quite novel, laconic way of saying things. Dry Valley was regarded as another huge step forward for Bunin. While The Village dealt metaphorically with Russia as a whole in a historical context, here, according to the author, the "Russian soul [was brought into the focus] in the attempt to highlight the Slavic psyche's most prominent features." "It's one of the greatest books of Russian horror, and there's an element of liturgy in it... Like a young priest with his faith destroyed, Bunin buried the whole of his class," wrote Gorky.
Bunin's travel sketches were lauded as innovative, notably Bird's Shadow (1907–1911). "He's enchanted with the East, with the 'light-bearing' lands he now describes in such beautiful fashion... For [depicting] the East, both Biblical and modern, Bunin chooses the appropriate style, solemn and incandescent, full of imagery, bathing in waves of sultry sunlight and adorned with arabesques and precious stones, so that, when he tells of these grey-haired ancient times, disappearing in the distant haze of religion and myth, the impression he achieves is that of watching a great chariot of human history moving before our eyes," wrote Yuri Aykhenvald. Critics noted Bunin's uncanny knack of immersing himself into alien cultures, both old and new, best demonstrated in his Eastern cycle of short stories as well as his superb translation of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha (1898).
Bunin was greatly interested in international myths and folklore, as well as the Russian folkloric tradition. But, (according to Georgy Adamovich) "he was absolutely intolerant towards those of his colleagues who employed stylizations, the "style Russe" manufacturers. His cruel – and rightly so – review of Sergey Gorodetsky's poetry was one example. Even Blok's Kulikovo Field (for me, an outstanding piece) irritated him as too lavishly adorned... "That's Vasnetsov," he commented, meaning 'masquerade and opera'. But he treated things that he felt were not masqueradery differently. Of the Slovo o Polku Igoreve... he said something to the effect that all the poets of the whole world lumped together couldn't have created such wonder, in fact something close to Pushkin's words. Yet translations of the legend... outraged him, particularly that of Balmont. He despised Shmelyov for his pseudo-Russian pretenses, though admitting his literary gift. Bunin had an extraordinarily sharp ear for falseness: he instantly recognized this jarring note and was infuriated. That was why he loved Tolstoy so much. Once, I remember, he spoke of Tolstoy as the one 'who's never said a single word that would be an exaggeration'."
Bunin has often been spoken of as a "cold" writer. Some of his conceptual poems of the 1910s refuted this stereotype, tackling philosophical issues like the mission of an artist ("Insensory", 1916) where he showed fiery passion. According to Oleg Mikhaylov, "Bunin wanted to maintain distance between himself and his reader, being frightened by any closeness... But his pride never excluded passions, just served as a panzer — it was like a flaming torch in an icy shell." On a more personal level, Vera Muromtseva confirmed: "Sure, he wanted to come across as [cold and aloof] and he succeeded by being a first-class actor... people who didn't know him well enough couldn't begin to imagine what depths of soft tenderness his soul was capable of reaching," she wrote in her memoirs.
The best of Bunin's prose ("The Gentleman from San Francisco", "Loopy Ears" and notably, "Brothers", based on Ceylon's religious myth) had a strong philosophical streak to it. In terms of ethics Bunin was under the strong influence of Socrates (as related by Xenophon and Plato), he argued that it was the Greek classic who first expounded many things that were later found in Hindu and Jewish sacred books. Bunin was particularly impressed with Socrates's ideas on the intrinsic value of human individuality, it being a "kind of focus for higher forces" (quoted from Bunin's short story "Back to Rome"). As a purveyor of Socratic ideals, Bunin followed Leo Tolstoy; the latter's observation about beauty being "the crown of virtue" was Bunin's idea too. Critics found deep philosophical motives, and deep undercurrents in Mitya's Love and The Life of Arseniev, two pieces in which "Bunin came closest to a deep metaphysical understanding of the human being's tragic essence." Konstantin Paustovsky called The Life of Arseniev "one of the most outstanding phenomena of world literature."
In his view on Russia and its history Bunin for a while had much in common with A. K. Tolstoy (of whom he spoke with great respect); both tended to idealise the pre-Tatar Rus. Years later he greatly modified his view of Russian history, forming a more negative outlook. "There are two streaks in our people: one dominated by Rus, another by Chudh and Merya. Both have in them a frightening instability, sway... As Russian people say of themselves: we are like wood — both club and icon may come of it, depending on who is working on this wood," Bunin wrote years later.
In emigration Bunin continued his experiments with extremely concise, ultra-ionized prose, taking Chekhov and Tolstoy's ideas on expressive economy to the last extreme. The result of this was God's Tree, a collection of stories so short, some of them were half a page long. Professor Pyotr Bitsilly thought God's Tree to be "the most perfect of Bunin's works and the most exemplary. Nowhere else can such eloquent laconism can be found, such definitive and exquisite writing, such freedom of expression and really magnificent demonstration of [mind] over matter. No other book of his has in it such a wealth of material for understanding of Bunin's basic method – a method in which, in fact, there was nothing but basics. This simple but precious quality – honesty bordering on hatred of any pretense – is what makes Bunin so closely related to... Pushkin, Tolstoy and Chekhov," Bitsilli wrote.
Influential, even if controversial, was his Cursed Days 1918–1920 diary, of which scholar Thomas Gaiton Marullo wrote:
The work is important for several reasons. Cursed Days is one of the very few anti-Bolshevik diaries to be preserved from the time of the Russian Revolution and civil war. It recreates events with graphic and gripping immediacy. Unlike the works of early Soviets and emigres and their self-censoring backdrop of memory, myth, and political expediency, Bunin's truth reads almost like an aberration. Cursed Days also links Russian anti-utopian writing of the nineteenth century to its counterpart in the twentieth. Reminiscent of the fiction of Dostoevsky, it features an 'underground man' who does not wish to be an 'organ stop' or to affirm 'crystal palaces'. Bunin's diary foreshadowed such 'libelous' memoirs as Yevgenia Ginzburg's Journey into the Whirlwind (1967) and Within the Whirlwind, and Nadezhda Mandelstam's Hope Against Hope (1970) and Hope Abandoned (1974), the accounts of two courageous women caught up in the Stalinist terror of the 1930s. Cursed Days also preceded the "rebellious" anti-Soviet tradition that began with Evgeny Zamyatin and Yury Olesha, moved on to Mikhail Bulgakov, and reached a climax with Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. One can argue that, in its painful exposing of political and social utopias, Cursed Days heralded the anti-utopian writing of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. Bunin and Zamyatin had correctly understood that the Soviet experiment was destined to self destruct."
Despite his works being virtually banned in the Soviet Union up until the mid-1950s, Bunin exerted a strong influence over several generations of Soviet writers. Among those who owed a lot to Bunin, critics mentioned Mikhail Sholokhov, Konstantin Fedin, Konstantin Paustovsky, Ivan Sokolov-Mikitov, and later Yuri Kazakov, Vasily Belov and Viktor Likhonosov.
Ivan Bunin's books have been translated into many languages, and the world's leading writers praised his gift. Romain Rolland called Bunin an "artistic genius"; he was spoken and written of in much the same vein by writers like Henri de Régnier, Thomas Mann, Rainer Maria Rilke, Jerome K. Jerome, and Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. In 1950, on the eve of his 80th birthday, François Mauriac expressed in a letter his delight and admiration, but also his deep sympathy to Bunin's personal qualities and the dignified way he'd got through all the tremendous difficulties life had thrown at him. In a letter published by Figaro André Gide greeted Bunin "on behalf of all France", calling him "the great artist" and adding: "I don't know of any other writer... who's so to the point in expressing human feelings, simple and yet always so fresh and new". European critics often compared Bunin to both Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, crediting him with having renovated the Russian realist tradition both in essence and in form.