Plantago major

Ivan Bunin, the first Russian author to win the Nobel prize in literature, was prone to grumbling about fellow writers’ and poets’ follies. His bitter shots hit the mark most of the time, but occasionally he missed and got hit by a ricochet. Of the symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont, Bunin wrote:

…[he] was delighted by the blossom of great plantains (“the plantains are all in bloom!”) although plantains, which grow as relatively small green leaves by the side of field roads, never bloom…

It simply cannot be true. Great, or broadleaf, plantains are flowering plants like other angiosperms. On the other hand, I don’t remember ever seeing these flowers although the plant is ubiquitous in the Russian countryside. Its name, podorozhnik, suggests that it grows by the roadside – a modest, unassuming plant valued for its wound-healing qualities. I can understand where Bunin is coming from: “plantains all in bloom” can sound contrived, artificial, incongruous.

And yet, how could he miss the mention of blooming plantains at the very beginning of Tolstoy’s last masterpiece, Hadji Murad? The story, as translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude, begins:

I was returning home by the fields. It was midsummer, the hay harvest was over and they were just beginning to reap the rye. At that season of the year there is a delightful variety of flowers…

A list of plants follows, nine in total. Here’s number seven – the Maudes got it wrong so I’m quoting Pevear and Volokhonsky:

…plantain with its faintly pink down and faintly perceptible, pleasant smell…

The list is there for a purpose: the last of the flowers, the thistle, resists when the narrator tries to pluck it. The man prevails but the flower no longer looks as beautiful as it did in its proper place, so he throws it away. In the penultimate chapter, Tolstoy makes the reader recall the decapitated thistle when the Russian officers inspect Hadji Murad’s severed head.

Bunin admired Leo Tolstoy. Moreover, in The Liberation of Tolstoy (1937), he mentions the thistle in connection with Hadji Murad, although in an idiosyncratic way. Perhaps Bunin had forgotten about the “faintly pink down” by 1950, when he wrote about Balmont’s blunders. But it’s more likely that he was being unfair to his erstwhile friend.

Discover more from Winterings in Trans-Scythia

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading