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Ivan Bunin (1870-1953) traveled to Athens during a tour – as was said then – of the “East” in 1907. According to “Antique Motifs and Images in the Work of I.A. Bunin,” a paper by Natalya Yablonovskaya, the journey had direct influence on Bunin’s later writing. She mentions at least eight poems that grew out of the experience, although a full listing of works bearing the mark of his experience of, and interest in, Greece is much larger. Bunin left a vivid description of his traveling company’s approach to Athens by sea, the ascent to the Acropolis in a carriage, and the entry into it on foot through the Propylaea. It was included in the book, The Shadow of a Bird, a collection of journal entries from 1907 to 1911.
When I recently visited the Acropolis for the first time, I made an attempt, if only on a small scale, to approach it as Bunin had. I, too, was stunned at my first glimpse of the Acropolis from afar; I, too, rose up the circular paths to the entrance (although on foot); I, too, took note of the “slippery slabs” leading to the Propylaea; I, too, noted bright flowers sticking up through slabs of marble. One thing I experienced in reverse: Bunin arrived in Athens by ship and gazed up at the Acropolis from afar; I, on the other hand, only looked back out to sea once I already stood amidst the stately ruins of the Parthenon, the Erechtheion and the Propylaea. I, too, noted the “purple-blue flame of the sky.” I, too, exclaimed, “My Lord, how simple, old and beautiful it is!”
In short, my own reaction to visiting the Acropolis was quite similar to that of Bunin. It felt as if the gods had come to consort with me. As if they had raised me up to give me a one-time-only glimpse of the world from their vantage point. I perceived the visit as a privilege. I felt at times that I was walking on eggs, and that it was my responsibility not to leave even the slightest crack behind me. At the same time, I felt very much at home. I also felt that way about the thousands of others who wandered amongst the marble walls and columns with me – this was a place built for us all, but it was a place that encouraged us to dig down deep inside ourselves to find the proper response.
My first glimpse of the Acropolis came the night before my wife Oksana and I walked up the mountain to visit it. We were in a cab that had been zigzagging through the narrow streets of Athens for so long I think we despaired we would ever leave that car again. Then I gasped and Oksana – as she told me just then – burst into tears. We looked out the window of our taxi which had just taken a sharp right turn and there it was, floating over us like a brilliant ship of light in the black night sky. It was an impossible vision – as though Gulliver on a self-illuminated flying machine was making a night landing in Athens. Bunin’s first glimpse was memorable; I wouldn’t trade it for my own.
The text that follows, a short excerpt from The Shadow of a Bird, includes pretty much everything Bunin wrote about his trip to the Acropolis. I accessed it on a Russian blog site about Athens. The translation is mine.
“What will the Acropolis be like? All binoculars searched for it, some Greeks on the quarter-deck excitedly pointed their fingers into the distance. I finally discerned something vaguely yellow on a rocky hill, standing lonely behind a sea of roofs in a valley – something like a small wild fortress. And, having gazed upon this naked hill of the Pelasgians, I sensed antiquity for the first time in my life with my whole being.
The horses slowly pull us along the stone chalk road, the pathway crunching underneath us, advancing up the hill in a circular motion and rising all the way up — I look around on all sides at the tanned stone of the walls of the Acropolis and its grooved columns… Finally, the carriage stops right in front of an entrance through a granite wall, behind which a wide staircase of glossy marble rises to the Propylaea and the Parthenon… And for a moment I am lost… Lord, how simple, old and beautiful it is! To the left, in the streaked shadows of the olive trees, stands another carriage. A tall, upright man with binoculars slung over his shoulder, in a gray suit and tropical hat, and a tall thin woman, also in a gray helmet and phyllode-patterned gloves, with a long thin stick in one hand and a book in the other, are directed toward the entrance. But even these most tranquil of people stare with amazed, round eyes at the golden ruins shining before us in the hot blue sky, at the fact that it is so divinely simple and harmoniously piled on the granite fortifications that have grown into the crown of this ‘Altar of the Sun.’ They enter, climb the stairs, growing small among the surviving columns of the Propylaea… I also walk on and look… But I have already seen everything!
“I walk on, but from the steamboat I had already touched the soul of antiquity which created all this. And then the divine perfection of the Acropolis is revealed in a single glance.
“Now I’m walking up the slippery slabs to the Propylaea and the Temple of Victory. I am lost in the boundless expanse of the Aegean Sea and I see from here the small port at Piraeus, and the infinitely distant silhouettes of some blue islands, and Salamis, and Aegina. And when I turn around, I am struck by the blue-purple flame of the sky flowing among the ruins of the temples, among the burnt-golden marble of the colonnades and capitals, among the grooved pillars of such beauty, power and harmony that words are powerless before them. I enter the colossus of the Parthenon splayed open, I see slippery marble slabs, a bright poppy in their crevices… What could create all this if not the sky and the sun?”