Bunin’s Sunstroke

Bunin’s Sunstroke

Sunstroke, one the best known of Ivan Bunin’s (1870-1953) short stories, ends with the officer returning to the Volga steamer after a brief affair that has profoundly affected him. There are many translations, but the last sentence is generally rendered as: 

The lieutenant sat under cover on deck, conscious of having aged ten years. {1}

The lieutenant sat beneath an awning on the deck, feeling that he had aged ten years. {2}

The lieutenant sat under an awning on deck, feeling like he’d aged ten years. {3}

The lieutenant sat beneath an awning on the deck, feeling as if he had aged ten years. {4} 

Which do we prefer? The most literary is the first, with its balance about the central comma, but the ‘conscious’ is introverting, rather dwelling on his feelings. The second looks fine, but the ‘beneath’ introduces blank verse into the opening clause. In the third, the ‘like’ is not English, and indeed the whole book seems not to have been proof-read properly. The blank verse objection applies to the fourth example, and ‘feeling as if’ is a tad fussy.  

Bunin made his reputation with verse, and even with his prose spoke of the need to find the sound or melody of the story. Notes of an impending change echo through the story: 1. at the first meeting, when the woman says ‘I think I’m drunk. . . Where’ve you come from?’, 2. with the kiss which is to stay with them for many years, 3. in the morning afterwards when the woman remarks ‘Or as if we had both suffered some kind of sunstroke’, 4. when the lieutenant returns to the empty hotel room to find the woman’s presence stronger than ever, 5. after an agonizing and aimless walk about the town, when ten years seem to have passed, and 6. when the lieutenant sits aboard the Volga steamer, traveling after the woman he will not see again.  

Such quandaries beset all fastidious writers, and the first question asked is usually: what is the sentence getting at? Does ‘older’ in this case mean? 

1. The lieutenant feels sadder and prematurely aged.
2. The lieutenant has grown up and feels more mature and confident.
3. The affair has burned out any expectation of happiness from affairs likely in the next ten years. 

There are other possibilities, but we ought to first see how the ten years is previously mentioned. It’s when the lieutenant returns to the hotel, seven paragraphs earlier: 

And he remembered yesterday and the morning precisely as if they had been ten years ago.  {1} 

We should also look at the celebrated passage that immediately precedes the line under scrutiny: 

Ahead of it, the dark summer sunset was becoming extinguished, gloomily, dreamily and diversifiedly reflected in the river, showing patches glimmering with tremulous ripples in the distance under the sunset, and the flames scattering in the darkness round the steamer were receding and receding. {1} 

The line in question is an envoi, therefore, the resignation to what has already happened, not a climax or expectation. We want something that combines meanings 1 and 3.  I’d suggest something undemonstrative like:  

The lieutenant sat under cover on deck, knowing ten years had passed. 

If we want to emphasize matters more, we could no doubt write:

The lieutenant sat under cover on deck, feeling that those ten years had already gone.

But that’s saying more than the text really allows, and is probably unacceptable. Nonetheless, it’s the previous ‘as if ten years had passed’  being referred to, when the few hours of the woman’s company already seemed a lifetime ago, and are now irretrievably lost as the town itself is slipping away.

Prose works to the extent that we shut out extra dimensions, and read purely or largely for the surface meaning. Bunin’s achievement may have been to find those extra dimensions in a prose context, placing his characters in a sensory landscape whose vividness no one has bettered.




1. Markson, David (ed.) Great Tales of Old Russia (Pyramid Books, 1956).

2. Richards, David and Lund, Sophie (trans.) Ivan Bunin: The Gentleman from San Francisco and Other Stories (Penguin Books, 1984).

3. Hettlinger, Graham, (trans.) Sunstroke: Selected Stories of Ivan Bunin (Ivan R. Dee, 2002).

4. Bowie, Robert, (trans.), Ivan Bunin: Night of Denial: Stories and Novellas   (Northwestern University Press, 2006).


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