Yuri Trifonov: I’d read some of his short stories before, and remember thoroughly enjoying them– but also, as is often the case with me, couldn’t tell you anything about their contents, or why I found the work so great. But I grabbed another of his books a few weeks back, Another Life and The House on the Embankment: Novellas, and after taking my time with it, was once again solidly impressed. And I also made a note of– was struck, in fact, by– Trifonov’s brilliant ability to bring a story to a close.
I realized that each of the novellas in this volume did in under 200 pages what other authors usually need over a thousand to do: namely, build up a years-long saga that allows us to get to know the characters as believable, full, ambivalently ethical and talented and likable human beings, all the while quietly weaving along a plot until, close to the end, we realize what he’s been constructing, and how it emerges into significance both for the protagonists and for the reader’s sense of how life plays out for our species in general, often even across very different times and cultures. Indeed, if I’m remembering John Updike’s intro to the book correctly, he notes that Trifonov had the ability, writing as he did in the midst of the Cold War, to bring out the humanity and relatability of individual lives many “Westerners” thought could never have been played out on the other side of the easy-to-stereotype Iron Curtain.
I was frankly surprised that Trifonov apparently never suffered any regime censure. The strength of his characters, the unfair, often oppressive, realities they face– and with all the nuance and thoughtful cowardice, if that latter phrase makes any sense, that anyone else would– these people are hardly the joyful defenders of the ongoing class struggle we expect to be the only types of which Soviet authorities approved.
What I found least relatable? The inclusion, in The House on the Embankment, of an old chestnut that makes its way into literature and the arts all over the world: namely, one character offering another agitated one a glass of water, in order to comfort and/or calm the latter. I have never been on the receiving end of this gesture, or even ever seen it played out in actual life– and I’m left wondering where this narrative commonplace came from, and if any real-world person has ever experienced it. How is a glass of water supposed to make anyone feel better, cause her (because it’s usually a her) to stop ranting or crying or to pause in her hysteria long enough to pull herself together and produce a coolly rational sentence? When this ceremony plops its way into a plot, I usually suspect that the author didn’t know what else to do in order to get through the scene, and/or has never actually been in a situation as tense or uncomfortable as the one that wants to be written.
Anyway. That unsatisfactory paragraph was so minor, I think it’s absolutely excusable, and it won’t stop me at all from looking to Trifonov as a master of the novella form. Still: if you’ve ever been treated to the would-be consolation of a glass of water, I want to hear about it– especially whether it did its intended job or not. Happy Christmas, everyone, and have a long tall drink of water for me.