There are two approaches to trying to illustrate how oppressive a political system is. The first is to go head on and try and show how those at every level are impacted and that is where Vasily Grossman was sort of coming from with Life and Fate. Then there is an alternative approach, which is more on display here with Yuri Trifonov. He focuses on a small group of school friends but in particular Glebov and shows how in order to survive he has to become a man of almost no opinions or loyalties. Those he cares for he lets down and those he should love he betrays with indifference.
Glebov pops into a furniture shop to buy a dining table and when there meets an old school friends Lev who is a shop assistant and clearly down on his luck. The encounter is topped with a phone call that night after Lev blanked him in the shop with Lev explaining that he hated him and that’s why he did not want to talk to him. Then the story goes back to school and Glebov is vying for attention with Lev who seems to have a well-connected father and money. An uneasy friendship exists for years but starts to turn sour after it is Glebov who manages to win the heart of Sonya, the professor’s daughter, and not Lev who really wants her. Without realising the hatred Lev has for him or the way the academic authorities plan to use him to discredit the professor Glebov manages to get to the crossroads in life and then delay having to make a decision. Those around him that do seem to make wrong ones, with Lev falling from grace and Sonya going mad before dying. But the question you are asked at the end of the book is whether or not Glebov regrets what happened in the house on the embankment where Sonya lived.
Is it well written?
It is a struggle to get into because there are no chapter breaks, just a couple of paragraph returns and you have to work hard not just to work out what period of Glebov’s life is being discussed but also when the narration switches voices to understand another point of view. It manages to convey the sense of how the fear of standing up for anything terrorised people in the Soviet Union. It also gets across brilliantly the differences that influence can bring with Lev having access to clothes and films that his school friends could only dream of. Finally it shows that no matter what your record, in the professor’s case an exemplary one with the revolution, you are always vulnerable to attack.
Should it be read?
It is not going to be on anyone’s summer reading lists but it should be read by anyone who is interested in Soviet literature and in particular seeing what the 20th century writers were doing updating the story from the 19th century greats like Dostoyevsky. It also deserves to be read because the story here might be set against a regime that is trigger-happy about destroying people’s lives but putting that to one side there is a morale here about standing up for what you believe in. Do you let down a friend, a love and your own ideals just for immediate self-preservation? Quite a question to be asked from a novel.
Glebov gets through life unscathed while those around him die and crumble but he ends up without much more than regrets of the life in the house on the embankment he left behind