Years ago, I was in Moscow, walking along the river past the recently rebuilt monstrosity of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, when my professor pointed out a house on the embankment. That is the house from Yuri Trifonov's Дом Набережной, she said. I had never heard of this writer, or this novel, but I was caught by the title. Did I mention how my favorite words have the letter "Ж" in them? (It makes a zhhhhh sound in my mouth). Морожное. (Ice cream). Жизнь. (Life). Надежда. (Hope). The Russians use Набережная (embankment) as they would улица (street) or проспект (avenue), and I love how it sounds, a curl of music in my throat. Later I would begin to read Дом Набережной (The House on the Embankment) and Другая Жизнь (Another Life). But all this belongs to another, previous life.
Trifonov is one of those writers that I had to leave behind before I could come back and fall in love with them. He was lost amongst the all the other voices of his time, but now I see clearly his writing is something different (but then I say this about all writers). It must be something in the way he uses words, how his characters are not clearly right or wrong, hero or villain, but as human nature ultimately is, a muddle of everything. When I returned to Trifonov I came upon The Exchange, and found myself drawn into the story in a way I might not have been in that other life.
I have noticed an obsession about real estate in Russian writing of the post-Revolution era, not surprising given the unbearable housing shortages that made space a premium in overcrowded cities, with several families sharing cramped apartments and communal kitchens and bathrooms. They became the breeding ground for petty arguments and jealousies and resentments that inspired moments in the literature of the time. The notion of trading space and rooms in exchange for an extra bit of space comes up again and again, and here is the root of Trifonov's story.
(to be continued).