The story "House on the Embankment" begins with a man, Glebov, who is middle aged, balding, fat, and seeking to buy some furniture. It is around 1970, in the Soviet Union. While looking for the furniture, he notices an worker who appears familiar to him. It turns out to be a former friend, Shulepa, from his childhood days, who ignores Glebov after the latter calls out to him. Now Glebov is an elite member of Soviet society, so the question is raised as to how this successful academic is associated with this alcoholic loser.
The narrative then goes back to a time long since past, in the 1930s, before the Second World War. It is a tale of Glebov, Shulepa, and several other friends with names like "Bear" and "Walrus" growing up in or around a large apartment building in Moscow known as the "House on the Embankment." The House is a place of residence for those of the privileged class. The children are not much unlike those whom you or I may have grown up with. Trifonov does an excellent job of bringing every character in his novel to life. And there are certainly no shortage of characters in this story.
The narrative then gradually proceeds forward in time, to the War, to the 1950s when Glebov and Shulepa attended College, and finally up to the present time in which the novel began. There are many events which occur over the years, many tragic events; for example the disappearances of people during the Stalin era, and also things like unrequited love. As these events unfold, the reader begins to discover what was the cause of the animosity between Glebov and Shulepa in the beginning of the story. But Shulepa isn't the only one who hates Glebov, this man who has so little character.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this novel is the appearance of a second narrarator. The initial narrator is a 3rd person who is in the background; not an active participant in the events. The second narrator is different--he is actually one of the several friends in the story, and it is the readers' task to discover who the second narrator is. I read this story about 3 times before I narrowed down the choices to two different characters. After the 5th reading, and some research in the secondary literature to back up my conclusion, I discovered who it was. (I won't spoil it for you by telling you who it is here, but if you want to know, you can contact me.) Throughout the novel, these two narrators trade places, one distant and passive, the other one active and passionate in his narrative style.
This is a very beautiful novel, certainly worthy of the name "masterpiece." As I indicated earlier, I read this 5 times, and I found each read as interesting as the previous. Each time that you read it, you discover some subtle point which you missed the last time you read it; this is one of those stories in which the plots are so numerous, it is easy to miss something.
About the only thing that could stand some improvement is the translation of this work from the original Russian. (The original appeared in the literary magazine Druzhba Narodov in Jan. 1976, p.83) The translation is not bad, otherwise I might not give a good review here, however the translator, Glenny, leaves out certain intimacies between characters, and on some occasions, inserts or transforms sentences during the translation, of which I didn't see the necessity. I suffer from the belief that you should retain as much fidelity to the original during your translation, at least to the point where you begin to lose the reader because the expression you are translating does not have an equivalent in the second language.
If you can read Russian and have access to a good library, I suggest that you read the original. Otherwise, get this book, you won't be disappointed. There is another story in the book, which comes before "House," "Another Life." I haven't read it yet, so I am not reviewing it here. However, the book is worth the price with "House" alone.