TRIFONOV, Iurii (Valentinovich) (LITERATURE)

Born: Moscow, Russia, 28 August 1925. Grew up with his grandmother after the arrest of his father, 1937, and the exile of his mother. Education: Educated at school in Tashkent (where he had been evacuated), 1941-42; studied creative writing at the Gor’kii Literary Institute, 1944-49. Career: Rejected for the armed services on account of poor eyesight, and worked in an aircraft factory, 1942-44. Travelled to Turkmenistan in 1953, and several times 1956-63; sports correspondent and commentator, at Olympic Games and other events in Hungary, Spain, Italy, and Austria, during the 1950s and early 1960s. Awards: Stalin prize, 1950; Badge of Honour, 1975. Member: RSFSR Writers’ Union, 1965-70. Died: 28 March 1981.



Sobranie sochinenii [Collected Works], edited by S.A. Baruzdin. 4 vols., 1985-87.


Studenty. 1951; as Students, translated by I. Litvinova and Margaret Wettlin, 1953.

Pod solntsem [Under the Sun] (stories). 1959.

Vkontse sezona [At the End of the Season]. 1961.

Utolenie zhazhdy. 1963; as Thirst Acquenched, translated by Ralph Parker, in Soviet Literature, 1, 1964.

Kostry i dozhd’ [The Campfire and Rain]. 1964.

Otblesk kostra [The Gleam of a Campfire]. 1966.

Kepka s bol’shim kozyr’kom [A Cap with a Big Peak]. 1969.

Rasskazy ipovesti [Stories and Novels]. 1971.

Dolgoe proshchanie. 1973; translated as The Long Goodbye, in The Long Goodbye: Three Novellas, 1978.

Neterpenie. 1973; revised edition, 1974; as The Impatient Ones, translated by Robert Daglish, 1978.

Drugaia zhizn’. 1976; as Another Life, with The House on the Embankment, translated by Michael Glenny, 1983, and issued separately, 1985.

Obmen, in Povesti. 1978; as Obmen/Exchange, edited by Robert Russell, 1990; translated as The Exchange, in The Long Goodbye: Three Novellas, 1978.

Dom na naberezhnoi, in Povesti. 1978; translated as The House on the Embankment, with Another Life, translated by Michael Glenny, 1983, and issued separately, 1985.

Predvaritel’nye itogi, in Povesti. 1978; translated as Taking Stock, in The Long Goodbye: Three Novellas, 1978.

Povesti [Stories] (includes Obmen; Predvaritel’nye itogi; Dolgoe proshchanie; Drugania zhizn’; Dom na naberezhnoi). 1978.

The Long Goodbye: Three Novellas (includes The Exchange; The Long Goodbye; Taking Stock), translated by Helen P. Burlingame and Ellendea Proffer. 1978.

Starik. 1979; as The Old Man, translated by Jacqueline Edwards and Mitchell Schneider, 1984.

The House on the Embankment and Another Life, translated by

Michael Glenny. 1983.

Vechnye temy [Eternal Themes]. 1984.

Moskovskiepovesti [Moscow Stories]. 1988.

Vremia i mesto [Time and Place]. 1988.

Ischeznovenie (includes Otblesk kostra; Starik; Ischeznovenie). 1988;

Ischeznovenie as Disappearance, translated by David Lowe, 1991.


Zalog uspekha [Promise of Success] (produced 1953).

Utolenie zhazhady [Thirst Satisfied], with A. Morov (produced 1964).

Obmen, from his own story (produced 1977). 1977; as The Exchange, translated by Michael Frayn, 1990.

Dom na naberezhnoi [House on the Embankment], from his own story (produced 1980).

In Teatr pisatelia, 1982.

Beskonechnye igry, in Teatr pisatelia. 1982; edited by A.P. Shitov, 1989.

Teatr pisatelia: Tri povesti dlia teatra [Theatre of a Writer: Three Stories for the Theatre] (includes Beskonechnye igry; Obmen; Dom na naberezhnoi). 1982.

Screenplays: Khokkeisty [Hockey Players], 1964.


Fakely nad Flaminio: Rasskazy i ocherki (stories and essays). 1965.

Igry v sumerkakh [Games in the Twilight] (stories and essays). 1970.

Prodolzhitel’nye uroki: Ocherki [Continuous Lessons] (essays). 1975.

Izbrannye proizvedeniia [Selected Works], edited by A. Turkov. 2 vols., 1978.

Kak slovo nashe otzovetsia. . . [How Our Word is Sown. . . ]. 1985.

Iadro pravdy [The Kernel of Truth] (articles, interviews, essays). 1987.

Beskonechnye igry, o sporte, o vremeni, o sebe (articles and sports commentary). 1989.

Critical Studies:

”Iurii Trifonov and the Ethics of Contemporary Soviet City Life,” in Canadian Slavonic Papers, 19(3), 1977, ”The New Dimensions of Time and Place in Iurii Trifonov’s Prose of the 1980s,” in Canadian Slavonic Papers, 27(2), 1985, and Soviet Literature in the 1970s: Artistic Diversity and Ideological Conformity, n.d., all by N.N. Schneidman; The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual by Katerina Clark, 1981; ”Jurij Trifonov’s House on the Embankment: Narration and Meaning” by Sigrid McLaughlin, in Slavic and East European Journal, 26(4), 1982; ”Trifonov: The Historian as Artist” by Edward Brown, in Soviet Society and Culture: Essays in Honor of Vera S. Dunham edited by Terry L. Thompson and Richard Sheldon, 1988; ”Time, History, and the Individual in the Works of Yury Trifonov,” in Modern Language Quarterly, 83(2), 1988, and Iurii Trifonov, 1992, both by David C. Gillespie; Trifonov and the Drama of the Russian Intelligentsia, by Carolina Maegd-Soep, 1990; Yuri Trifonov’s The Moscow Cycle by Colin Partridge, 1990; Yury Trifonov: A Critical Study by Nina Kolesnikoff, 1991; Invented Truth: Soviet Reality and the Literary Imagination of Iurii Trifonov by Josephine Woll, 1991; Iurii Trifonov: Unity through Time by David Gillespie, 1992.

During the final decade of his life Iurii Trifonov was widely regarded as one of Russia’s finest prose writers. He emerged from relative obscurity through a series of stories and novellas from the late 1960s and early 1970s, in which he depicted a spiritual malaise within the urban middle and upper classes that had grown up in the shadow of Stalinism. Particularly important in this regard is his ”Moscow cycle,” which originally consisted of the novellas Obmen (The Exchange), Predvaritel’nye itogi (Taking Stock), and Dolgoe proshchanie (The Long Goodbye), but which most would extend to include the majority of his subsequent novels as well. While the three novellas are not overtly political, they offer an implicit critique of Soviet society by showing an entire generation of people who no longer believe, or are even interested, in revolutionary ideals. Their lives are totally occupied with efforts to achieve success, but they have discovered that neither acclaim from their peers nor material possessions provide satisfaction.

In his novels Trifonov generally combined portrayals of society with investigations into the past events that formed his characters. Starik (The Old Man) veers between a contemporary effort to obtain a dacha and the memories of an incident during the Civil War. A questionable action in the past haunts the present and throws into relief the materialism that has come to replace revolutionary idealism; by suggesting that this idealism may have been tainted in the first place, Trifonov implicitly blames the past for the ills of the present. The work is based on an event described in a novel written at the beginning of his mature period, Otblesk kostra [The Gleam of a Campfire], an account of Trifonov’s father, Valentin, and his role in the revolution and its aftermath. Although inspired by actual documents and memoirs, Otblesk kostra is less a conventional biography than an attempt on the part of the narrator to understand several key moments of his father’s life. Trifonov’s interest in the biography of revolutionaries can also be seen in Neterpenie (The Impatient Ones), a portrayal of Andrei Zheliabov, who, as a member of the People’s Will party, conspired to assassinate Aleksandr II in 1881. Although a historical novel, the work offers parallels with Trifonov’s own day and it too contains what some have seen as a delicate undercutting of certain Bolshevik ideals—a task carried out more openly in the later novel The Old Man.

Trifonov’s writing did not so much broaden as deepen. As with The Old Man, he would return to situations and topics that he had treated earlier, trying to gain a deeper understanding of his characters, of recent Russian history, and ultimately both of his father, a revolutionary hero who perished in Stalin’s purges, and of himself. Thus in Dom na naberezhnoi (The House on the Embankment) he in part retells the story of Studenty (Students), his first novel, which dealt with academic life during the post-war years. Students was awarded a Stalin prize and brought Trifonov early renown, but in the later work he judges his characters differently and presents the moral dilemmas of those involved far more subtly. Vremia i mesto [Time and Place], like The House on the Embankment, moves between 1937 and the time of Trifonov’s actual work on the novel. In Vremia i mesto, though, the main figure, who is in turn writing an autobiographical novel, is clearly based on Trifonov himself—the self examination takes place on several levels. And in his final work, Ischeznovenie (Disappearance), Trifonov presents a fictionalized account of his father’s arrest and the effect that it had on him as a child.

Trifonov’s talents are seen first of all in the subtleties of his narrative technique, which distinguishes each of the works in his Moscow cycle. Thus Drugaia zhizn’ (Another Life) is told from the viewpoint of Ol’ga, the widow of a historian who was basically a failure in life and died in his early forties. Typically for Trifonov, Ol’ga’s thoughts are presented in almost a stream-of-consciousness manner, with pieces of at first disconnected and seemingly random information being placed before the reader. Only as the story unfolds do the links emerge, and then it becomes clear that the author’s sympathies are more with the deceased husband, who, while he was not a success within a society where intrigue and moral compromise are the norm, possessed a passion for the truth and an appreciation for the manner in which the past affects the present. In most of his later novels Trifonov employs two or more perspectives from which the action is viewed; thus The House on the Embankment switches among a first-person narrator, a third-person narration about a figure with whom the narrator shared childhood experiences, and then an authorial voice.

Trifonov’s narrative technique is intimately related to his thematic concerns. He wants to show that knowledge of the past is an elusive thing, that one person’s memory of an event may be genuinely quite different from that of another, and construction of the ”truth” may be a difficult or impossible task. At the very least, no one individual’s reconstruction of events can embody their full complexity. Yet the works, taken as a whole, do not shrink from moral concerns. Those people unwilling to take a stand, who either lack values or do not defend the ones they possess, are ultimately condemned. Thus an artist in Another Life, genuinely talented in his youth and personally acquainted with famous Western artists, had come back to the USSR and become ”re-educated.” From then on he was to paint almost nothing of value. In Vremia i mesto an author who rewrote a major novel to make it more acceptable (and who appears to have acted less than honourably when his fellows were arrested during the purges) is eventually driven to suicide (not unlike the real-life writer Aleksandr Fadeev).

Trifonov’s chief concerns are perhaps summed up by the title of the last book he completed: time and place. Many of his works leap back and forth between eras, showing how past and present are inevitably intertwined, how memory comes to serve as conscience. The characters are linked to place in an equally complex way: they are often characterized by the manner in which they relate to dachas, apartments, and the move from one setting to another. Trifonov is a master not just of showing the large-scale physical settings of his characters, but of imparting striking significance to the smallest details of their everyday lives.

Most importantly, though, Trifonov served as a spokesman for his generation. During the Brezhnev years, when most writers were too timid to examine the Stalinist legacy, he pushed back the limits of what was permissible within Soviet literature. But he did not just treat once forbidden topics; his works are notable most of all for their honesty, an honesty that does not allow for easy judgements. People do not necessarily fit into easy categories: apparent victims could be the victimizers if given the chance, and villains may turn out to be weak once the situation changes. Those whose outlooks were formed during the revolution find themselves ill-equipped for life afterwards, while their descendants, those of Trifonov’s age, have compromised all too often. Perhaps his greatest achievement, then, was to chronicle the moral void sensed by many of his contemporaries who no longer believed in the exemplars of the past and could find no heroes in the present.

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