Intertext in Trifonov's The House on the Embankment

Tatiana R. Spektor, Iowa State University

Trifonov's novella The House on the Embankment (Dom na naberezhnoj, 1976) ends on an optimistic note: "Slepili ogni, razgoralsja vecher, neskonchaemo tjanulsja gorod, kotoryj ja tak ljubil, tak pomnil, tak znal, tak staralsja ponjat'..." (Trifonov II: 494). This cheerful note is so dissonant in the context of the gloomy atmosphere and imagery of the work that Trifonov's critics consider it "obviously false," an "appendage inserted for the sake of the censor" (Patera 1983:305; Seifrid 1990:620).

I argue that the dissonance between the optimistic ring of this ending and the depressing mood of the work as a whole is the author's conscious intent, and has nothing to do with pleasing the censor. I suggest that in The House on the Embankment, Trifonov argues for the Christian idea of resurrection. This is evident from his allusions to another Russian writer whose works proclaim the significance of Christian ideas for the humanity, and whose texts contain numerous intertextual links with the Gospels: Mixail Bulgakov.

In this paper, I attempt to elucidate the impact of Bulgakov on Trifonov's Weltanschauung by applying an intertextual analysis to Trifonov's novella The House on the Embankment, in which he alludes to Bulgakov's novel The Master and Margarita (1966 67). I will base my argument on revealing the meaning of the image of the city of Moscow, a device that is employed in the novella's finale to deliver an optimistic metaphysical message.

Bulgakov critics have identified two different images of Moscow in The Master and Margarita. First, Moscow is depicted as a city invaded by devils and witches (Krivonos 1994:42 48). Second, scholars have found in The Master and Margarita a series of directly stated as well as implied parallels between Moscow and Jerusalem, and also between Moscow, Kiev, and Jerusalem (Sharratt 1980:331 40; Proffer 1984:532 40; Krivonos 1994:45). From all these associations emerges the opposite image, that of Moscow as a sacred city. This image derives from the medieval Russian belief that Moscow was the third and last Rome, heir to the legacy of the second, or East, Rome, Constantinople. In Bulgakov's novel the two images merge into one metaphor of Moscow as a sacred city possessed by devils. Through this metaphor, Bulgakov associates the Soviet authorities of the 1930s with the evil forces. Trifonov employs Bulgakov's symbol of Moscow as a sacred city possessed by devils.

In The House on the Embankment, Trifonov also presents a stark portrayal of the terror, arrests, and denunciations common during the Stalin years. Like Bulgakov, Trifonov urges the reader to acknowledge the existence of a struggle between good and evil in modern society and to recognize the evil manifested by the Stalinist system. Moreover, in his work, this struggle is depicted through the use of the archetypal paradigm of the saint and devil. As in many novels of Dostoevskij, two "quarrelling" voices of the protagonist's conscience are represented in Trifonov's novella by the two characters. Sonja Ganchuk, the fiancee of the protagonist, Vadim Glebov, tries to help him to remain faithful to the moral absolutes and to resurrect him spiritually. Lev Shulepnikov, whose two stepfathers are NKVD officers, appeals to Glebov's worst character flaws, his cowardice and his drive for material prosperity. In that, Sonja acts as Glebov's guardian angel and Shulepnikov as his "personal devil." Glebov chooses to betray Sonja and her ideals as suggested by Shulepnikov. Sonja becomes mentally ill (she is afraid of light and prefers to stay in darkness) and eventually dies. In the novella's epilogue, the consequences of Glebov's climactic choice are symbolized by the gloomy image of the abandoned crematorium where Sonja is buried, and where Shulepnikov works as a watchman. Trifonov employs the image of a totally dark crematorium, where a saint is buried and her grave is watched by a devil, as a metaphor for the spiritual darkness in which Soviet society remains as a result of the cultural choice made by the Russian intelligentsia that preferred atheism to Christianity. Even though this metaphor is already elevated to the metaphysical level, Trifonov finds it important to emphasize its religious meaning by referring to the master text, in which the symbolism of light and darkness was first introduced in its Christian sense: the Gospels. Trifonov describes a sudden darkening of the Donskoj Monastery, when Sonja's father and her former classmate come to visit her grave. Similarly, darkness suddenly covered the scene of the crucifixion of Christ, the city of Jerusalem, and the entire land, according to all three authors of the synoptic Gospels.

An average Soviet reader, deprived of access to the master text, could nevertheless recognize Trifonov's hint at the scene of the crucifixion, for Bulgakov describes this scene in The Master and Margarita. While retelling the story of Jesus, Bulgakov applies his favorite principle, that of reversal; thus, describing the climactic event of the story, he quotes the Gospels indirectly and preserves from the original text only one word: "darkness" [t'ma] (Bulgakov 1990,V:178). The word t'ma that is used in the Old Church Slavic and Old Russian translations of the Gospel, still exists in contemporary Russian, but it does sound archaic and is therefore marked stylistically (compare to the more common word temnota). Bulgakov employs its archaic aura to create an impression of remoteness of events that actually did happen thousands of years ago, according to his version of the story of Jesus.

In Trifonov's text, however, this word's function is directly opposite to its role in The Master and Margarita. Instead of focusing on its associations with a particular, however remote, era in human history, Trifonov emphasizes its affiliation with the text that leads humanity to the eternal. By directly quoting from the Gospels, Trifonov connects the events described in his novella with the eternal story of victory over death. Through this connection, he transforms an incredibly pessimistic depiction of the abandoned crematorium, which metaphorically represents a "dead death" of the entire Russian society, into a reenactment of resurrection of Christ. Alluding to the story of victory over death, Trifonov revives hope for a national spiritual resurrection in the hearts of his readers who live in atheistic Moscow of the 1970s. It is exactly Moscow, a sacred city, that nourishes this hope. The association of the darkness of the abandoned crematorium with the darkness that covered the land after Christ's death on the cross suggests that the light of resurrection is coming. This light metaphorically comes when the endless lights of the infinite city surround the narrator on his way through Moscow. The idea of spiritual resurrection is expressed in this image of Moscow as an infinite city that retains its sacred nature even in the grip of evil. The possession by evil forces is temporary, whereas the city is eternal: it is the third Rome, the center of Orthodox Christianity.

Analysis of Trifonov's allusions to Bulgakov in The House on the Embankment allows us to conclude that the ideological message delivered in the novella is optimistic, in that Trifonov argues for the Christian concept of resurrection. Even though the protagonist of the novella fails to find a path to the light of spirituality from the darkness of materialsim, his former classmate, another Moscow intelligent, finds his way toward his own and national spiritual resurrection. This way is a revival of the Christian values including a traditional national view of Moscow as a sacred city, the center of Orthodox Christianity.