Yuri Trifonov emerged in the early 1970’s as one of the leading writers of his generation and, surprisingly enough, as one of the most controversial (yet still publishable) of those writers. Lumped together with such writers as Vassily Aksyonov and Andrei Bitov as a practitioner of “urban prose” (as opposed to the “village prose” of Valentin Rasputin or Vasili Shukshin), he resembles them only in choice of milieu. Trifonov’s densely packed, low-key treatment of the Moscow intelligentsia combines the impassivity of an uninvolved bystander and the rueful knowledge of an insider.
In Trifonov’s world, as in Chekhov’s, nothing happens—and everything happens: Marriages are made and destroyed; careers flourish or fail; men and women deceive themselves and others in search of security or even, sometimes, truth; people die. What has made Trifonov controversial is in part his lack of civic ardor; sober and detached observation paired with both moral and psychological intelligence does not equal an inspiring view of Soviet society.
He began his career as did many another young postwar Soviet writer, with competent and resolutely optimistic tales of his contemporaries. His novel Studenty (1950; Students, 1953) won a Stalin Prize in 1951, and was followed by Utolenie zhazhdy (1963; the quenching of thirst)—a novel about construction in Turkmenia—numerous short stories, and a film scenario. His tone changed with the publication of Obmen (1969; The Exchange, 1973), a novella chronicling the small but cumulative compromises that end in complete moral surrender for the main character. Shortly thereafter he came out with Prevaritalnye itogi (1970; Taking Stock, 1978) and Dolgoe proshchanie (1971; The Long Goodbye, 1978), both in the same uncomfortable vein. His preoccupation with assessing the past found overt form in Neterpenie (1973; The Impatient Ones, 1978), a historical novel about revolutionary Andrei Zhelyabov, while Another Life and Dom na naberezhnoi (1976; The Houseon the Embankment, 1983) explored the relationship of present to past in more intimate fashion. Trifonov’s last published work in his lifetime, Starik (1978; The Old Man, 1984) and a posthumously published novella, Vrema i mesto (1981; time and place), continued to dig at questions of personal and historical responsibility.