Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 893
Another Life chronicles a widow’s progress in the months following her husband’s untimely death at age forty-two. The narrative, presented entirely from Olga Vasilievna’s point of view, switches from present to past and back again as she attempts to make sense of their life together and of her solitary existence now. She reviews their courtship, the course of their marriage, and the ups and downs of her husband’s career.
Yuri Trifonov eschews strict chronological order in favor of the workings of memory, at least in the first part of the novel. As Another Life opens, Olga is wide awake in the night, suffering from some undefined guilt. Others have blamed her for her husband’s death, and she unwillingly seeks to discover the truth or falsehood of that charge. Her frustration with her own sleeplessness leads her to memories of her husband’s restlessness and their late-night quarrels and conflicts. That in turn leads to worries about her current situation. She shares an apartment with her teenage daughter Irina and her dragonlike, vindictive mother-in-law, Alexandra Prokofievna. Scenes from the recent past float by without giving her any clue to a way out of her current dilemma: how to continue to live now that her husband is gone. She returns to one of her constant themes: her husband’s previous lovers and what she supposes to be his real preference in women. At the same time, her practical side rebels against the futility of remembrance and dully looks ahead to the next few hours and her morning routine.
Olga and Sergei met through a mutual friend named Vlad, a kind, dull, pockmarked medical student Olga was seeing at the time. A biologist, shamefully unmarried at the age of twenty-four, Olga finds little joy either in the prospect of teaching at a local secondary school or in marrying faithful Vlad. He makes the fatal mistake of introducing Olga to Sergei, a quirky, brilliant young historian working “in some obscure institution in a job that was not in his field.” Not until the following summer does Vlad begin to suspect his friends’ mutual attraction, when the three of them plus a superfluous acquaintance named Rita scrape up enough money to spend a few weeks in Gagra, a fashionable resort town on the Black Sea.
These are Olga’s glory days; young, slender, and athletic, she turns male heads and makes an enemy of poor Rita in the process. Nothing beyond her newfound happiness with Sergei seems to matter. Their return to Moscow, however, is not quite so idyllic; Sergei’s mother takes perverse pleasure in unveiling the existence of a pregnant former girlfriend, who pathetically schemes to separate the new couple. The wedding reception, too, nudges Olga toward the realization that a marriage is not a question of two people alone but a “merger or a collision between two clans, two worlds,” and that it will continue to be so even after the disappearance of one of the partners. Olga recalls her jealous accusations and confrontations in their old apartment, shared with her mother and stepfather, her unexpected pregnancy, and their move to Sergei’s mother’s apartment.
As Olga remembers, the narrative gradually assumes a more linear form, recounting Sergei’s struggles at his institute. These struggles to write and publish a dissertation culminate in his resignation from the institute and eventually his death. Interwoven with Sergei’s professional failure is the success of his former friend Gennadi Klimuk and the accidental death of his friend and patron Fedya. Fedya, as academic secretary of the institute where both Sergei and Klimuk work, has supported Sergei honestly in the midst of wavering and doubt. With Fedya’s death, Klimuk begins to gain ascendancy, and Olga is faced not only with the triumph of a self-serving bureaucrat but also with the specter of Louisa, Fedya’s hapless, distracted widow.
Although Olga, a successful research biologist who believes the world begins and ends with chemistry, cannot really understand her husband’s seeming obsession with the workings of the czarist secret police, she never seriously questions his choice of topic and is truly distressed over his continuing difficulties. Yet her distress over his professional troubles takes second place to her dismay over their increasing separation and what she perceives as a change in his character. Tormented by his search for the threads that bind the present to the past, the individual to the common history, Sergei begins to seek those links in the occult. Increasingly distant and irritable, he both puzzles and disturbs the faithful and possessive Olga, who suspects that another woman is really the cause of it all.
Present and past merge in the penultimate scene of the novel, when Olga and Sergei are picking mushrooms in the forest, and she is finally able to ask him all the unanswered questions left after his death. It is all a dream, and she awakes to her customary seven o’clock alarm, but both she and the reader understand that some kind of reconciliation has taken place. Willingly or not, she has begun to make peace with this other, separate life.
The novel ends a year or so later, as Olga keeps a rendezvous with yet another troubled man and reflects on the turn of events that has led her to this new, unexpected life.