The House on the Embankment, told by two narrators, is a series of intertwined reminiscences, flashbacks, and episodes, mainly of childhood and young adulthood in Moscow under Joseph Stalin. Most of the novella, told in the third person, relates incidents from the life of Vadim Alexandrovich Glebov. These portions alternate with short chapters told by an unidentified narrator who once knew Glebov.
When the novella begins, Glebov, an irritable middle-aged man, sees an alcoholic porter in a furniture store whom he recognizes as his old friend Lev Mikhailovich Shulepnikov or “Shulepa.” At first, Glebov cannot remember his name. Surprisingly, Lev refuses to recognize him. Later that evening, Glebov receives a telephone call from Lev, who tells him that he is being sent “you-know-where” (that is, to prison) and that he used to dislike Glebov.
Lev’s puzzling rebuff triggers Glebov’s memories of youth and childhood and the luxurious apartment house on the embankment, where many of his childhood friends lived. Glebov was drawn to the house, with its mirrored elevator, balconies, antiques, and interesting books. Next to it and in its shadow was the dilapidated Deryugin Street house, where Glebov and his family lived in one room.
Glebov’s childhood world includes Anton, Chemist, Walrus, Lev, Sonya Ganchuk, other classmates, and the belligerent Bychkov children. Nearly all the incidents that Glebov recalls involve fear, humiliation, resentment, or envy. He is intimidated by the elevator man in the apartment house and embarrassed by his anxious father, who treats Lev, the stepson of a powerful man, with respect and tries to impress him. The pain that Glebov senses even as an adult, the “agony from the unfairness of things,” begins at approximately the time when Lev moves into the house on the embankment. Glebov is able to bring friends to the cinema without paying, because his mother works in a theater. This small amount of power in his class is demolished when Lev invites a group to his apartment and shows the same film with which Glebov has been tantalizing his classmates. To Glebov’s chagrin, Lev also emerges triumphant from a boyish prank to humiliate him. Later, the elder Shulepnikov, learning that Glebov’s family wants information, extorts the names of the ringleaders of the prank from Glebov. Believing that his uncle’s fate depends on his answer, Glebov, who himself was one of the ringleaders, names Yura the Bear and Manyunya. Bear’s parents are forced to leave Moscow, Manyunya is expelled, and Glebov’s uncle is sent to prison despite Glebov’s attempts to protect him. In another incident, Anton and Lev are attacked by the Deryugin Street gang, led by Minka Bychkov, and the boys’ clothes are torn by the Bychkovs’ dog. The next day, a mysterious man appears and shoots the dog. Minka is later arrested, and the Bychkovs vanish.
After World War II, Lev and Glebov meet again as graduate students. Lev now has a second stepfather, as powerful as the first. Glebov uses his old friendship with Sonya to develop a personal relationship with her influential father, Professor Nikolia Vasilievich Ganchuk. A crude remark at a party gives Glebov the idea of pursuing Sonya, who has always loved him.
Ironically, Glebov’s hopeful alliance with the Ganchuks involves him in a moral dilemma that jeopardizes his future. He unwittingly becomes a pawn in a plot to oust Ganchuk, his dissertation adviser and future father-in-law. When questioned about Ganchuk’s ideology, Glebov partially admits what the dean wants to hear. Finally, in effect ordered to speak out publicly against Ganchuk and pressured by Ganchuk’s supporters to defend him, Glebov is in a turmoil. He is...
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saved from having to make a decision at that time by the death of his grandmother on the day he is to appear in public. Although Sonya generously offers to release him from their commitment, he leaves her one time with the impression that he will return, but he never does. At another meeting, Glebov says something against Ganchuk, which he is later unable to recall. Lev shows up drunk and muttering at the meeting, and from that point forward, Lev’s life goes downhill. When his second stepfather loses his influence, there is nothing to stop his precipitous fall. Both Ganchuk and his wife, Yulia Mikhailovna, lose their positions at the Institute. Ganchuk is later reinstated, his wife dies, and Sonya suffers emotional problems and dies.
Almost two years after seeing Lev in the furniture store, Glebov meets his aristocratic mother on a train to Paris. Although her position in life has suffered, she still retains her arrogance, and Glebov is disturbed by her indifference to him. He learns, however, that she has a widow’s pension from her first husband.
Several short chapters are told by a narrator who was once one of the boys in the house on the embankment. His friends were the same children whom Glebov remembers, but he does not include Glebov as part of the group. The narrator was annoyed by Glebov’s caution and resented him, partly because Sonya loved him. He believes that Glebov is “a nothing person” to the point of genius, and he considers this the key to his luck and later success. The narrator recalls several incidents which Glebov does not recall or remembers differently. The narrator includes himself in his version of the Deryugin gang attack, in which he, Anton, and Lev were beaten. On their next foray down Deryugin Street, neither the gang nor the dog appeared, and the narrator suspected that Glebov had fixed it. He also recalls the humiliation when his family moved from the apartment house, and Glebov’s pleasure when he learned that they were moving to a single room in a house without an elevator.
Years later, the narrator interviews Professor Ganchuk for a book. On the anniversary of Sonya’s death, they visit her grave near closing time. At first, they are prevented from entering by a surly gatekeeper, whom the narrator recognizes as Lev. The novella ends with Lev looking up at “the long, squat, ugly house on the embankment” and wondering if some miracle might change his life.