(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 1031 words.)