The opening of Yury Trifonov’s The Long Goodbye[*] describes to us a place where beautiful lilac bushes used to grow two decades earlier but which have since been replaced by a grey eight-storey apartment. Thus the novella’s narrative of a long-drawn out disappearance – the end of an era, the loss of familiar settings, the vanishing of persons, the fading of feelings – is foreshadowed.
We are presented with a situation where two lovers who, while still having feelings for each other, are gradually falling out of love. The two sway between the two extremes of clinging and detachment. Something is amiss but they cannot bring themselves to face it. It is a deteriorating state which they try their best to prop, though with those around each their respective lives – friends, workmates, and family – not cooperating.
Misunderstandings become more frequent. But they can’t bring themselves to bring it to an end. They’re always at a loss for words whenever they come close to a confrontation with the Real of their relationship. Instead, they set up an Imaginary semblance of tranquility, a sort of nothingness, which is nonetheless belied by the underlying yet inexpressible disorder that structures their relationship.
It becomes a long-drawn out death. And at the end of it all, it is exhaustion that drives the final cutting of ties. They simply drift away. But when they finally got out of it they still don’t know if they’d actually feel happy for the new possibilities that now lay before them, for the freedom they now have, or feel sad for the loss of this kernel of happiness that came from that ended affair, however dim the memory of that happiness is.
The Long Goodbye traces this process wonderfully. The Long Goodbye can be likened to Chekhov’s “A Lady with the Dog” but in reverse. We have the same melancholy voice, the same subdued prose, the same poetic quality, the same dreary ordinariness of everyday life. There are no grand events. The focus is on the buildup of the small things that makes up the life of any human being.
But instead of depicting the course of falling in love in an affair, like in “A Lady with the Dog,” you have a gradual, slow, falling out. At the end of Chekhov’s short story, the lovers still have everything still coming before them. The reader is left to herself to contemplate on what comes next. By the end of The Long Goodbye, we have everything done and over with as memories that passed away. ■
[*] The Long Goodbye is part of The Exchange and Other Stories. The other novella in the selection, The Exchange, is based on the problem of the housing shortage in Soviet Russia. Also included in the book are the short stories “Games at Dusk” and “A Short Stay in the Torture Chamber.”