By Elijah Donohue
Much of the narrative of Yuri Trifonov’s Another Life (1975) is conveyed from the perspective of Olga Vasilievna. Trifonov adopts a quasi-direct approach to narration, as descriptions of events and people throughout the novella are imbued with varying significances in accordance almost singularly with Olga’s understanding. The fact that the novella is so heavily guided by one character’s subjectivity suggests both a theme of the novella and a theme of human life: the subjectivity of each individual is a limited perspective that contributes to misunderstanding, animosity, and frustration in a broader intersubjective reality. This theme is clearly evident with respect to Olga’s relationship with Sergei as well as with respect to her construal of events more generally (e.g., her understanding of why Alexandra Prokofievna helps Kolka). The quasi-direct narrative contributes significantly to the effectiveness with which this theme of limited perspective is rendered.
From the beginnings of Olga’s relationship with Sergei, Olga’s conception of the exact nature of “their life” is continuously upset. Indeed, there seems to be something about Sergei that resists her conception of how things ought to be. When Olga first reprimands Sergei for inane behavior, it is apparent that Sergei understands the situation differently from Olga:
It was perhaps at that moment that her mind created the model which for years she was to keep before her as the ideal form of their relationship, toward which she would strive with her utmost strength, and to which he cunningly pretended to submit while remaining remote and uninvolved (Trifinov 29).
Later, in a simple encounter at the theater with Darya Mamedovna, with whom Olga thinks Sergei might be having an affair, Olga afterwards says that she pities Sergei, despite clearly knowing very little about Darya and only having met her once (Trifinov 166). Moreover, Olga realizes that she does not understand Sergei quite as much as she had supposed. Her lack of understanding is brought up frequently, especially as she broods over Sergei’s discontent and his persisting detachment from her: “There is no greater agony than incomprehension and a total inability to help” (Trifinov 176). It comes up more specifically when she is trying to read through the history that Sergei studies: “She read the contents, although without fully understanding them” (Trifinov 129). Her disinterest in the history to which Sergei dedicates so much of his time leads her to conclude that she does not fully understand Sergei either: “What an enormous part of Sergei’s nature had remained unknown to her (Trifinov 129).
It is not only in her relationship with Sergei that a lack of understanding is conveyed as causing strife, but also in Olga’s more general day-to-day concerns. For example, when Alexandra is spending much of her time trying to help Kolka, Olga is frustrated that Alexandra is so callous to the concerns of her immediate relatives. Olga goes so far as to suggest that Alexandra is engaging in a mere display of “show-off philanthropy” (Trifinov 160). She further ties the accompanying animosity between Alexandra and herself to yet another lack of understanding:
…there were times when her mother-in-law did help people partly out of pure altruism (although there was little merit in it for she did it mostly out of habit, instilled into her by her professional training) – but she should also be able to understand what a state Olga was in when she came back from seeing her mother (Trifinov 160)
These are not the only times when the topic of a lack of understanding is broached. In fact, in a rare instance in which Trifinov steps away from quasi-direct discourse into a more objective and impersonal narrative form, he stresses the recurrent theme of misunderstanding engendering conflict between people: “It amazes us that we don’t understand one another. Why don’t other people understand us? This lack in our lives seems to be the source of all evil” (Trifinov 180). This moment of direct discourse is reminiscent of a moment in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which likewise intimates themes of a lack of understanding and the limited subjective perspective to which it corresponds: “No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence–that which makes its truth, its meaning–its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream–alone.” Conrad suggests that no communicative act can endow anybody with the ability to fully understand the subjective experience of another.
There is a sense in which, at least in my estimation, the quasi-direct narrative of Another Life points toward the same phenomenon to which Conrad is alluding; despite all her efforts, Olga simply cannot understand the nature of the person closest to her, Sergei. Looking at the title of the novella through this thematic lens, it seems evident that the idea of “another life” could be alluding to the consequences of subjective existence: we cannot understand the separate lives that each individual lives, because each of us has our own perspective that is necessarily limited by our subjectivity.