France, the late 20-ies. our century. The hero of the novel is a young Russian emigre, the narrative is conducted on his behalf. He’s in love with Claire. Claire is a pure Frenchwoman, she teases the admirer, then he allows him to hope for his favor. She is sick, and the hero stays with her for whole evenings. Then she recovers and demands that he accompany her to the cinema. After cinematography and late sitting in the cafe, Claire invites the hero to drink a cup of tea. She again has a sharp change of mood – now she is annoyed. When the hero, justifying himself, says that he waited for this meeting for ten years and does not ask for anything from her, Claire’s eyes darken. Claire embraces him, saying: “How, did not you understand? ..” And at night, lying next to Claire, who is asleep, the hero remembers his life and his first meeting with this woman.
Childhood. The family often moves. Father, memories of which are so dear to the hero, forester. He is devoted to the family, absorbed in “chemical experiments, geographical works and public issues.” At night the father tells his son an endless tale: the whole family they are floating on a ship, on which the captain is the boy himself, Kolya. Mother, silent, absorbed in reading, deeply feeling. Sisters. Peace and harmony in the family. But very soon everything ends: Kolya is only eight years old when her father dies. Mother does not talk much from grief, only walks around the room. Soon, one after another, the sisters are dying. The boy reads a lot, all indiscriminately. “I think that this time of intensified reading and development, which was the epoch of my completely unconscious existence, I could compare with the deepest mental fainting.” Kolya enters the cadet corps, then to the gymnasium. He easily learns, converges with his comrades, bows to his superiors. This life is hard for him and barren. The boy is absorbed in his own inner world: “It seemed to me all my life – even when I was a child – that I know some mystery that others do not know. Very rarely, at the most intense moments of my life, I experienced some instant, almost physical degeneration, and then approached his blind knowledge, the wrong comprehension of the miraculous. “
Fourteen years, in the summer of 1917 on the site of a gymnastic society, Nicholas first meets Clair, sixteen. Father Claire, a businessman, temporarily lives with his entire family in Ukraine.
The hero falls in love with Claire, often with her. Then, offended by her mother, ceases to come, but the image of Claire continues to haunt him. One late winter night he meets Claire, and she... tells him that she is married. Nikolai sees her off. But when Claire, saying that neither her parents nor her husband is in town, invites him to her, he refuses. “I wanted to go after her and could not.” The snow was still moving and disappeared on the fly, and everything that I knew and loved until then fell and fell in the snow, and after that I did not sleep for two nights. ” Their next meeting is only ten years from now.
Nicholas decides to join the White Army, believing that the truth is on their side. The conversation with Uncle Vitali shows the young man that in this war each side considers itself right, but it does not bother him. He still goes to war for the Whites, “because they are conquered.” At the same time, Uncle Vitaly, a career officer, a man “with almost feudal notions of honor and right,” believes that the truth is on the side of the Reds. Nikolas bids farewell to his mother with all the brutality of his sixteen years and leaves to fight – “without conviction, without enthusiasm, solely out of a desire to suddenly see and understand in the war such new things” that, perhaps, will transform him. Service on the armored train, cowardice and courage of others, a heavy military life – all this surrounds Nicholas to the very defeat of the army. The very deafness, the inability of an immediate emotional response to what is happening to him, protects him from the dangers threatened. Once on board the steamer and looking at the burning Feodosia, Nicholas recalls Claire. And thoughts about her again fill his imagination, thousands of imaginary conversations and positions swarm in his head, giving way to new ones. In this fictional world, the echoes and images of his previous life do not reach, as though stumbling upon an invisible wall of air, “but as insurmountable as that fiery barrier behind which snow lay and the last nocturnal signals of Russia sounded.” During the voyage along the Black Sea, Nicholas depicts pictures of distant Japanese harbors, the beaches of Borneo and Sumatra – the echoes of his father’s stories. Under the sounds of the ship’s bell, the ship approaches Constantinople, and Nicholas is completely absorbed in the anticipation of a future meeting with Claire. “We floated in the sea mist to the invisible city, the air chasms opened behind us, and in the damp silence of this journey the bell rang occasionally – and the sound that invariably accompanied us, only the sound of the bell connected in the slow transparency the fiery edges and water separating me from Russia, with babbling and coming true, with a beautiful dream about Claire… “