The action takes place in Moscow and unfolds in several time frames: the mid-1930s, the second half of the 1940s, the early 1970s. The scientist, literary critic Vadim Aleksandrovich Glebov, who has agreed in the furniture store to buy an antique table, comes there and in search of the person he needs comes across his schoolmate Levka Shulepnikov, the local worker, who has fallen and seems to be drunk. Glebov calls his name, but Shulepnikov turns away without recognizing or pretending not to know. This greatly hurts Glebov, he does not think that he is guilty of anything before Shulepnikov, and in general, if anyone is to blame, then – times.
Glebov returns home, where he is waiting for the unexpected news that his daughter is going to marry a certain Tolmachev, a bookshop seller.
Glebov recalls that once, at the time of Shulepnikov’s appearance in their classroom, he envied him painfully. Lev lived in a gray huge house on the embankment in the heart of Moscow. There lived many friends, Vadim’s classmates and, it seemed, went a completely different life than in the surrounding ordinary houses. This, too, was the subject of Glebov’s burning envy. He himself lived in a common apartment in Deryuginsky Lane near the “big house”. The boys called him Vadka Baton, because on the first day of school he brought a loaf of bread and dressed pieces of those who liked him. To him, “absolutely no one”, also wanted something to stand out. Glebov’s mother at one time worked as a ticket-taker in a movie theater, so Vadim could go to any film without a ticket and even sometimes hold friends. This privilege was the basis of his power in the classroom, which he used very prudently, inviting only those in whom he was interested. And Glebov’s
Immediately after that attack, the director arranged for the search of criminals, Levka did not want to extradite anyone, and the case seemed to be hushed up. So he became, to Glebov’s envy, also a hero. And as for the cinema, Shulepnikov Glebov also outscored: he called the children to his home one day and scrolled to them on his own movie camera the same gunman “Blue Express”, which Glebov was so keen on. Later Vadim made friends with Shulepa, as they called him in the classroom, began to visit his house, in a huge apartment, which also made a strong impression on him. It turned out that Shulepnikov had everything, and one person, according to Glebov’s thinking, should not have everything.
Father Glebov, who worked as a master chemist at a confectionery factory, advised his son not to be flattered by his friendship with Shulepnikov and less likely to visit that house. However, when Uncle Volodya was arrested, Vadim’s mother asked his father through Levka – an important bump in the security services – to find out about him. Shulepnikov the elder, having retired from Glebov, said that he would find out, but in turn asked him to give the names of the instigators in that story to the scarecrow, which, as Glebov thought, had long been forgotten. And Vadim, who himself was among the instigators, and therefore feared that it would eventually come up, named two names. Soon these children, along with their parents, disappeared, like his neighbors in the Bychkov apartment, who terrorized the whole district and once beat Shulepnikov and Anton Ovchinnikov, another one of their classmates who appeared in their lane.
Then Shulepnikov appears in 1947, at the same institute where Glebov studied. Seven years have passed since they last saw each other. Glebov was in evacuation, starving, and in the last year of the war he had served in the army, in parts of the airfield service. Shulepa, in his words, flew to Istanbul with a diplomatic mission, was married to an Italian, then broke up, etc. His stories are full of mystery. He is still the birthday of life, he comes to the institute on the trophy “BMW”, presented to him by his stepfather, now different and also from the bodies. And he lives again in an elite house, only now on Tverskaya. Only his mother, Alina Fedorovna, a hereditary noblewoman, did not change at all. Of their other classmates, someone was no longer alive, and the others were placed at different ends. There was only Sonya Ganchuk, daughter of a professor and head of the department at their institute Nikolai Vasilyevich Ganchuk. As a friend of Sonya and the secretary of the seminar, Glebov often happens at Ganchukov all in the same house on the waterfront, which he longs for in dreams from school years. Gradually he becomes his own. And still feels like a poor relative.
One day at a party at Sonya, he suddenly realizes that he could be in this house on entirely different grounds. From that very day, as if to order, it starts to develop to Sonya quite different than just a friendly, a feeling. After the celebration of the New Year at Ganchuk’s summer cottage in the Bars, Glebov and Sonia become close. Sony’s parents still do not know anything about their novel, but Glebov feels some dislike from the mother of Sonya Julia Mikhailovna, a teacher of German at their institute.
At this very time, the Institute starts all sorts of unpleasant events, directly affecting Glebov. At first the teacher of linguistics Astrug was fired, then the turn came to the mother of Sonya Julia Mikhailovna, who was offered to take exams to get a diploma from a Soviet university and to have the right to teach, because she holds a diploma from the University of Vienna.
Glebov studied in the fifth year, wrote a diploma, when he was suddenly asked to enter the training unit. Some Druzyaev, a former military prosecutor who recently appeared at the institute, together with graduate student Shireiko, hinted that they knew all the Glebov circumstances, including his closeness to Ganchuk’s daughter, and therefore it would be better if someone became the head of the Glebov’s diploma other. Glebov agrees to talk with Ganchuk, but later, especially after a frank conversation with Sonya, who was stunned, realized that everything is much more complicated. At first, he hopes that somehow he will resolve by himself, over time, but he is constantly reminded, letting him know that his postgraduate and Griboedov scholarship, which Glebov laid after the winter session, depends on his behavior. Even later, he guessed that it was not at all in him, but that, that Ganchuk “rolled a barrel.” And there was fear – “absolutely insignificant, blind, formless, like a creature born in a dark underground.”
Once Glebov suddenly discovers that his love for Sonia is not as serious as it seemed. Meanwhile, Glebov is forced to speak at a meeting where Ganchuk should be discussed. Appears condemning Ganchuk article Shireiko, which mentions that some graduate students (meaning precisely Glebov) abandon his scientific leadership. It comes to the very Nikolai Vasilyevich. Only the recognition of Sonya, who opened the father of their relationship with Glebov, somehow discharges the situation. The need to speak at the meeting is oppressive to Vadim, who does not know how to get out. He rushes, goes to Shulepnikov, hoping for his secret power and connection. They get drunk, go to some women, and the next day Glebov with a heavy hangover can not go to college.
However, he and his family are not left alone. It is the hope of the anti-friendly group. These students want Vadim to speak on their behalf in defense of Ganchuk. To him comes Kuno Ivanovich, Ganchuk’s secretary, with a request not to remain silent. Glebov puts all the options – “for” and “against”, and none of it suits. In the end, everything is arranged in an unexpected way: the night before the fateful meeting, Glebov’s grandmother dies, and he does not go to the meeting with good reason. But with Sonya everything is already over, the question for Vadim is settled, he ceases to be in their house, and Ganchuk is also determined everything – he was sent to the regional teacher training college to strengthen peripheral staff.
All this, like much else, Glebov seeks to forget, not to remember, and he succeeds. He received both postgraduate studies, and a career, and Paris, where he left as a member of the board of the essay section at the Congress of the International Association of Literary Critics and Esseists. Life is going well, but all that he dreamed about and then came to him, did not bring joy, “because it took away so much energy and that irreplaceable, what is called life.”