Olesha, Yuri (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
Olesha, Yuri 1899–1960
Olesha was a Russian novelist, short story writer, playwright, poet, and essayist. In his incisive social satires and enchanting short stories, he displays a playful intelligence and an affirmative attitude towards life. However, his love of freedom and his outspoken criticism of post-revolutionary Russia earned him the disfavor of Stalin, and Olesha was arrested and thrown into a forced labor camp. Critics have credited Olesha with the introduction of the element of slapstick into Russian literature. His novel Envy is a minor classic.
Olesha, like his young intellectual contemporaries, sided with the new regime and this position was reflected in his early verse and in his novel-length fairy tale Three Fat Men about a revolution in a fairy-tale land that ends with a fairy-tale proletariat triumphant. It is a charming story that eventually became a play and a ballet, and it was the only work by which Olesha's name remained known throughout the grimmest years of the Stalin era.
Olesha's fateful moment came in 1927. That year he published his novel Envy. It was an immediate sensation. And perhaps just as sensational, considering what the book said, was the unqualified official endorsement by the government-controlled press. The acclaim followed the full course from specialized literary journals like Revolution and Culture all the way to Pravda, the supreme repository of Soviet literary judgment. (pp. vii-viii)
Despite this early tribute, Olesha was soon neck-deep in trouble. Somehow, somewhere, signals had got crossed: instead of admiring and wishing to emulate the novel's "positive heroes," readers went as far as to identify with the villain, the "negative hero" who displayed the whole spectrum of loathsome, discarded, obsolete "petty-bourgeois" feelings, from bilious envy through slobbering sentimentality and deadening indifference to total degradation.
Obviously, Olesha not only had failed to deliver the proper message but had delivered a perverse one instead. So the literary critics had to revise their original verdict; this time they found Olesha guilty of "formalism," "naturalism," "objectivism," and "cosmopolitanism." These are grave charges in the vocabulary of a Soviet literary critic. (p. viii)
The same accusations were thrown at Olesha's shorter works, which appeared during the immediately following years—"Love," "The Cherry Stone," "From the Secret Notebook of Fellow-Traveler Sand," and others. As a result, Olesha's writings were soon virtually out of print.
For many years Olesha was known to the younger generation of Soviet readers as the author of Three Fat Men or of occasional anti-Western articles in Literaturnaya gazeta, the journal of the Union of Soviet Writers.
Then Stalin died and literary controls were somewhat slackened. During that period, now referred to as "the thaw," a collection of Olesha's writing, including Envy and other "denounced" works, saw daylight again. It was ushered in by a typical Soviet introductory piece, "explaining" to the reader that, whenever life under the Soviet regime appears unattractive in Olesha's stories, either he does not mean what he seems to be saying or he is simply overindulging in paradoxes, or—all other arguments failing—he was mistaken at the time but realized his error later and recanted. But while concluding that Olesha was, after all, on the side of Communism, the author of the introduction to the post-Stalin edition is careful not to stick his neck out as far as the critics in 1927. For who can ever be sure when assessing the whimsical imagery and symbolism of such a writer? (p. ix)
Like his beggar in "Jottings of a Writer," Olesha is "standing in a drafty passage." The beggar stands in a passage between the drizzly street and a brightly lit store; Olesha, between what he loosely calls the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. The street represents the nineteenth century, the world of his childhood, which was governed by the old, obsolete feelings without which he cannot write. Unlike the throngs of people who rush into the store, banging the door behind them, Olesha and his beggar cannot cut themselves off so brutally. Olesha must take his past with him into the budding new world of industrialization and five-year plans. (pp. ix-x)
That beggar turns up again and again in Olesha's writings and figures even in Olesha's speech to the First Congress of Soviet Writers (1934). (p. x)
When he wrote Envy, Olesha was apparently stuck in that passage between the two worlds. The poem-like novel is full of nostalgia for the discarded old world and its feelings. The attitudes of the various characters toward the wholesale eradication of the unwanted but familiar and comfortable sentiments, and their replacement by new, streamlined, and rational relations, range from open rebellion to enthusiastic endorsement. And Olesha conveys these attitudes by a symbolism as subtle and concentrated as is likely ever to be found in a profession de foi. (pp. x-xi)
Olesha uses … four characters like the stops of a musical instrument and plays a strange tune, woven out of notes of sadness, hope, rebellion, acceptance, and despair. The ending is a grotesquely plaintive tremolo of resignation. The men representing four distinctive attitudes toward the regime are four metaphorical milestones in time. (p. xi)
There is little doubt that, like Kavalerov [his alter ego, in Envy,] Olesha was both saddened and frightened by the new world that was taking shape before his eyes….
Olesha pleaded with the nascent world for the right to be admitted into it with his sentimental luggage, without which he could never be anything but a beggar and would be doomed to regret forever his possessions abandoned in the past. (p. xii)
[The] disparagement of the West [in his major play, A List of Assets, was] no mere bone Olesha tossed to the Soviet critics to forestall the automatic accusation that he was in the pay of the capitalists. Like George Orwell, he feared the future, not just the Soviet future.
It must be noted that later, in some quarters in the West, Olesha's Envy was misunderstood and mishandled…. But it was not commercialization in Olesha's case. In fact, Olesha was welcomed with open arms: the literary critics of the psychoanalytical school eyed hungrily the wealth of his symbols. It did not bother them in the least that these were carefully collected devices chosen to convey extremely conscious thoughts referring to very specific situations. They pounced upon them and, using their various textbooks and vying with one another, explained Olesha in terms of phallic symbols, castration fears, and death wishes. (pp. xiv-xv)
Long before most, a man of Olesha's perspicacity must have anticipated the worst aspects of Stalinism. Too lucid to hide them under euphemisms or explain them away as temporary aberrations, as many intellectuals did, Olesha resisted. As long as he could, he argued, pleaded, begged, would "not go gentle into that good night." When, at last, he found protest not only futile but potentially fatal, he simply stopped writing. To be sure, he did come up with some "beautiful little vignettes," as the Soviet writer who reintroduced Olesha to the public put it. But these vignettes were only little masks that Olesha made grin complacently or snarl with affected xenophobia, as the case demanded. (p. xv)
There is a curious parallel between the career of Olesha and that of his contemporary fellow townsman, Isaac Babel. Both reached full artistic maturity in the second half of the twenties; both fell silent in the early thirties. After that, they wrote little and, as far as is known, nothing of comparable value to their early work. (pp. xv-xvi)
All the works collected here, except one, were written between 1927 and 1933. "Natasha" (1936) is the only piece from Olesha's "post-literary" period that could be included without too much apology. Even so, it provides a sufficiently striking contrast to the other writings to give an inkling of what had happened to Olesha during the intervening years. In "Natasha" the former intricate lacework of symbols is no longer there. Instead, we are offered a rather insipid paradox: in the past people used to invent all sorts of stories to cover up their trysts but Natasha, a girl of the young Soviet generation, invents trysts to conceal from her father the fact that she is a parachutist. One can still recognize here Olesha's former theme: the young world does not understand the one that preceded it, and the survivors of the old world feel left out and mortified. How much more honestly, and therefore more subtly, is this theme developed in his early works. (pp. xvi-xvii)
Olesha expresses himself almost entirely through … symbols. They are strictly functional, not at all ornamental, as some critics have suggested. Olesha uses them to create patterns of character and emotional environments. (p. xvii)
Olesha's metaphors and symbols, with which he conveys his thought through artistic shortcuts, are so effective because of their freshness. He seems to raise them deep out of his childhood and then integrate them into his narrative with consummate skill, looking on with artistic detachment all the while (Olesha was a great reviser: he wrote, for instance, more than a hundred versions of the first page of Envy).
In his essay "On Prevention of Literature," George Orwell describes the fate of a serious writer when he is deprived of freedom:
The imaginative writer is unfree when he has to falsify his subjective feelings, which from his point of view are facts. He may distort and caricature reality in order to make his meaning clearer but he cannot misrepresent the scenery of his mind: he cannot say with conviction that he likes what he dislikes or believes what he disbelieves. If he is forced to do so, the only result is that his creative faculties dry up.
These words sum up Olesha's case. (pp. xviii-xix)
Andrew R. MacAndrew, in his introduction to Envy and Other Works, by Yuri Olesha, translated by Andrew R. MacAndrew (copyright © 1960, 1967 by Andrew R. MacAndrew; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Co., Inc.), Doubleday, 1967, pp. vii-xix.
[With the publication of Envy, Olyesha] was catapulted into a foremost place in Soviet literature, and soon everyone was discussing the new comic genius who had taken his place effortlessly beside Gogol. With his three clowns—Nikolay Kavalerov and the brothers Ivan and Andrey Babichev—he brought a hitherto unknown music into Russian literature. The name of the music was "slapstick." It was comedy of the most wanton kind, gay and impenitent, happily indiscreet and wonderfully invigorating, and like all good comedy it had a serious purpose. Its purpose was to question the foundations of the Soviet state and, if possible, to laugh it out of existence.
When Envy first appeared, Stalin had not yet achieved absolute power…. Laughter was not yet a crime against the state, and it was still permissible to parody high Soviet officials. (pp. xi-xii)
The phenomenal success of [Envy] demonstrated that Olyesha had penetrated into the core of the Soviet mystery; he had challenged the hidebound dogmatism of the dictatorship at its weakest point, and suggested an alternative. Slapstick was merely the sugar coating of a deliberate and reasoned attack against the apparatus of the state. He was therefore accused [later, as Stalin grew more powerful,] of "petty-bourgeois individualism" and of a desire to restore the antiquated values which the Bolshevik revolution had obliterated. Unrepentant, Olyesha went on writing.
In the following year he published The Three Fat Men, an even more explicit denunciation of the regime, disguised as a fairy tale. (p. xvii)
The fairy tale is told with wonderful gusto and charm, on many levels, with a deftness which permits him to say many things about the Soviet Union which others had left unsaid. The atmosphere of menace and revolt continues throughout the story; we are never left in the least doubt about the power of the Three Fat Men in their heavily fortified palace, with their armed thugs ready to do their bidding, shooting down unarmed people only because it is necessary to inspire terror. Although the revolutionaries bear classical fairy-tale names …, and although Olyesha is compelled to employ all the resources of his comic invention in order to keep the story moving at a breakneck pace, the allegory is almost too transparent. By 1929 the power of Stalin was in the ascendant. The wonder is that The Three Fat Men was ever published, and that Olyesha survived its publication.
In fact, the novel was even more popular than Envy, and over thirty editions were published in the following thirty years. It was made into a film, a play, and a ballet, and although the Soviet critics found fault with the play, where the revolutionary situation was more explicit, they were inclined to pardon the ideological faults in the contemplation of the wild irrelevance of the love story…. The adventures of [the lovers] follow the pattern of the medieval skazki; they are highly colored, unpredictable, and always mysterious. Nothing happens rationally; everything happens according to the unpredictable logic of the story. Olyesha was quicksilver, and the critics found it difficult to pinpoint his ideological crimes. (p. xviii)
Olyesha returns again and again to the theme of the primacy of the human heart in his short stories, which appeared in two collections … under the titles Love and The Cherry Stone. In these stories he avoided political allegory, perhaps because it was becoming too dangerous. They are stories of his childhood and youth in Odessa, written freshly and cleanly, with great tenderness and an almost childlike innocence. He possessed none of the formidable philosophic equipment of Pasternak, but he had Pasternak's gift of seeing everything with magical freshness and enchantment…. Olyesha's world is brighter and more familiar than our own. (p. xix)
The short stories describe the landscape of the lost paradise, himself wandering through it in joy and perplexity. The light and the sea air are continually rushing in, and sooner or later he finds himself in some abandoned wasteland of the heart. All his life he was especially fond of the circus, and so clowns of all shapes and sizes jump through the hoop of his stories. He had a special reverence, amounting almost to adoration, for Charlie Chaplin.
Even when he writes about death, in the most violent and beautiful of his stories, we are made aware of a perfect lucidity. In "Liompa" he describes the death of an old man as seen through the eyes of a child and of the dying man himself, and when we have finished reading the story, we know there is nothing left to be said. He has pronounced the mystery. In a small compass the story tells more about death, real death, the death which men undergo and mysteriously fail to survive, than any story I have ever come across. Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" is not about death, but about despair in the face of death. "Liompa" is about death stripped of all its passionate adornments.
What is unusual in Olyesha is his clear uncomplicated vision, his certainty and astonishing ease as he walks along his permanent tightrope. With this there went a profound and unrepenting adoration of life. "I write about how life triumphs over everything—yes, over everything," he wrote once. From him the words did not sound like a manifesto, but like a calm and confident statement of purpose.
Envy and The Three Fat Men were acts of magnificent daring, and he may have known he would eventually be punished. By 1930 most of the works for which he would be remembered had already been written. For the next thirty years he wrote chiefly "for the drawer," against the time when it might be possible to write freely. (pp. xx-xxi)
Of Mandelshtam, Essenin, and Mayakovsky, the most famous of the literary victims of the Soviet state, it can be said with some confidence that at the time of their death they had written nearly all the work that was in them. The tragedy of Olyesha was that he was silenced when he had just begun to write….
[A List of Benefits] was an act of despair, a mea culpa spoken over the grave of his own talents. (p. xxi)
A List of Benefits was staged by Meyerhold in 1931, without success. The play was so turgid and repetitive that even under Meyerhold's brilliant direction it was impossible to breathe life into it. A close reading of the play suggests that he was himself very near to suicide when he wrote it. (p. xxii)
Today a new generation of Soviet writers is discovering Olyesha. They find in him those qualities which have been remarkably absent in Soviet literature—gaiety, daring, the power to improvise on dangerous themes, the exaltation of youth and the understanding of the young. Above all they find in him the unregenerate spirit of comedy, a delight in slapstick. At long last Olyesha, the rebel, is coming into his own. (p. xxiii)
Robert Payne, in his introduction to Love and Other Stories, by Yuri Olyesha, translated by Robert Payne (copyright, ©, 1967, by Washington Square Press, Inc.), Washington Square, 1967, pp. ix-xxiii.
Envy shares with Evgenij Zamjatin's We and George Orwell's 1984 the tragic theme of the individual's revolt against a monolithic, unfeeling society. The philosophy that only what was useful was acceptable spawned the inevitable reaction among many intellectuals, that beauty and feelings were to be valued for their own sake. In Envy the contrast is drawn between Andrej Babičev, a representative of the new, purposeful world-outlook, on the one hand, and his brother Ivan and Nikolaj Kavalerov, both representing the poetic and the useless, on the other. There is a similar theme, and a similar contrast of characters, in "Love" (1928), but due to a complex system of symbolic images the meaning of this short story is not immediately apparent.
The main character of "Love," Suvalov, is discovered at the beginning of the story waiting in the park for his girl, Lelja, to arrive. It is a summer's day, and as Suvalov waits he begins to observe the teeming life of nature all around him. First he notices a lizard, and he thinks to himself: "The lizard is vulnerable on that stone: it can be detected immediately." "This makes him think of chameleons, which are able to escape notice by changing colors to match their surroundings. In this opening paragraph the theme of the story is hinted at, as well as the symbolic mode in which it is to be handled. The author is discussing the experience of the individual who fails to conform, or blend with his environment. The symbolism is almost entirely optical. Suvalov discovers that his vision is sensitive to the point where it plays tricks on him. (p. 281)
[Suvalov] asks the color-blind man [seated near him on the park bench] whether he has ever noticed the imaginary architecture of insects' trajectories, and is somewhat taken aback when the other counters with a penetrating question: "Are you in love?" Oleša here connects theme with symbolism for the first time. Suvalov's over-sensitive vision is symbolical of the world of feelings, while the color-blind man's limited vision symbolizes a lack of feelings…. [The color-blind man says] something like: "You are on a dangerous road." This ominous warning is not questioned by Suvalov. He does not argue that the color-blind man is the one who is seeing things, but accepts the supposition that his own affliction is the more serious.
The author takes the same view…. [The] idea of error, hence of crime, begins to be associated with Suvalov….
The next morning Suvalov wakes up in a new world—the world of love. He gets out of bed, wondering what the laws of this new world might be, and soon discovers, not a new law, but the absence of an old one, for he is no longer subject to the law of gravity and experiences difficulty keeping his feet on the floor. (p. 282)
If Suvalov's encounter with the color-blind man was a veiled warning that he was heading for trouble, his next encounter may be seen as the fulfillment of that warning. He goes to the park … [again. An] elderly man wearing a black hat and blue-tinted glasses … introduces himself as Isaac Newton. There is an air of undisputed authority about the great scientist; as he sits down next to Suvalov the whole of nature seems to hold its breath, like an orchestra ready to burst into sound when the conductor gives the signal….
Newton is offended because Suvalov has violated the law which he, Newton, discovered…. Newton represents the oppressive environment in which feelings are prohibited. He is the founding father of this environment. As a child, he was unaware of the law of gravity, but having discovered it he now enforces it and demands blind obedience. The same truth is brought out in the symbolism of the blue-tinted glasses. Born with normal vision, at a given point in his life (presumably when he discovered the law of gravity) he adopted the blue spectacles and has worn them ever since. (p. 283)
[The] color-blind man has the innate tendency to see things blue. Both he and Isaac Newton belong to the same system, for both wear the uniform black hats, but the color-blind man was born within it and is a product of it. Whereas Newton could remove his glasses if he chose, the color-blind man has no choice, and will never know any world-outlook but the blue one. Suvalov's outlook clearly does not conform to the society in which he lives, so it is hardly likely his behavior would. If he were a chameleon he could turn blue to match his environment, but he is not. The chameleon is an age-old emblem of hypocrisy and deceit; Suvalov, however, is honest in his feelings and is therefore more like the defenceless lizard whose alternatives are but two: escape or perish. (pp. 283-84)
Suvalov's frightening encounter with Isaac Newton turns out to be a bad dream…. But the dream has shown him something important, and he now turns on Lelja as the cause of his problem: "Since I met you something has happened to my eyes. I see blue pears." This last remark is wishful thinking on his part, for seeing everything blue is precisely the affliction that he lacks. But he is beginning to realize somewhere deep in his unconscious that this abnormality is actually the norm, and he desires it.
Having made this ambiguous statement, Suvalov runs away like a frightened doe, "snorting and with wild leaps, squinting and jumping away from his own shadow." One might say he is running away like the lizard that knows it cannot blend with its surroundings. He finally stops his panic-stricken flight and sits down on top of a hill. Oleša says this hill is a prism, with Suvalov perched on the top, his legs dangling down the sloping side.
This metaphor gives a further insight into Suvalov's present situation. The prism is what causes a rainbow, i.e. the total range of possible colors. Since Newton and the color-blind man experience only a limited segment of the spectrum, this hill symbolizes Suvalov's own sphere of existence. The author mentions that from the top of the hill Suvalov commands an extensive view of the countryside, and indeed, by comparison with narrow world-view of the two black-hatted men Suvalov's world of feelings is infinitely more spacious.
It is as though Suvalov has an angle of vision of 360°. Isaac Newton has taken to wearing glasses which reduce his own angle of vision to 20°; and since he is the progenitor of the new society, the color-blind man and all his fellows are born with that same 20° world-outlook. Though he takes no pleasure in the thought, Suvalov correctly identifies the hill when he remarks to himself: "I am living in paradise." The dialogue that ensues brings the political meaning of the story to the surface:
"Are you a Marxist?" someone said right next to him.
The young man in the black hat, the familiar color-blind man, was sitting next to Suvalov in the closest proximity.
"Yes, I am a Marxist," said Suvalov.
"You are not allowed to live in paradise."
Oleša's use of optical sensitivity to symbolize the world of feelings reflects his own powers of observation. After all, everything that Suvalov notices … must first have been noticed by the author. And besides these things, there are many fascinating observations made throughout the story by the author as narrator. The wasp hums on a plate like a gyroscope. The apple tree, seen from underneath, resembles a Montgolfier balloon, with its translucent covering over a dark framework of ribs. The ladybug takes off from the highest point of the apple on wings "brought out from behind somewhere, as one takes a pocket-handkerchief out from behind one's tailcoat." A kite stands askew in the sky like a postage stamp. It is not always clear whether an image is occurring to the author or to his protagonist, but it makes little difference….
The ending of "Love" could be interpreted as a victory for the minority group, a triumph of feelings over insensitivity, with the color-blind man as a convert to Suvalov's world-outlook. However, if the symbolism of the story is taken consistently, it will be evident that there is no such victory. Suvalov at one point wants to change places with the color-blind man, and at the end the color-blind man wants to change places with Suvalov. But in neither instance is a change possible. The color-blind man has an inborn distortion of vision for which there is no remedy. In the case of Suvalov, he is what he is: a lizard cannot become a chameleon merely by wishing it. They belong to different modes of existence; they are of different species. It happens that in that particular environment or society the color-blind man is considered normal and Suvalov abnormal, and therefore Suvalov is doomed to perish. Suvalov lives in a paradise, but it is a fool's paradise, and his victory, like that of Kavalerov and Ivan Babičev, is ephemeral and illusory. (p. 286)
Anthony Hippisley, "Symbolism in Oleša's 'Love'," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1973 by Newberry College), Summer, 1973, pp. 281-86.
Olesha, Yuri (Short Story Criticism)
Yuri Olesha 1899–-1960
(Also transliterated as Yuri Olyesha, Iurii Karlovich Olesha, Jurij Oleša, and Iurii Olesha) Russian novelist, short story writer, playwright, poet, and essayist.
The following entry provides criticism on Olesha's short fiction from 1965 to 1994.
Olesha has been recognized for his imaginative and clever short fiction that satirizes life in the Soviet Union in the years between the World Wars. Critics have praised his distinctive literary style and note that he introduced the element of slapstick into Russian literature. Although best known for his sardonic novel Zavist' (1927; Envy), Olesha's short fiction has also garnered positive attention from critics and readers.
Olesha was born on March 3, 1899, in Elisavetgrad (now Kirovograd), Ukraine, Russia. As a young man, he worked as a journalist for a railway newspaper, Gudok. After the Russian Revolution, Olesha initially found favor with the government of Josef Stalin. His first novel, Envy, was a humorous look at the existing political and social order. However, Olesha was eventually arrested as an enemy of the state after Tri tolstiaka (1928; The Three Fat Men), was published. As a result, most of his serious literary output ended by the mid-1930s. After this time he produced theatrical adaptations of novels and children's puppet plays but never again regained his place of literary prominence. He did, however, deliver a notable speech on artistic individualism at the First Soviet Writers' Congress in 1934. He died in Moscow on May 10, 1960, at a time when critics were just beginning to rediscover his work.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Olesha's short fiction focuses on the atmosphere in the Soviet Union during the late 1920s and early 1930s and depicts the condition of the artistic intelligentsia under Stalinist rule. These stories prove him to be a keen observer of popular culture and a skilled satirist. Moreover, Olesha often provides the point-of-view of a child in his short fiction, such as in “Tsep”’ (“The Chain”). In this story, an adult narrator reflects on a childhood memory of losing a bicycle chain while riding his friend's bike at full speed. Sergei Utochkin, who was famous in Odessa as a sports figure and larger-than-life personality, finds the young narrator and takes him back home. Utochkin berates the young student who lent the narrator his bicycle and tells him to give him back the chain. The ambiguity of the events in the story is characteristic of Olesha's work. His best-known and highly regarded story, “Liompa,” concerns the unsuccessful attempts of a dying man, Ponomarev, to retain some kind of control of his body and the world around him. There are two other characters in “Liompa”: a boy named Alexander who behaves as an adult; and a young child who is simply called “the rubber boy.” Critics view the three characters in the story as representative of the three ages of man and explore the philosophical themes in the work.
Olesha's Envy was initially praised by Soviet critics as a condemnation of bourgeois mentality. In time, however, Olesha's novels and stories were criticized as too naturalist, formalist, or sophisticated. Following Stalin's death in 1953, some of Olesha's works were gradually resurrected, albeit with caveats by establishment critics that he did not really mean some of his implied criticisms of the existing order. After Olesha's works began to be more available in the West in the 1960s and 1970s, modern critics approached his works in a variety of ways. Some praised his imagery and style while noting his ambivalence toward the ideals of communism. Some compared him with other authors of his time, such as Marcel Proust, T. S. Eliot, and H. G. Wells. Others engaged in structural or semiotic analyses, commented on his cinematic techniques, or dwelled on his aesthetic principles. The sheer variety and the increasing volume of Olesha criticism bear witness to his growing importance as a subtle and creative spokesman for the embattled artist in a repressive society.
Vishnevai kostochka 1930
The Wayward Comrade and the Commissars 1960
Povesti i rasskazy (novels and short stories) 1965
Envy and Other Works (novel, short stories, and play) 1967
Love and Other Stories 1967
Legenda (selected stories) 1974
The Complete Short Stories and The Three Fat Men (short stories and novel) 1978
Zavist' [Envy] (novel) 1927
Tri tolstiaka [The Three Fat Men] (novel) 1928
Spisok blagodeianii [A List of Assets] (play) 1931
Zagovar chusvtv [adaptation of Zavist'] [The Conspiracy of Feelings] (play) 1931
Chernyi chelovek (play) 1932
Strogii iunosha (play) 1934
Izbrannoe (selected works) 1935
Strogii iunosha (screenplay) 1936
Izbrannye sochineniia (selected works) 1956
Ni dnia bez strochki [No Day Without a Line] (memoirs and letters) 1965
The Complete Plays (plays) 1983
SOURCE: Nilsson, Nils Åke. “Through the Wrong End of Binoculars: An Introduction to Jurij Oleša.” Scandia-Slavica, 75 (1965): 40-68.
[In the following essay, Nilsson analyzes thematic and stylistic aspects of Olesha's short fiction and finds parallels between his stories and his novel Envy.]
1. Jurij Oleša's novel Envy opens with an amusing picture of one of the main characters, creator of the salami trust “The Quarter.” We are present when he gets out of bed in the morning; we hear him singing in the lavatory; we see him doing his gymnastics. For the last operation he is stripped except for jersey drawers, done up in the middle of his stomach by a single button. This turns out to be not just an ordinary button; it has another function too: “The pale blue and pink world of the room is spinning around in the mother-of-pearl objective of the button.”1
This magic button introduces at the very beginning a highly characteristic device Oleša uses throughout the whole novel when describing people, objects, settings. He seldom gives us a direct and straightforward description, a simple full-face view of an object or a person. Instead we usually see his world of objects and people reflected in buttons, mirrors and metallic surfaces; we catch distorted glimpses of them through glass windows and bars; they appear enlarged or diminished through binoculars, telescopes or microscopes. Light and shadow may suddenly change their proportions and inter-relationships and make us see things we had never suspected before. Rain and wind may make them depart from their everyday course and reveal them from a new and unexpected side. And, if we only know the trick, if we are only shown how, our eye is ever eager to accept the most unexpected optical illusions, of which our world is full.
The morning sun is rising. We learn to know it from Andrej Babičev's suspenders: “In the metal clips of his suspenders there are two burning clusters of the sun's rays.”2 The sun is setting, and, merely to tell us, Oleša introduces a gipsy with a brass bowl: “The day was closing shop. A gipsy in a blue waistcoat was carrying a clean brass bowl on his shoulders. The day was moving off, riding on the gipsy's shoulder. The disc of the bowl was bright and blind. The gipsy walked slowly, the bowl swayed gently, and the day wheeled inside the disc.”3
These are just two examples chosen at random. Let us now take a closer look at the many devices Oleša uses in Envy and in his short stories. Let us see how they function in the context and try to find a background to and a common explanation for them.
We can start with the window. It may seem difficult for an author to have achieved any special effects by presenting an object or a person through an ordinary window. But Oleša knows how to do it: a glass pane is not always reliable from a strictly realistic point of view. When Andrej Babičev drives off to his work “his laughing face swayed through the window of his limousine like a pinkish disc.”4 Looking at the clouds reflected in a window something strange can happen: “Clouds were moving across the sky and the windowpanes, and in the windows their paths were getting entangled.”5 At the end of Envy Ivan Babičev and Kavalerov enter a glass gallery, where several panes have been broken; and it is here that they obtain a peculiar picture of the heavens: “The sky was broken up into sections of varying blueness and varying remoteness from the observer.”6 Later, Andrej Babičev passes through the same gallery but now the author regards him from the outside; a cubist effect is created: “Somebody was walking along the porch, and the windows were dismembering him as he went. Different parts of his body moved independently. It was an optical illusion. The head ran off ahead of the rest of the body.”7
Turning from windows to the mirror, we might well expect this to be one of Oleša's favorite devices. To be sure, the looking-glass is our most common means of reflecting things, of giving us an indirect picture both of ourselves and of the reality around us. On the other hand, it has already been used so frequently in fiction to give, for instance, a description of an interior; by this means, authors could dispense with a long enumeration of furniture and objects, bound to impede the flow of narration, and just give rapid glimpses of a few accessories necessary to the context. Further, the well-known trope of holding up a mirror to nature, the idea of the novel as “a mirror carried along a roadway,” has given this image definite connotations: it has become a symbol of literary realism. Thus the mirror could hardly interest Oleša very much; his sparing use of this device shows, however, that he knows that even an ordinary mirror is sometimes able to disclose unusual things. When Kavalerov wakes up the morning after he had come home drunk “he saw an uncommon sight in the mirror—the soles of his feet in close-up.”8 When Anna Prokopovič and her husband won the magnificent bed in a lottery, they drove it away on a cart: “The blue sky appeared and disappeared, reflected in the swaying mirror-arcs, as if lids of a pair of beautiful eyes were opening and then slowly drooping again.”9
But there is a variety of mirrors that Oleša actually does like. When Kavalerov and Ivan Babičev meet for the first time it is in front of a street-mirror. Here the author makes a pause to tell us how fond he is of such mirrors. They possess a quality quite lacking in ordinary mirrors. When a pedestrian spots a street-mirror, he says, the world around him suddenly changes: “The rules of optics, of geometry have been shattered. The very motive force behind you is shattered, that which made you move and go precisely where you did go. … The streetcar that just disappeared from your sight is again rambling past you, cutting off the edge of the avenue like a knife chopping off a slice of cake. A straw hat hanging on a blue ribbon over somebody's wrist (you saw it; it attracted your attention but you did not have time to turn toward it) is back, sailing across your field of vision. There is an open space in front of you. You are certain that it is a house, a wall. But thanks to your gift you know that it is not a house. You have broken a mystery. It is not a wall; there is a mysterious world here where everything you have just seen is repeated with the stereoscopic clarity and neatness of outline that one gets from looking through the wrong end of binoculars.”10
Here Oleša mentions another of his favourite means of obtaining a different view of reality. One passage in Envy does express his fondness of this instrument in a way similar to his praise of the street-mirror. But it is, as we notice, not the common use of binoculars that Oleša is interested in, just as he does not care for ordinary mirrors: “I find,” he says, “that a landscape viewed through the wrong end of binoculars gains in brightness, clarity and stereoscopy. The colors and contours seem somehow more precise. An object is still familiar but becomes at the same time suddenly small and strange.”11
The next step from the binoculars would be the microscope. In fact, we meet this transformation in one of Oleša's short stories, “Our World” (“V mire”). One day, as he is sitting on a bench somewhere on the coast in the south, his eye fastens on a little flower on the edge of a cliff. It stands out clearly against the blue skies: “I concentrate my vision, then suddenly something happens in my brain: somebody turns the screw of an imaginary pair of binoculars, trying to bring the picture into focus. And now the focus is sharp: the flower stands before me translucent as a section under the microscope. It has become gigantic. My sight has been given microscopic strength. I am become a Gulliver in the land of the giants. The tiny little flower, not bigger than a straw, frightens me. It is terrible. It looms before me: a construction of some unknown grandiose technique. I see giant bowls, pipes, joints, levers. And the reflexion of the sun on the stalk of the vanished flower I see as a blinding metallic glare.”12
After the microscope, the next step will be to look for the telescope. Although the word is mentioned a few times in Envy, Oleša has in fact devoted a special little sketch to it, entitled “In Summer” (“Letom”). When one night he happens to look at the stars through a telescope, he experiences a surprise similar to those given him by the street-mirror, the binoculars and the microscope. The telescope transforms his earlier idea of the sky: “Now you know that this is Sagittarius, this is Cassiopeia, this is Perseus, these are the Pleiades, and this is Andromeda. The sky is no longer just a display of fireworks. It has, so it seems, stopped before your eyes. You experience a stunning feeling which cannot be compared with anything else.”13
But there are still other things, not necessarily instruments, which can produce similar effects. One is the play of light and shadow which Oleša uses in Envy with the skill of a stage director. One evening Andrej Babičev is talking to his brother from a balcony: “Babičev turned abruptly and came back into the room. His shadow leapt diagonally across the street and almost caused a storm in the foliage of the garden opposite.”14 And a moment later, when he rushes out on to the balcony once more: “Now there is indeed a storm in the trees. His shadow, like a Buddha, falls over the city.”15 Another time a huge cloud “with the outline of South America” is moving towards the town. “The cloud gleamed in the sun, but its shadow looked threatening. The shadow, with astronomical slowness, was creeping over Babičev's street. All those who had already entered the mouth of the street and were moving against the current saw the approach of the shadow and felt things darkening before their eyes. The shadow was sweeping the soil from under their feet. They were walking as if on the top of a revolving sphere.”16
One Sunday morning Ivan Babičev and Kavalerov are walking through the holiday-deserted city. There is a fascinating display of light and shadow: “The light, broken by traffic, remained all in one piece, as though the sun had only just risen. They were walking across geometrical patterns of shadow and light, or rather through a three-dimensional field, since the light and shadow intersected each other not only on the flat but also in the air. Before they reached the Moscow City Soviet they found themselves completely immersed in shadow. However, in the gap between two buildings there was a large block of light. It was very thick and dense, and it was no longer possible to doubt that light was made of matter: the dust tearing around inside it could easily pass for waves in the ether.”17
In “The Tale of the Meeting of Two Brothers” we get the opposite picture, the play of light and shadow at night: “The evening was black. The lanterns were white and circular, the tarpaulins glowed redly, and the abysses below the wooden gangways were deathly black. The lanterns swung back and forth on their humming wires. It was as though the darkness was raising and lowering its eyebrows. Around the lanterns, insects were fluttering and dying. As they swung upward, the lanterns made the windows on their way blink, and then, as they descended again, tore out the outline of some far-off house and hurled it at the construction site. And then (until the swinging lantern came to rest) the scaffolding came to life, everything was in motion and the building set sail straight at the crowd like a high-decked galleon.”18
In this passage the wind, as we notice, plays an important part. In fact, the wind is also able to disorder things, to play tricks on our eyes and reveal objects from a new angle. Gusts of wind fan a flamingo vase into a flame, setting the curtains alight.19 A draught gives Kavalerov “a wing” and anesthetizes half his face.20 When he sits down to drink a beer in an open-air restaurant he watches “the wind trace delicate shapes out of the corners of the tablecloth.”21 In the soccer game at the end of Envy we find a particularly good example of the wind at work: “Then the wind butted in. A striped awning collapsed. All the treetops swung far to the right. The ring of idlers dissolved. The whole picture disintegrated. People were running to find shelter from the dust. Valia took the full force of the blast. The light dress, pink as a shell, flew up and Kavalerov saw how transparent it was. The wind blew the dress over Valia's face and Kavalerov saw it outlined in the pink, fanned-out material.”22
There is a similar episode in the story “Love”; here the wind is part of the transformation of the world through the love besetting Šuvalov: “They took leave of each other standing in the draught, which in this world seemed to be very active and many-voiced. It opened the doors downstairs. It sang like a charwoman. It ruffled Lola's hair, picked up Lola's hat, released the wasp and blew it into the salad. It was whistling. It picked up Lola's nightdress and stood it on end.”23
Rain too has the same faculty of letting us suddenly see a landscape or a well-known object in a new, fresh light: “After rain the city acquires brilliance and stereoscopic relief. Anyone can see it: the streetcar is carmine; the paving stones are far from being all the same color, some of them are even green; a housepainter who was sheltering from the rain like a pigeon has come out of his niche and is now moving against the background of his brick canvas in a window.”24 In another passage Oleša tells us how after a shower “the city sparkled as if hewn out of Cardiff coal.”25
But there are still other means of getting something new out of the world around us. We do not always need some kind of instrument. We can simply use our eyes. The world is full of wonders if we only have time to discover them. At the beginning of Envy Kavalerov says that he spends his time in Andrej Babičev's apartment observing things, astonished by all the mysteries of our everyday life: “Have you ever noticed that salt falls off the edge of a knife without leaving a trace—the knife shines as though nothing had been on it; that a pince-nez sits on the bridge of a nose like a bicycle; that a human being is surrounded by tiny letters like a scattered army of ants: on forks, spoons, plates, on a pince-nez frame, on buttons, on pencils?”26
We can also choose a special angle; if, for instance, you look at something from above you will get an often surprising impression. Kavalerov stands on a bridge and looks down on a boat: “From my bird's-eye view, a tugboat slid swiftly by. From this height, I saw, instead of a tugboat, something looking like a huge almond cut in half lengthwise. The almond vanished under the bridge.”27 Later in the novel, Kavalerov looks down on the town from the roof window of a huge building: “From this vantage point, it seemed to him that the little yard was groping for breathing space. All the surrounding stone hulks were pressing in on the little yard. The yard lay like a doormat in an overfurnished room. Strange roofs revealed their secrets to Kavalerov. He saw weather vanes full size and skylights whose existence nobody down below suspected; he caught a glimpse of a child's ball irretrievably lost when it had rolled into the gutter. Among the antenna-spiked buildings beyond the yard, the cupola of a church, freshly painted with red lead, filled an empty spot in the sky, and it seemed as if it had been wafted along on the breeze until Kavalerov's eye had caught it. He saw a trolley in the terribly remote street, looking like Siamese-twin question marks facing each other, and also another observer, leaning out of a faraway window and either eating something or sniffing at it, who in his obedience to perspective was almost leaning on the trolley.”28
Kavalerov has similar experiences when he is looking at something from below. When Andrej Babičev finds him in the gutter, he is driven away in a car: “Coming to my senses, I saw a pale sky, growing lighter and rushing like water from the soles of my feet to somewhere behind my head.”29 Later, at a construction site, he is searching for Andrej Babičev, but gets only a sudden glimpse of him as he passes above him on an iron girder: “He flew by above me. Yes, he literally rushed past through the air. In an absurd foreshortening, I saw his rigid flying figure—not his face, only his nostrils. I saw two holes, as if I were looking at a statue from underneath.”30
Still another thing able to cause interesting optical illusions is distance. Things look different at different ranges. If an observer lets his imagination run away with him, the most exciting transformations can take place. At the airfield Kavalerov watches a plane take off and notices “how with the changing distance, the plane kept changing into various objects. Now it was a gunlack, now a pocketknife, now a trodden lilac blossom.”31 The same thing happens when he stands on a street corner for a good hour, watching the inside of a bell tower where the ringer is working with his twenty bells. Because of the distance he cannot see him or his bells very clearly, and so he lets his imagination work along a metaphorical line.32
There exists, however, yet another way of observing and describing things. One can put oneself—deliberately or not—into a special emotional state, where things present themselves in a new light. One can, for instance, imagine that one is still a child among grown-up people, a lilliput in the world of giants. And this is just what Kavalerov does when he wants to tell us about Anička Prokopovič's fantastic bed, made of expensive wood, varnished with dark-cherry lacquer and with inset mirror-arcs on the inside of its ends. The strange architecture of this bed could, as it seems to him, be described best of all from the perspective of a lilliput or a child. If he were, for instance, Anička's own little son, “then neither distance nor scale nor time nor weight nor gravity had to be taken into consideration, and I could have crawled inside the narrow passages between the frame of the bedspring and the edge of the bed; I could have hidden behind the columns which today seem to me no thicker than a broomstick; I could have set up imaginary catapults on its barricades and opened fire on the enemy who would beat a hasty retreat over the soft boggy ground of the quilt, leaving behind the dead and the wounded; I could have held receptions for foreign envoys under the mirror-arcs, exactly like the king in the novel I had just read; I could have gone off on fantastic journeys along the fretwork—higher and higher, up the legs and buttocks of the cupids, climbing over them like climbing on a gigantic statue of Buddha, seeing only one bit of the huge details at a time; and then, from the last arch, from a dizzying height, I would have slithered down the terrifying precipice, into the icy abyss of the pillows.”33
There is another state, also connected with childhood, which Oleša is particularly fond of. This is how Kavalerov describes it: “On this sofa, I fly back into my childhood. It's blissful. Like a child, I have at my disposal the tiny time interval between the first heaviness felt in the eyelids, the first melting away of things, and the beginning of real sleep. Once again, I know how to prolong this interval, enjoy it, fill it with the thoughts I want and, before sinking into sleep, still in control of my conscious mind, observe how my thoughts acquire a body of dream substance, how the ringing bubbles from the submerged depths become rolling grapes, how a heavy bunch of grapes is formed, a whole vineyard thick with bunches, and then there is a sunny road beside the vineyard, and the warmth. …”34
It is not a dream—although dreams also play a certain role in Envy—but the particular state between dream and wakefulness, a state in which everything is real and unreal at the same time, in which all objects by the power of his imagination are interchangeable, and can be transformed into something else: a world of fairytale and wonderful metamorphosis, the world of a poet.
To a poet or a child such fantastic transformations seem quite natural. But such a state is characteristic not only of a child but also of a man in love: he too lives in a world of unexpected analogies and metaphors. We find an illuminating example of this in “Love.” Before Šuvalov falls asleep he follows the pattern on the wallpaper: “He realized that that part of the pattern on the wallpaper, that section of the wall under which he was falling asleep, had a double existence—the usual one, the daytime one, ordinary coronets with nothing remarkable about them, and another existence, a nighttime one which only opened itself up to him five minutes before he dived into sleep. Suddenly, a part of the pattern came close enough to touch his eyeballs, was magnified, revealed previously unseen details, changed its appearance. On the threshold of sleep, close to childhood's sensations, he did not resist the transformation of familiar and lawful forms, especially as the transformation was touching: instead of the rings and spirals he discerned a she-goat and a chef in his white cap …
—And that is a violin key, Lola said, understanding him.
—And the chameleon … he said, already asleep.”35
Thus we get a peculiar triumvirate in Oleša's works: the child, the lover, the poet. They are all related to each other; they share the same source of happiness. They all have that special sight which unfolds to them an “invisible world,” a world unseen by other people. To those so gifted all things in the universe are wonderfully connected with each other. This makes it so easy for their imaginations to work along metaphorical lines. Oleša's world is not only a world of unusual perspectives and optical illusions but also—and for the most part just because of them—a world of startling metaphors. An object loses its firm contours, becomes material pliable to the will of the imagination, which starts to form new things out of it. But this is not all; there is a further stage. As sometimes happens with the imaginations of children, the metaphor itself comes true, is materialized. It is not just a simple comparison, made in passing. We witness a fantastic metamorphosis.
When Kavalerov stands on a bridge looking down on the tugboat gliding under him he compares it to an almond. But in the next second the metaphor is materialized. What passes under the bridge is not any more a tugboat which looks like an almond. It is an almond. When the narrator in the story “The Cherry-Stone” stands at a streetcar stop waiting for Nataša, people for some reason start asking him which car they should take. Soon he feels like a policeman who must have a ready answer to all questioners. After a while it is no longer a comparison. The metamorphosis takes place: he is already a policeman, with a truncheon and everything.
A good example of how the imagination works is to be found in the scene just mentioned, where Kavalerov is listening to the church bells. A bell ringer is working with his twenty bells of various sizes. Kavalerov watches him at a certain distance, and the distance starts to distort the proportions and evoke fantastic associations. It is, as it seems, not the ringer who pulls the ropes, but the contrary: “twenty bells were tearing him apart.”36 The ropes are transformed into cobwebs; the ringer becomes a mysterious musician—black, ugly, a Quasimodo. And then, by a sudden shift of associations, the ringer is now a laborer manhandling different-sized pieces of hardware.
And the sound itself also starts a play of imagination. First he hears the noises in a restaurant or a railway station. But after a while the sounds arrange themselves into a little tune: “Tom-vee-ree-lee.” These words carry the associations further. They remind him of a name, and suddenly “there was some Tom Vereley floating around in the air.” Kavalerov sees him now clearly before him, a handsome young man with a rucksack, on his way to the town, to Andrej Babičev's house, where he already hears him walking up the stairs, knocking on the door. Dream and reality now cross each other (as in the first act of Ibsen's The Master Builder). In fact, somebody knocks on the door, waking Kavalerov up from his metaphorical play, and a real Tom Vereley appears: it is Volodja Makarov, Andrej Babičev's protégé, a swarthy young man holding a bag.
The most amusing examples are to be found in “Love.” Right at the very beginning, where Šuvalov is waiting for Lola in the park, he notices how his thoughts all the time take an unpredictable, metaphorical course, and how he, against his own will, makes strange observations about the trees and flowers, observations which he would never have made before. And when he wakes up the next day after a night spent together with his beloved “the transformation of the world that had started the day they met had been completed.” He has achieved the power to materialize his thoughts. The old metaphor of a lover, for instance, comes true. It does not surprise anybody. “‘Flying on the wings of love,’ somebody said behind a window as he passed.”37
What we learn from Oleša's stories is that there exist two worlds—the world we ordinarily live and act in, and an “invisible world.” This “invisible world” is part of our common, everyday reality, only we do not usually notice it. One has to know the trick. Window-panes, street-mirrors, binoculars, rain, wind, unusual angles, optical illusions—all these things are keys with the magic power of opening the closed door to this fantastic world, a world which to Oleša is as real and important as the “visible” one. Some know how to manipulate them without instruction: the poet, the child, the lover. But nobody is locked out from the enchanted garden of poetry. Oleša extends a generous invitation to everybody. He is always willing to give the necessary instruction and encouragement. Anyone can see it, he says about the town renewed and refreshed, gleaming in bright colors after a sudden shower.38 Everyone who pays attention can do likewise, are his encouraging words about the optical illusions with the flower on the cliff.39
2. The existence of an “invisible world” will provide us with an answer to the natural questions arising after we have acquainted ourselves with the list of Oleša's devices: why is he so fond of them? why does he, wherever possible, avoid any direct presentation of characters, objects or landscapes? So as not to leave us in any doubt, he has, moreover, given a simple and clear answer in his story “Our World.” Having recounted his experience with the eye as a microscope, he concludes: “You have to look on the world from a new point of view” … adding: “It is extremely useful for an author to occupy himself with such fantastic photography. And furthermore—this is no distortion of reality, no expressionism. On the contrary: this is pure, sound realism.”40
Such a statement seems to imply an indirect address to the RAPP critics: when it was written, the word “fantastic” was not in high esteem, and Oleša's way of linking it with “realism” must certainly have smacked of “formalism” to those critics. But there is also another meaning behind this statement, and a very important one. The use of the word “fantastic” could be understood to mean that Oleša was interested in mystic or metaphysical speculation. Apparently he wants to defend himself against such an interpretation. His “invisible world” has no metaphysical or mystical connotations; it is, as I just mentioned, quite simply part of our reality. In fact, it is our world, only seen from a different angle. By his term “fantastic photography” he has in mind, above all, a wider-angled view of the field of realism, a discovery of new things around us, things which are always there, although we do not usually notice them. It is true that he recommends his readers and fellow writers to look at the world through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars, but the reason for this is not any desire to obtain a distorted picture (“no expressionism”). On the contrary: as he points out, in this way you will in fact get a clearer, sharper, more distinct picture of reality.
If we now should try to outline the background to Oleša's favorite devices and his concept of fantastic photography, we have to start with a writer to whom Oleša, in fact, makes a direct allusion in Envy, without, however, mentioning his name. When Ivan Babičev takes Kavalerov to show him his “Ophelia,” they cross an empty lot. Ivan points out various discarded objects just to convince Kavalerov that this is not a dream. Suddenly he spots a bottle: “There is a bottle. Wait, it is still whole, but tomorrow the wheel of a cart will smash it, and if, soon after us, some dreamer follows our path, he will have the pleasure of contemplating the famous bottleglass, celebrated by writers for its ability to reflect light, to glint amidst garbage in a waste land and create mirages for lonely travellers.”41
This “famous bottle” is, of course, that mentioned by Čexov in a letter from 1886, when he tells his brother Aleksandr how to achieve the effect of a moonlight night “by simply writing that the glow is like a light from a star flashed from a broken bottle on the milldam.”42 As we know, Čexov himself used this image in the story “The Wolf” written the same year; later, in The Seagull, he lets Trigorin repeat the same recommendation. This bottle has become a kind of symbol for Čexov's impressionism: opposing a too painstaking realism, Čexov gave a call for more economy and concreteness in all kinds of description.
It is easy to feel this sense of economy in everything Čexov wrote. However, he can hardly be said to have developed the special kind of indirect description that we find in this well-known example. It is true that a sunrise or sunset is often presented by the sun reflected on the cross of a church, in some window-panes, or in a river. As Bicilli has pointed out, this device is to be found throughout Čexov's stories.43 In The House with a Mezzanine, to give but one typical example, he describes “a village with a tall, narrow belfry on which a cross glowed with the reflection of the setting sun.”44 But we can hardly consider such an image as very new or daring at that time.
It is true that the following prose generation did learn a great deal from Čexov; his call for economy, especially, was taken up by many writers.45 Oleša was certainly one of them; further Čexov had something more to give him: the device of indirect description. Now, as we have already seen, Oleša makes much more out of it than Čexov ever tried to do. In Čexov it is mostly a means of avoiding the long, tedious descriptions of earlier realism; by mentioning the church and the sunset at one and the same time he could save at least one sentence in the indispensable presentation of the setting. To Oleša the indirect description is, as we have seen, an important part not only of his poetics but also of his view of the world.
Although Čexov may provide us with one clue to this favorite device of Oleša's, he does not really explain the special use Oleša makes of it. Here we must look for other writers. When Oleša brings together words like “realism” and “fantastic,” we are, of course, reminded of Dostoevskij; in fact, he does the same thing in some of his letters, pointing out that most critics consider fantastic and exceptional is to him the very essence of reality. Now Oleša and Dostoevskij are certainly very different as writers, and a closer comparison will not lead us far. Nevertheless, Oleša's “fantastic photography” points, without any doubt, in the direction of Dostoevskij, Dostoevskij the writer, struggling with the concept of realism, asking himself if “the fantastic has or has not the right to exist in art.”46 Here Oleša felt a certain kinship with Dostoevskij; he was, as Dostoevskij, ready to answer the question in the affirmative, and even,...
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SOURCE: Harkins, William E. “The Philosophical Stories of Jurij Oleša.” In Orbis Scriptus, edited by Dmitrij Tschižewskij, pp. 349-54. Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1966.
[In the following essay, Harkins explores a number of philosophical antitheses in Olesha's short stories.]
The early stories of Jurij Oleša, such as “Liompa” (1928), “The Cherry Stone” (“Višnevaja kostočka,” 1929), “Love” (“Ljubov,” 1929), “Aldebaran” (1931) and others, form a cycle of philosophical tales concerned with questions of epistemology and metaphysics. These stories are constructed on a number of antitheses: idealism vs. materialism, vitalism vs. mechanism,...
(The entire section is 3038 words.)
SOURCE: Beaujour, Elizabeth Klosty. “Art as a Means of Knowing and Possessing the World.” In The Invisible Land: A Study of the Artistic Imagination of Iurii Olesha, pp. 15-37. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970.
[In the following essay, Beaujour underscores the theme of the artist in society in Olesha's short fiction through an analysis of his short stories “The Cherry Stone” and “Liompa.”]
Many of Olesha's works are concerned with the relationship of imaginative artistic creation to other human activities, and with the practice of art as a mode of dealing with the world. We can therefore approach these problems directly through an analysis of...
(The entire section is 7656 words.)
SOURCE: Hippisley, Anthony. “Symbolism in Oleša's ‘Love’.” Studies in Short Fiction 10, no. 3 (summer 1973): 281-86.
[In the following essay, Hippisley finds parallels between “Love” and Olesha's novel Envy, and contends that Olesha obscures the main thematic concerns of “Love” under a complex system of symbolic imagery.]
Jurij Oleša saw in the new Soviet way of life a potential threat to the individual. His Envy shares with Evgenij Zamjatin's We and George Orwell's 1984 the tragic theme of the individual's revolt against a monolithic, unfeeling society. The philosophy that only what was useful was acceptable spawned the...
(The entire section is 3026 words.)
SOURCE: Barratt, Andrew. “Yury Olesha's Three Ages of Man: A Close Reading of ‘Liompa’.” The Modern Language Review 75 (1980): 597-614.
[In the following essay, Barratt provides a stylistic and thematic analysis of “Liompa.”]
In Yury Olesha's small corpus of literary works “Liompa” occupies a special place. Not only was it the first of the writer's mature stories to see publication, but it has also been acknowledged, by Western critics at least, as one of his finest achievements in the genre.1 Existing studies of “Liompa” have tended to concentrate almost exclusively on thematic elements, indicating in particular the central importance to...
(The entire section is 9844 words.)
SOURCE: Ingdahl, Kazmiera. “The Life/Death Dichotomy in Jurij Oleša's Short Story ‘Liompa’.” In Studies in 20th Century Russian Prose, edited by Nils Åke Nilsson, pp. 156-85. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1982.
[In the following essay, Ingdahl perceives the dichotomy of life and death as a major thematic concern in “Liompa.”]
Man's relationship to reality is a constantly recurring theme in Oleša's works. In Oleša's opinion, the way we perceive what is going on around us becomes increasingly automatized as we grow older. The world that surrounds us successively shrinks and withers. Since we no longer see it,...
(The entire section is 11495 words.)
SOURCE: Ingdahl, Kazimiera. “The Genesis of ‘The Cherry Pit’.” In A Graveyard of Themes: The Genesis of Three Key Works by Iurii Olesha, pp. 67-95. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1994.
[In the following essay, Ingdahl assesses the significance of “The Cherry Pit” to Olesha's oeuvre and investigates the origins of the story.]
1. “LESSONS OF OBSERVATION”
“The Cherry Pit” obviously occupies a special place in Olesha's oeuvre. Robert Russell, for example, describes it as “transitional” and “valedictory”; linked with Envy, at the same time it points forward, “… indicating in the displays of...
(The entire section is 11502 words.)
Beaujour, Elizabeth Klosty. “The Imagination of Failure: Fiction and Autobiography in the Work of Yury Olesha.” In Autobiographical Statements in Twentieth-Century Russian Literature, edited by Jane Gary Harris, pp. 123-32. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990.
Considers Olesha's autobiographical short stories to be “the portrait of the artist as failure.”
Björling, Fiona. “Verbal Aspect and Narrative Perspective in Oleša's ‘Liompa’.” Russian Literature 9, no. 2 (February 1981): 133-61.
Stylistic analysis of “Liompa.”
Cornwell, Neil. “At the Circus...
(The entire section is 243 words.)
Olesha, Yuri (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)
Yuri Olesha 1899-1960
(Also transliterated as Yuri Olyesha, Iurii Karlovich Olesha, Jurij Oleša, and Iurii Olesha) Russian fiction writer, playwright, and essayist.
The following entry presents criticism of Olesha's works from 1977 to 2001. For discussion of Olesha's career prior to 1977, see CLC, Volume 8.
Olesha's social satires and short stories exhibit imagination and intelligence. After an initial period of favor with the post-Revolutionary Stalinist government in the former Soviet Union, he was eventually declared a danger to the state and was arrested and forced to do hard labor. He has been praised by critics, however, for his distinctive literary style and particularly for introducing the element of slapstick into Russian literature. Olesha is best-known for his novel Zavist' (1927; Envy,) a parody of life under Stalinism.
Olesha was born on March 3, 1899, in Elisavetgrad (now Kirovograd), Ukraine, Russia. His early career was as a journalist for a railway newspaper, Gudok. After the Russian Revolution, Olesha at first found favor with the government of Josef Stalin. His novel Envy was a humorous look at the existing order. However, Olesha was eventually arrested as an enemy of the state after Tri tolstyaka (1928; The Three Fat Men), another novel of social criticism and a number of short stories and works in other genres were published. As a result, most of his serious literary output ended by the mid-1930s. After this time he produced theatrical adaptations of novels and children's puppet plays but never again returned to his place of literary prominence. He did, however, deliver a notable speech on artistic individualism at the First Soviet Writers' Congress in 1934. He died in Moscow, U.S.S.R., on May 10, 1960, at a time when critics were just beginning to rediscover his work.
Olesha's first novel, Envy, parodied the Stalinist regime, presenting a world devoid of human feelings, but with a comic touch reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin films. Another social critique was his novel The Three Fat Men, a fairy-tale version of the Russian Revolution. During the 1930s Olesha also produced a number of short stories. A play, Spisok blagodeianii (1931; A List of Assets), concerned an actress who becomes disillusioned with the decadence of the West. In spite of Olesha's forays into anti-Westernism, however, his work was mostly suppressed by the government. A 1934 screenplay, Strogii iunosha (translates as A Strict Young Man), was banned. After this time he was reduced to adapting novels for the stage and producing children's puppet plays. Posthumous publication of his short stories, new editions of his novels, and a volume of his reminiscences and correspondence, Ni dnia bez strochki (1965; No Day Without a Line), helped to bring Olesha's work back to public attention.
Olesha's Envy was initially praised by Soviet critics as a condemnation of bourgeois mentality. In time, however, Olesha's novels and stories were criticized as too “naturalist,” “formalist,” or “cosmopolitan”—in sum, as inimical to the collective ideals of the Soviet system. Following the death of Stalin in 1953, some of Olesha's works were gradually resurrected, albeit with caveats by establishment critics that he did not really mean some of his implied criticisms of the existing order. After Olesha's works began to be more available in the West in the 1960s and 1970s, modern critics approached his works in a variety of ways. Some praised his imagery and style while noting his ambivalence toward the ideals of Communism. Some compared him with other authors of his time, such as Marcel Proust, T. S. Eliot, and H. G. Wells. Others engaged in structural or semiotic analyses, commented on his cinematic techniques, or dwelled on his aesthetic principles. The sheer variety and the increasing volume of Olesha criticism bear witness to his growing importance as a subtle and creative spokesman for the embattled artist in a repressive society.
Zavist' [Envy] (novel) 1927
Liubov' (short stories) 1928
Tri tolstiaka [The Three Fat Men] (novel) 1928
Vishnevai kostochka (short stories) 1930
Spisok blagodeianii [A List of Assets] (play) 1931
Zagovar chusvtv [adaptation of Zavist'] (play) 1931
Chernyi chelovek (play) 1932
Strogii iunosha (play) 1934
Izbrannoe (selected works) 1935
Strogii iunosha (screenplay) 1936
Izbrannye sochineniia (selected works) 1956
The Wayward Comrade and the Commissars (short stories) 1960
Ni dnia bez strochki [No Day Without a Line] (memoirs and letters) 1965
Povesti i rasskazy (novels and short stories) 1965
Envy and Other Works (novel, short stories, and play) 1967
Legenda (selected stories) 1974
The Complete Short Stories and The Three Fat Men (short stories and novel) 1978
The Complete Plays (plays) 1983
SOURCE: Beaujour, Elizabeth Klosty. “Proust-Envy: Fiction and Autobiography in the Works of Iurii Olesha.” Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 1 (1977): 123-34.
[In the following essay, Beaujour portrays Olesha's No Day Without a Line as a pessimistic semi-autobiographical work and notes Olesha's attempts to compare himself with Marcel Proust.]
The Soviet novelist, Iurii Olesha always said that his talent was essentially autobiographical.1 In his best known declaration, the speech to the First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934, he stated: “People told me2 that Kavalerov [the hero of his novel Envy] had many of my traits, that it was an autobiographical portrait, that indeed Kavalerov was me. Yes, Kavalerov did look through my eyes. Kavalerov's colors, light, comparisons, metaphors and thoughts about things were mine.”3 To this admission that Kavalerov's sensibility, though not his activity, were Olesha's own, one may add the apparently autobiographical material of the childhood stories: “The Chain” (1929), “A Writer's Notes” (1934), “Human Material” (1928), and the special pleading of “The Secret Notebooks of Fellow Travellor Zand” (1932). Taken together, these and other avowedly autobiographical works form a coherent image which we are asked to contemplate: the self portrait of the artist as failure. Olesha's picture shows us that his childhood, his bourgeois family values, and his relationship to his father have inevitably led to a socially and psychologically determined doom in the post-revolutionary world. The Revolution, which no individual could control, deprived Olesha of his birthright, his past; it declared his childhood impressions irrelevant, crippling his talent by depriving it of sustenance.
This is a radically self-censored self-portrait. Not only does Olesha omit the successes which were in fact his, but even among the failures, he writes only about those, personal and artistic, of which he could say, paraphrasing Kavalerov, “It's not my fault; it's their fault.”4 Olesha's works therefore present us less with a set of autobiographical fictions than with a series of episodes for a fictional autobiography: the autobiography of the artist as victim.
This is, of course, Olesha's perfect right. It is not the place of the reader to make a value judgment about the manner in which the artist sees himself and wishes to have himself seen. As John Cooper Powys says, a man's life illusion should be as sacred as his skin.5 Furthermore, it is axiomatic that no one's autobiographical writing can be taken at its face value as an ingenuous rendering of his psychic life, which inevitably undergoes a distortion or stylisation in the process of being verbalized.6 Nevertheless whatever we may write, on whatever subject, comprises a constantly revised self-portrait which denounces us. It is with this self-portrait that I will be concerned here.7 For whatever the immediate truth of the matter, it must be said that the prediction of failure at the heart of Olesha's fictional autobiography was catastrophically self-fulfilling.
Let us begin with Envy. To the extent that Kavalerov was indeed endowed with Olesha's sensibility, colors and verbal imagination, Envy contains a self-portrait. But it differs from the norm of early, partially autobiographical fiction in that the young writer of a novel usually both interprets himself and invents a situation to reveal what he feels is his potential reality.8 He can, and very often does, allow his character the fulfillment of which he feels he is intrinsically capable, but of which he has been deprived in real life by accidents of personal appearance or historical circumstance. The author can overcome what is “fortuitous” in his own existence and obey the “sense of life.”9 Olesha rejects this option, and does not allow Kavalerov to fulfill a single dream, positive or negative. Kavalerov does not even achieve notoriety or romantic destruction. His descent into indifference is in fact an abnormally early achievement of the final equilibrium characteristic not of early autobiographical fiction but of mature autobiography: the coming to terms with what has been rather than with what might have been. Envy, written by a twenty-seven year old author, at a time when he was well introduced and moving up rapidly in Soviet literary life, already defines the terms of Olesha's own memoirs, written thirty years later.10
Soviet reality of the NEP period in no way obliged Olesha to make Kavalerov a failure, and at least one work of the period proves this point: the hero of “Love,” Shuvalov is a healthy and functioning, but love-smitten Marxist. He is certainly uneasy about the “unscientific distortions” of natural laws caused by his infatuation, but he boldly and resolutely defends his proletarian right to life and love in his final refusal to “eat blue pears.”11 So Olesha could have used his colors positively and given them to characters who did not resemble his preferred image of himself. He even did so once or twice; but the narrative tone in the other stories is already an almost exclusive identification of the authorial sensibility with failure, and a concomitant resolve to achieve artistic success only by creating and manipulating images of failure.
Given both this early commitment to the depiction of failure and the subsequent difficulties of Olesha's slozhnyi put' (“complicated path”) for which he was not in fact responsible, it is not surprising to find the same images of failure in Olesha's last work, the retrospective, fragmentary No Day without a Line (1965).12 Olesha announced No Day as an autobiographical novel of a new, modern kind,13 but it remains only a preparatory exercise for such a novel, the flexing of long atrophied artistic muscles. In it he relives events of his own life, and retells passages from the books of others which have become an integral part of his own consciousness.14 The dominant modes are re-call and re-capitulation, but the book cannot be defined simply as autobiography. It is a strange hybrid. Of course, No Day is flawed and unfinished, composed of fragments which Olesha himself did not have a chance to place into a final montage. Yet this unresolved form is so appropriate to Olesha's life illusion of failure that it might as well be deliberate. Any literary self portrait is a metaphor of the self at the moment of composition,15 and the broken, unfulfilled structure of the book is analogous to the metaphors of artistic destruction of which it is composed.
Given the workings of symbolic memory,16 imagination is necessarily an element of recollection, and the imagination which recapitulates Olesha's life in No Day, is consistently an imagination of fragmentation, deprivation and failure. I should like to look at a few characteristic examples.
In No Day, Olesha asserts that the circus was the foundation of his imaginative life. He says that his childhood dream of liberation and glory was to be able to perform a complex somersault, and speculates that perhaps this dream of acrobatic competence was the first stirring of the artist within him (As we shall see shortly, the athletic metaphor is no accident). Although he is never actually able to perform a salto mortale, he still tells people he can, and they believe him.17 He mentions this to us so that we should not believe it, so that we should convict him of false boastfulness and should know that his first “artistic” aspiration was crowned with failure. The theme of non-realisation of early aspirations is carried further and becomes more complicated in his discussion of the girl acrobat with whom he had fallen in love: “As she cartwheeled, the girl was transformed into a vision which stunned him, although nothing really happened, except that her hair flew around her head as she cartwheeled.”18 Thus far, the memory follows a relatively standard pattern of reminiscence: the memory of an early love for an untouchable embodiment of almost superhuman grace or beauty. But following the ever-present principle of deprivation, the vision is not only presented as unattainable, it is destroyed as such. One day, Olesha recognizes the girl's two male partners walking towards him, accompanied by a pimply, unattractive youth who spits through his teeth. He realizes that the sickly-looking, disagreeable youth is in fact the “girl acrobat” and that the lovely waves of flying hair were a wig. Although Olesha loyally declares that he is in love with the girl to this day, he also admits to a sudden surge of shame each time he sees such flowing hair. Thus even the image of absolute feminine perfection, of first love, comes to us defiled, transformed into a recollection of deprivation, early disillusionment and shame. Many of the recollections of childhood in No Day carry the same stamp of shame as do the stories of the late twenties.19 Contrary to expectation, one of the few memories of bliss in No Day is not a childhood memory at all but belongs to old age. Moreover, it is an imaginary memory, the memory of an event which Olesha says did not and could not have occurred in real life.
Sometimes, through the real circumstances of my life, through its furnishings, through the objects and walls of my home, the images of a somehow different life show through. It is my life, too, but it is not always perceptible to me; it goes on somehow out of my range of vision.
Suddenly a room appears, bluish because of the twilight and because of the painted walls. It is a clean room, with toys in the middle, with beds along the walls and on the painted walls a frieze, which also depicts toys. A children's room? Whose? I never had any children. Suddenly, for an instant, I feel that these are the children of my daughter. I never had a daughter. I know that, but I have nonetheless come to visit my daughter. I am a father and grandfather. I am a guest at my daughter's and grandsons' house. They had been expecting me for dinner. Maybe I did come for dinner. More probably I didn't make it for some reason … that's why I brought a cake. God, how I remember that square cake. How awkward it was to carry!20
The main point of the passage would seem to be to make the reader feel the material weight and bulkiness, the solidity, of an imagined object. Yet the relationship of the two lives merits closer scrutiny. Even in the second, imaginary life Olesha has, for some reason, been prevented from coming to share the dinner. He has disappointed himself and somehow failed his family: that is why he has bought the cake—to make amends. Still, the second life is more attractive. There he is not a lonely, isolated, old man; he has the children and grandchildren of whom his real life has deprived him. The net effect of the passage is to make us pity the deprivation of his “real” life.
Here I must pause for a moment to consider certain facts of Olesha's “real” life. He was married, twice, and had a step-son who committed suicide by jumping out of a window in his and his mother's presence.21 Olesha never mentions either the existence of the death of Igor....
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SOURCE: Slonim, Marc. “Soviet Romantics.” In Soviet Russian Literature: Writers and Problems, 1917-1977, pp. 122-29. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
[In the following excerpt from his chapter on Soviet romantics, Slonim presents an overview of Olesha's works, emphasizing Envy and a few plays and short stories.]
Perhaps the label of romantic does not do justice to the complexity of Yury Olesha, [a] representative of the Southern group, a novelist whose work and fate have a special place in Soviet literature. Born in 1899 into a middle-class family and brought up in Odessa, he served in the Red Army and then became a fellow-traveler and a journalist....
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SOURCE: Croft, Lee. B. “Charlie Chaplin and Olesha's Envy.” College Language Association Journal 21 (1978): 525-37.
[In the following essay, Croft draws parallels between Olesha's Envy and the films of Charlie Chaplin.]
In the history of literature and cinema it may easily be said that the usual course of influence proceeded from the former to the latter. That is, literary texts rapidly provided a source of material for the burgeoning cinema industry. But finding early instances where cinematic productions had a noticeable influence on literature is more difficult. In the Soviet Union, however, where cinema was taken very seriously as an artistic...
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SOURCE: Holzapfel, Tamara. “Inconsolable Memories and its Russian Counterpart.” Latin American Literary Review 11, no. 21 (fall-winter 1982): 21-6.
[In the following essay, Holzapfel compares a novel by the Cuban writer Edmondo Desnoes to Envy, finding in both a literary response to the fate of the individual in a mass society.]
The theme of the fate of the individual human being in a mass society has been a major preoccupation of twentieth century literature as a whole, but has had special resonance in post-revolutionary societies, as has been the case in Russia and, more recently, in Cuba. In Russia this theme can be traced through over half a century of...
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SOURCE: Beaujour, Elizabeth K. Review of The Complete Plays, by Yuri Olesha.Slavic and East European Journal 28 (summer 1987): 272.
[In the following review of Michael Green and Jerome Katsell's translation of Olesha's plays, Beaujour criticizes the translations of colloquial expressions but finds the volume an otherwise valuable contribution to Olesha's body of work.]
The Complete Plays of Yury Olesha includes The Conspiracy of Feelings, The Three Fat Men, The List of Blessings, and a fragment of the unfinished The Black Man. Despite its title, the volume does not include the little drama in rhymed verse: “Play on an...
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SOURCE: Harkins, William E. “No Day Without a Line: The World of Jurii Olesha.” In Russian Literature and American Critics, edited by Kenneth N. Brostrom, pp. 95-101. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1984.
[In the following essay, Harkins notes that Olesha's fragmentary reminiscences show both an esthetic view of life and an absence of a moral or political viewpoint.]
Olesha's No Day Without a Line (Ni dnia bez strochki) was published posthumously in 1965. The book is far more than a series of fragmentary and casual autobiographical memoirs; it is a cycle of small essays that not only cover the life of its writer but provide information...
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SOURCE: Niemczyk, Barbara A. Review of The Complete Plays, by Yuri Olesha.Theatre Journal 37 (March 1985): 121-22.
[In the following review of Green and Katsell's translation of The Complete Plays, Niemczyk presents an overview of the works in the collection.]
Although his promising literary career was interrupted by the Stalinist era, Yury Olesha remains one of the most original writers of the early Soviet period. Best known in the West for his novel Envy, published in 1927, he also wrote short stories, essays, and scripts for the stage and screen. He was clearly more comfortable with the short story and novel, but his dramatic pieces nevertheless...
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SOURCE: Oja, Matt F. “Iurii Olesha's Zavist': Fantasy, Reality, and Split Personality.” Canadian Sylvanite Papers/Revue canadienne des slavists, 28, no. 1 (March 1986): 52-63.
[In the following essay, Oja argues that it is possible to separate fantasy and reality in the imaginative work Zavist', thereby providing clues to the thematic structure of the novel.]
Iurii Olesha's minor masterpiece Zavist' is a confusing and difficult novel because of its often fantastic atmosphere. The action takes place on a variety of levels of reality, ranging from the ordinary objective world through stages of fantasy to outright dreams. Because Olesha's...
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SOURCE: LeBlanc, Ronald D. “The Soccer Match in Envy.”1Slavic and East European Journal 32, no. 1 (spring 1988): 55-71.
[In the following essay, LeBlanc, using the works of other Russian writers for comparison, argues that the soccer match in Envy is an apt metaphor for the romantic competition in the novel.]
Georg Lukács begins his essay “Narrate or Describe?” by making a comparison between the “depiction” of a horse race in Zola's Nana (1880) and the “narration” of the steeplechase in Tolstoj's Anna Karenina (1877). What is so striking about these two scenes, Lukács argues, is the vastly different way the...
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SOURCE: Naydan, Michael M. “Intimations of Biblical Myth and the Creative Process in Jurij Olesa's ‘Visnevaja Kostocka’.” Slavic and East European Journal 33, no. 3 (fall 1989): 373-85.
[In the following essay, Naydan presents a semiotic analysis of Olesha short story “The Cherry Pit,” emphasizing the concepts of Biblical myth, regeneration, and time.]
Oleša's contemporary Jurij Tynjanov succinctly expresses the polysemantic nature of the word in his classic study Problema stixotvornogo jazyka (The Problem of Verse Language): “Slovo ne imeet odnogo opredelennogo značenija. Ono—xameleon, v kotorom každyj raz voznikajut ne tol'ko raznye...
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SOURCE: Peppard, Victor. “The Poetics of Dialogue.” In The Poetics of Yury Olesha, pp. 96-124. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1989.
[In the following chapter from his book-length study of Olesha's poetic artistry, Peppard points out the ways in which Olesha uses dialogic structures in his work.]
Olesha's best works are so thoroughly dialogical because dialogue takes place in them on a number of different levels. One of the most important of these is the level of narrative structure. For the word in an artistic text to be perceived as dialogical rather than monological, it must, of course, be addressed to another person, either implicitly or explicitly....
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SOURCE: Ehre, Milton. “Olesha's Zavist': Utopia and Dystopia.”Slavic Review 50, no. 3 (fall 1991): 601-11.
[In the following essay, Ehre explores the ways in which Olesha's modernist novel Zavist' presents a comic view of the Soviets' utopian dream.]
Utopia and dystopia designate the human dream of happiness and the human nightmare of despair when these are assigned a place (topos) in space or time. Since narrative literature “is essentially an imitation not of persons but of action and life, of happiness and misery,”1 utopian and dystopian inventions are mere extremes of literature's ongoing story. In realistic fictions, although...
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SOURCE: Tolczyk, Dariusz. “Poetics and Politics.” Partisan Review 59, no. 2 (spring 1992): 296-307.
[In the following essay, Tolczyk calls Olesha a post-realist who found it nearly impossible to reconcile his idea of artistic “truth” with the realities of the Soviet system.]
Russian literary criticism waits for its own The Captive Mind, in which the problem of various writers' attraction to communism, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, would be given as expansive study as Czeslaw Milosz's gave to Eastern European writers and Stalinist dogmas. Yet does the problem of a writer's attraction to communism still pertain to literary criticism? Can it be...
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SOURCE: Borden, Richard C. “H. G. Wells' ‘Door in the Wall’ in Russian Literature.” Slavic and East European Journal, 36, no. 3 (fall 1992): 323-38.
[In the following excerpt, Borden explores the influences of a short story by H. G. Wells on Olesha's work.]
In The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales, Oliver Sacks describes the case of Mrs. O'C., who was born in Ireland and had lost both parents before the age of five (125-27). All alone she had been sent to America to live with a forbidding maiden aunt. She had no conscious memory of her parents, of Ireland, of what she considered “home,” of what she all her life called her...
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SOURCE: Zholkovsky, Alexander. “Mandel'štam's Egyptian Stamp: A Study in Envy?” Slavic and East European Journal 38, no. 2 (summer 1994): 224-44.
[In the following essay, Zholkovsky outlines several similarities between Osip Mandel'štam's novel The Egyptian Stamp and Envy, while noting differences in style.]
1. CHRONOLOGY, POSTURES, AND STYLE
Mandel'štam's The Egyptian Stamp (1928; henceforth: ES) appeared soon after Envy (1927), and its writing, begun prior to the publication of Oleša's work, may have been spurred by the latter's instant success.1 The stylistic and thematic...
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SOURCE: Borden, Richard C. “Iurii Olesha: The Child Behind the Metaphor.” Modern Language Review 93, no. 2 (April 1998): 441-54.
[In the following essay, Borden explores the importance of the childhood experience to the formation of metaphor in Olesha's narratives.]
Iurii Olesha (1899-1960), like many of his generation, believed that the poet's singular gift was an ability to see the world ‘as if for the first time’, ‘as would a child’, as, in fact, he himself had seen the world in childhood.1 Poets were they who preserved the child's capacity for unmediated perception. Olesha also believed, however, that childhood experience was itself the...
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SOURCE: Borenstein, Eliot. “The Family Men of Yuri Olesha.” In Men Without Women: Masculinity and Revolution in Russian Fiction, 1917-1929, pp. 125-61. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000.
[In the following essay, Borenstein deals with the complexities of the father-son relationship in Olesha's story “Legend” and his novel Envy.]
Yuri Olesha wrote about fathers, sons, and brothers, but never simply about men. No matter how hard they try, Olesha's male characters cannot escape the context of the family. Indeed, story after story portrays its protagonists' attempts to extricate themselves from filial ties, but every effort only highlights its own futility....
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SOURCE: Michalski, Milena. “Cinematic Literature and Literary Cinema: Olesha, Room and the Search for a New Art Form.” In Russian Literature, Modernism and the Visual Arts, edited by Catriona Kelly and Stephen Lovell, pp. 220-49. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
[In the following essay, Michalski examines cinematic techniques used in Olesha's literary works and analyzes Olesha's screenplay, Strogii iunosha, and its adaptation by filmmaker Abram Room.]
LITERATURE AND FILM: IURII OLESHA IN CONTEXT
The 1920s and early 1930s in the Soviet Union was a period of experimentation and innovation in both literature and...
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SOURCE: LeBlanc, Ronald D. “Gluttony and Power in Iurii Olesha's Envy.” Russian Review 60, no. 2 (April 2001): 220-37.
[In the following essay, LeBlanc uses a semiotic approach to discuss the ways in which Olesha's novel uses gastronomic and alimentary motifs in a playful way and also suggests that these motifs relate to the story's central power struggle between individual imagination and the new Soviet ideas of science, progress, and collectivism.]
Given the highly carnivalized view of the world that informs the narrative structure of Envy (Zavist', 1927), one should not be terribly surprised to find that Iurii Olesha's controversial novella...
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Peppard, Victor. “Selected Bibliography.” In The Poetics of Yury Olesha, pp. 147-57. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1989.
An extensive list of primary and secondary sources.
Avins, Carol. “Eliot and Olesa: Versions of the Anti-Hero.” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature/Revue canadienne de littérature comparée 6 (winter 1979): 64-74.
Compares Envy to T. S. Eliot's “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
Erlich, Victor. “A Shop of Metaphors: The Short Brilliant Career of Yury Olesha.” In Modernism and...
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