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
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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...
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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, romanticism vs. realism, traditionalism vs. futurism. To a considerable degree these antitheses are treated by Oleša as one and the same, but each may also appear separately in the context of a single story or passage. We shall approach these antitheses in terms of narrative situations or images which express them; indeed, it is images, along with their structure and mode of presentation, which often embody Oleša's ideas most clearly.
Oleša's images fall into a number of distinct areas which have their own characteristic symbolic meanings. Of particular importance as sources of imagery are the worlds of nature, technology and sport.
Oleša perceives nature sharply, concretely, almost linearly. At the...
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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 Olesha's story “The Cherry Stone,”1 which is about an artist's effort to assert the interdependence of art and life.
On its simplest level, “The Cherry Stone” may be read as the story of a writer who tries to integrate the work of his imagination into the Five-Year Plan. There are two spheres of action in the story: the “invisible land” and Soviet reality. The invisible land is the world of artistic synthesis. The writer hero, Fedia, walks there hand in hand with two sisters, Observation [Vnimanie] and Imagination [Voobrazhenie], uniting them in his person. This is a formula for the writer's creative task. In the invisible land of artistic imagination, the hero can cause a cherry tree to...
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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 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...
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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 Olesha's overall world-view of the problem of perception as articulated in the story.2 My purpose in this article is to attempt a more detailed and comprehensive reading of “Liompa”. By examining the formal and stylistic elements of what is possibly Olesha's most complex and elusive story I hope to throw some light on certain residual problems of interpretation.
“Liompa” is a story which yields its meaning only after considerable effort on the part of the reader. This point should be emphasized, as it is this very difficulty of comprehension that constitutes the first, and most lasting, impression upon the reader, and hence forms a vital element in the story's meaning.3 The prime importance...
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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, it ceases to exist for us. Our language atrophies in a similar fashion; words lose all their connotations and are used purely denotatively, as abstract terms.
The automatization vs the regeneration of language was an important question to both the Symbolists (Andrej Belyj) and the Avant-gardists (e.g. Viktor Šklovskij's Voskrešenie slova, 1913). But the theme was topical in 1920s as well, though it was approached from slightly different points of view. The critic Aleksandr Voronskij, for example, wrote a series of articles on “the art of seeing the world” (iskusstvo videt' mir), in which he attempted to combine his aesthetic ideas with Marxist ideology.1
In a hitherto...
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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 neuroses and in the desperation of the optimistic ending, the bleakness of Olesha's future.” Structurally and linguistically he connects the story with No Day Without a Line (Ni dny biz smrоcкi, 1956), perceiving this kinship to lie “… in the characteristic conversational, hortative language, in the apparently fragmentary nature of the story, in the observation of fleeting similarities and, above all, in the open display of neuroses and fears for the future.”1
One can, of course, read “The Cherry Pit” as a prelude to No Day Without a Line. However, all of the narrative devices and thematic features which link the story to the “autobiographical” work (its impressionistic...
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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 with Olesha and Siniavskii.” The Slavonic and East European Review 71, no. 1 (January 1993): 1-13.
Finds parallels between the circus stories of Olesha and Andrei Siniavskii.
MacAndrew, Andrew R. Introduction to Envy and Other Works, by Yuri Olesha, pp. vii-xix. New York: Anchor Books, 1967.
Discusses the reaction to Olesha's short fiction in the Soviet Union and the West.
Payne, Robert. Introduction to Love and Other Stories, by Yuri Olesha, pp. ix-xxiii. New York: Washington Square Press, 1967.
Provides a biographical and critical overview of Olesha and his work and contends that the “primacy of the human...
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