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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