Yuri Olesha

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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...

(The entire section is 4,353 words.)