Yuri Olesha Critical Essays

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."

                                        (pp. 284-85)

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.