Yuri Olesha Olesha, Yuri (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Liubov' 1928

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

Nils Åke Nilsson (essay date 1965)

(Short Story Criticism)

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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William E. Harkins (essay date 1966)

(Short Story Criticism)

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.)

Elizabeth Klosty Beaujour (essay date 1970)

(Short Story Criticism)

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.)

Anthony Hippisley (essay date summer 1973)

(Short Story Criticism)

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.)

Andrew Barratt (essay date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

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.)

Kazmiera Ingdahl (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

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.)

Kazimiera Ingdahl (essay date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

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.]


“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.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


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.)