Yuri Olesha 1899–-1960
(Also transliterated as Yuri Olyesha, Iurii Karlovich Olesha, Jurij Oleša, and Iurii Olesha) Russian novelist, short story writer, playwright, poet, and essayist.
The following entry provides criticism on Olesha's short fiction from 1965 to 1994.
Olesha has been recognized for his imaginative and clever short fiction that satirizes life in the Soviet Union in the years between the World Wars. Critics have praised his distinctive literary style and note that he introduced the element of slapstick into Russian literature. Although best known for his sardonic novel Zavist' (1927; Envy), Olesha's short fiction has also garnered positive attention from critics and readers.
Olesha was born on March 3, 1899, in Elisavetgrad (now Kirovograd), Ukraine, Russia. As a young man, he worked as a journalist for a railway newspaper, Gudok. After the Russian Revolution, Olesha initially found favor with the government of Josef Stalin. His first novel, Envy, was a humorous look at the existing political and social order. However, Olesha was eventually arrested as an enemy of the state after Tri tolstiaka (1928; The Three Fat Men), was published. As a result, most of his serious literary output ended by the mid-1930s. After this time he produced theatrical adaptations of novels and children's puppet plays but never again regained his place of literary prominence. He did, however, deliver a notable speech on artistic individualism at the First Soviet Writers' Congress in 1934. He died in Moscow on May 10, 1960, at a time when critics were just beginning to rediscover his work.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Olesha's short fiction focuses on the atmosphere in the Soviet Union during the late 1920s and early 1930s and depicts the condition of the artistic intelligentsia under Stalinist rule. These stories prove him to be a keen observer of popular culture and a skilled satirist. Moreover, Olesha often provides the point-of-view of a child in his short fiction, such as in “Tsep”’ (“The Chain”). In this story, an adult narrator reflects on a childhood memory of losing a bicycle chain while riding his friend's bike at full speed. Sergei Utochkin, who was famous in Odessa as a sports figure and larger-than-life personality, finds the young narrator and takes him back home. Utochkin berates the young student who lent the narrator his bicycle and tells him to give him back the chain. The ambiguity of the events in the story is characteristic of Olesha's work. His best-known and highly regarded story, “Liompa,” concerns the unsuccessful attempts of a dying man, Ponomarev, to retain some kind of control of his body and the world around him. There are two other characters in “Liompa”: a boy named Alexander who behaves as an adult; and a young child who is simply called “the rubber boy.” Critics view the three characters in the story as representative of the three ages of man and explore the philosophical themes in the work.
Olesha's Envy was initially praised by Soviet critics as a condemnation of bourgeois mentality. In time, however, Olesha's novels and stories were criticized as too naturalist, formalist, or sophisticated. Following Stalin's death in 1953, some of Olesha's works were gradually resurrected, albeit with caveats by establishment critics that he did not really mean some of his implied criticisms of the existing order. After Olesha's works began to be more available in the West in the 1960s and 1970s, modern critics approached his works in a variety of ways. Some praised his imagery and style while noting his ambivalence toward the ideals of communism. Some compared him with other authors of his time, such as Marcel Proust, T. S. Eliot, and H. G. Wells. Others engaged in structural or semiotic analyses, commented on his cinematic techniques, or dwelled on his aesthetic principles. The sheer variety and the increasing volume of Olesha criticism bear witness to his growing importance as a subtle and creative spokesman for the embattled artist in a repressive society.