Yury Olesha Biography


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The son of a tsarist officer, Yury Karlovich Olesha was born in Elisavetgrad, near Odessa, on March 3, 1899. He grew up in Odessa, where he finished his education. He joined the active literary scene in that city and counted writers Isaak Babel and Valentin Katayev among his friends. He began to write poetry but soon abandoned that genre. He had an ambivalent attitude toward the revolution, which was reflected in almost all his later works. He moved to Moscow in 1920 and continued to write and associate with writers. He wrote some short stories in the mid-1920’s but did not publish them right away.

In 1927 he published his first and best novel Envy, which was hailed by many critics as one of the best novels in contemporary Soviet literature. Through the views and actions of the protagonist Nikolay Kavalerov, Olesha expresses his own views about the revolution and the role of the intellectuals, which are replete with ambivalence and doubts about the sacrosanctity, and even need, for the drastic revolution carried out by the Bolsheviks. He rewrote Envy as a play, The Conspiracy of Feelings, which had a successful run at the prestigious Vakhtangov Theater in 1929, as well as at other theaters. This play was followed by A List of Assets, staged at Vsevolod Meyerhold’s theater in 1931. In this work, Olesha continued to wrestle with his ambivalence about the revolution, attempting to strike a balance between positive and...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Russian novelist, short-story writer, and playwright Yury Karlovich Olesha (uhl-YEHSH-uh) became known particularly for his satirical novel Envy, which is widely regarded as one of the outstanding works from the early postrevolutionary period of Russian literature. He grew up in Odessa, where he joined a group of budding authors that included Valentin Katayev and Eduard Dzyubin (who wrote under the pseudonym Edward Bagritsky), both of whom later had distinguished careers of their own. Olesha left Odessa for Kharkov in 1921, and the following year he settled in Moscow, where he began to work for the newspaper Gudok (the train whistle), a publication of the railway workers’ union. An outstanding group of young writers had their works published in Gudok, among them Mikhail Bulgakov, Katayev, and two other Odessaites, Ilya Faynzilberg and Evgeni Katayev (Valentin’s brother), who, under the pseudonyms Ilf and Petrov, became a famous team of satirical writers.

Olesha began by writing verse sketches under the pen name Zubilo (the chisel), but despite his successes in this genre, he turned to prose. The Three Fat Men, a fairy tale that expresses a revolutionary ideology, was written in 1924 but not published until 1928. With the publication in 1927 of the novel Envy, its brilliant imagery, virtuosic style, and highly original distortions of ordinary perception were immediately perceived as signifying the arrival of a major new talent. The few years from the mid-1920’s to the beginning of the 1930’s marked the height of Olesha’s literary endeavors. Of the approximately thirty stories he wrote after becoming a mature writer, about half—including nearly all of those that continue to receive critical attention—belong to this period. He wrote plays based on both Envy (retitling it The Conspiracy of Feelings) and The Three Fat Men. In 1931 he composed his one original, full-length work for the stage, A List of Assets, but soon his writing slowed noticeably, and by the mid-1930’s his career was in a steep decline.

Nikolai Kavalerov, one of the main figures in Envy, is a young man with a romantic outlook who finds himself left behind by the new...

(The entire section is 924 words.)