Yury Olesha Biography

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(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 negative developments in the communist state. Because of the views he expressed in these plays and other works, he was viewed with suspicion by the authorities and criticized heavily by the official critics loyal to the system. His literary productivity was reduced to a trickle. Few of his works were reprinted, save for a novel-length fairy tale for children, Tri tolstyaka (1928; The Three Fat Men, 1964).

With the introduction of Stalin’s strict control of every part of life, including literature, Olesha’s position became more and more precarious. He found it necessary to publicly explain his position at the first Congress of the Union of Soviet Writers in 1934. He pleaded for understanding of his inability to accept without reservations the official guidelines and averred that the protagonist of Envy, Nikolay Kavalerov, as his alter ego, expresses his own ambivalence. The plea fell on deaf ears, and Olesha was condemned to silence and was fortunate not to follow other writers, including his friend Babel, to their death. He was prevented from publishing any new works during his lifetime, although his memoir, No Day Without a Line, was published after his death.


(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...

(The entire section is 1,352 words.)