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Envy [Paperback]

Yuri Olesha , Ken Kalfus , Marian Schwartz
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

May 31 2004 New York Review Books Classics
A NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS ORIGINAL

One of the delights of Russian literature, a tour de force that has been compared to the best of Nabokov and Bulgakov, Yuri Olesha's novella Envy brings together cutting social satire, slapstick humor, and a wild visionary streak. Andrei is a model Soviet citizen, a swaggeringly self-satisfied mogul of the food industry who intends to revolutionize modern life with mass-produced sausage. Nikolai is a loser. Finding him drunk in the gutter, Andrei gives him a bed for the night and a job as a gofer. Nikolai takes what he can, but that doesn't mean he's grateful. Griping, sulking, grovelingly abject, he despises everything Andrei believes in, even if he envies him his every breath.

Producer and sponger, insider and outcast, master and man fight back and forth in the pages of Olesha's anarchic comedy. It is a contest of wills in which nothing is sure except the incorrigible human heart.

Marian Schwartz's new English translation of Envy brilliantly captures the energy of Olesha's masterpiece.

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Review

“In his best novel, all wry humor and narrowed eyes, Olesha presents two sides of the same coin: a self-satisfied sausage king and a drunken failure the former picks up in the street. Poetic and satiric and quite an achievement, it is a novel everyone should read.” —Flavorwire

Olesha wrote only one novel, Envy. The book was published in 1927, 10 years after the Bolshevik Revolution and a few years before the net of socialist realism fell on Russian writers….The narrative is driven by the narrator’s bitter, poetic commentary on the world. The characters represent, loosely, aspects of the new Soviet ethos. Vladimir Nabokov had a low opinion of almost everything produced in Russia after his departure, but he admired Olesha’s writing.
— Columbus Dispatch

In his best fiction, the short novel Envy, Olesha writes about the clash of two worlds, but with a wry, half-defeated yet touchingly affectionate irony that seems entirely his own.
— Irving Howe, Harper’s

Olesha’s stories are supreme and timeless cinema. To read his triumphant short novel Envy is to see it, to find the pages transformed into a screen on which to behold man’s heroic confrontation with the monsters of his own creation…Every page of Olesha demands to be read and seen again.
— The New York Times

About the Author

Yuri Olesha (1899–1960), the son of an impoverished land-owner who spent his days playing cards, grew up in Odessa, a lively multicultural city whose literary scene also included Isaac Babel. Olesha made his name as a writer with Three Fat Men, a proletarian fairy tale, and had an even greater success with Envyin 1927. Soon, however, the ambiguous nature of the novella’s depiction of the new revolutionary era led to complaints from high, followed by the collapse of his career and the disappearance of his books. In 1934, Olesha addressed the First Congress of Soviet Writers, arguing that a writer should be allowed the freedom to choose his own style and themes. For the rest of his life he wrote very little. A memoir of his youth, No Day Without a Line, appeared posthumously.

Ken Kalfus’s most recent book is a novel, The Commissariat of Enlightenment. He is also the author of two short story collections, Thirst and Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies.

Marian Schwartz has been translating Russian fiction and nonfiction for over thirty years. Her work includes Edvard Radzinsky’s The Last Tsar, Yuri Olesha’s Envy, and many works by Nina Berberova. 

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4.0 out of 5 stars Not to be overlooked Feb. 19 2004
Format:Paperback
Olesha is on par with Gogol, Dostoevsky, Voinovitch or Bulgakov, but he never gets treated that way. The first part of this is brilliant. Possibly meant to be a condemnation of Kavalerov, instead this wicked, jealous, indecent, and meek man is real and quite sympathetic.
The second part is not nearly as good, but still worth it. Some argue that this was pro-Soviet, some anti-Soviet, I think it's somewhere in the middle: an ingenious juxtaposition that forces one to reflect on life and the nature of consciousness, be it a burden or not.
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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  13 reviews
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A small gem from a Russian writer, Envy was published when literary expression earned the writer government censorship or death Nov. 8 2006
By T. M. Teale - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I had difficulty reading the first few pages simply because I didn't catch on that the first person narrator--who is derisively observing his roommate's bathroom routine--is to some degree emotionally destabilized by his own hard life as well as misplaced perceptions. I usually prefer lyrically-written work with sentences that flow beautifully, however, while reading Olesha's Envy, I realize just how much the novels I prefer are the way they are because the writer lives in an environment that enables some hope. As harsh as the environment is, Olesha's novel is peppered throughout with charming phrases which disarm the critical reader: Valya was "lighter than a shadow. The lightest of shadows--the shadow of falling snow--might have envied her" (54).

The novel's Introduction, by Ken Kalfus, is informative. Envy was published in 1927 when some form of satirical protest against the Soviet government was still possible; Lenin had died in 1925 and Stalin had ousted Trotsky, and it wasn't much longer--in about 1934--that it was no longer possible for a writer or journalist to speak and write freely. Olesha's work was suppressed and not re-printed until after Stalin's death in 1956. At only 152 pages, this novel is ideal for high school students wanting something more than routine American literature; honors students can definitely handle comparing the fictional treatment of social conditions. Also college freshman in Comparative Literature or fiction writing can study how a writer's environment conditions the craft of fiction.

To go into more detail, if the world of Envy feels claustrophobic, there are good reasons: Yuri Olesha's narrator, or main character, is responding to a society in which the rich and poor are increasingly polarized. People in control seem to dominate the powerless, and those in control are absolutely stupid and boring people. The conditions Olesha wrote about also indicate that most people have diminishing expectations for the future, and to want change seems futile because change is impossible. (Sorry if this situation sounds familiar in 2006.) To create a novel out of this sort of human dilemma, conditions which were escalating in 1920's Russia, the author had to position himself somewhere between the two poles of rich and poor, of government official and social outcast. To do so, Olesha created the character Nikolai Kavalerov, a sort of slacker or lay-about whose vague or shapeless revolt against his conditions engages the reader's attention. The novelist's craft must give the characters energy so that the plot moves forward to some resolution; to do that, Olesha gives Kavalerov a kind of offensive honesty, a raw self-expression. One-third of the way through the novel, Kavalerov writes a cathartic letter to Comrade Babichev declaring, "Actually, I have just one feeling: hatred. . . . And like all officials, you're a petty tyrant." To understand this eruption as refreshing or humorous, one must read carefully. Read and find out if Kavalerov actually delivers the letter.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A quick and fantastic snapshot of Soviet history Jan. 24 2009
By John E. Vidale - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which I spotted on a table in an Oakland bookstore. The prose is spare and short and the imagery is excellent.

The division between real life and dreams is blurred, time does not always march forward. The portrayal of insatiable envy is tragic and believable. The theme of the revolution of the technology man captures a snapshot of history, and even reading the biography of the author in the front is time engagingly spent.
21 of 28 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Dostoevsky? You must be joking! June 6 2008
By amgh - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I was surprised to read several overenthusiastic reviews on this page - I think the book deserves 3.5 stars. I've read it in Russian and realize that it is hard to understand it completely without being very familiar with transitional pre-Stalin period of Soviet life and culture. Therefore, the difference in opinions is probably natural. However, I want to share a few thoughts driven mostly by the reviews rather than the book itself.

Olesha is not on par with Gogol and Dostoevsky (I am sure Olesha would be shocked if someone would suggest it to him). Such comparison proves one more time, that while Dostoevsky is broadly admired by Western readers, his genius is "too Russian" to be understood completely in translation. The same can be said about Gogol, although for other reasons, while it is probably much easier to comprehend translated Tolsoy or Lermontov without loosing much - they are much more "Western". I am sure that 20th century alone gave at least a dozen (or two) of Russian writers more gifted than Olesha, not to mention several giants of 19th century.

Even though the book was effectively banned for many years, the author was not a tragic victim of the Soviet regime as Bulgakov, Solzhenitsyn or Pasternak. His own political views were less unequivocal, and to the Soviet reader he was known as creator of "revolutionary fairytale" genre ("Three fat men"). "Envy" is not pro- or anti-Soviet, it is really 19th vs. 20th century - "feelings" against "machines". The main character of the book is not a rebel or a victim of the system - he is the product of the environment. His nature with all its shortcomings is probably partially based on author's inner world. With a great risk of overextending, my guess is - Olesha shared some of the feelings of his character, seeing how some of his close friends of the youth become "official" writers favored by the regime, while others, treated the same way as he nevertheless wrote the cult books of the period (Ilf, Petrov)
11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unknown piece of genius writing Dec 16 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
If you can scare up a copy, do it. This book has a dreamy, insane, "Russian" quality I haven't come across in anything else except Gogol and Dostoyevsky. The book was written shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution, during a brief period when artists still had a fair amount of freedom in Russia. It's a haunting book about dehumanization and insanity.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Satire isn't enough Aug. 27 2012
By las cosas - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
The success of the Russian revolution unleashed huge numbers of young, energetic true believers eager and determined to upend each and every establishment, including the arts. Most of these young artists, writers, architects were poor politicians with a tin ear to the rapid and increasingly deadly shifts in politics. For several years in the mid 1920s writers were able to create a temporary haven for themselves by playing with the proletarian-worker-as-revolutionary stereotype. Satire was the method most used. By the end of the decade what freedom of expression had existed disappeared, with all forms of human endeavor clamped shut under totalitarian Stalinism.

So this book survives as a time capsule, reminding us of the humor that could be obtained by simply tweaking the official line with a fine sense of satire. At a time when Soviet capitalism was allowed to continue on a small scale, one of the book's main characters, Babichev, a high ranking bureaucrat, is creating, and ever refining, a cafe to be called Two Bites which will serve the finest cheap sausage ever manufactured. And our "hero" is a fine fellow; a drunk, liar, thief. "He, Andrei Petrovich Babichev, is the director of the Food Industry Trust. He's a great sausage and pastry man and chef. And I, Nikolai Kavalerov, am his jester."

Unreliable, selfish Nikolai is our sarcastic narrator, giving us the goods on Andrei. Central planning, the infallibility of the state, blah, blah blah. Such fine Soviet concepts to satirize...in 1927. But it dates. Oh does it date. And frankly, Yevgeny Zamyatin's We covered similar territory much more successfully. I would call this a minor period piece.
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