Yuri Olesha - 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

Yuri Olesha, Envy, Trans. by Marian Schwartz, NYRB Classics, 2004.
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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.

“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 HoweHarper’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

"Kavalerov, the jaundiced narrator, finds the regime and its activities monstrous (.....) Yet Kavalerov is himself an object of satire: like Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, he seems in danger of choking on his own spleen. This odd little book weighs collective ideology against individualism, caricaturing both." - Philip Landon, Review of Contemporary Fiction

"An unlikely blend of Modernist experiment and Dostoevskian masochism, Envy (1927) remains most notable for the sharpness of its prose and the charm of its far-fetched similes. (...) Overall, it seems more profitable to read Envy not as a straight reflection of the Romantic confrontation of artist and society, but as the deformation of this conflict on Russian soil and its elision with a more general struggle: can any kind of selfhood or "personality" (a key word in the novel) be constructed by the Russian writer that would not be determined by the corrosive polarities of vanity and self-abasement, tyranny and humiliation, martyrdom and self-absorption ?" - Oliver Ready, Times Literary Supplement

Soviet writer Yuri Olesha published Envy, his only major work, at the age of 27, during a period designated by scholars of Russian literature as the Silver Age (1917-1934). The novel, which has a new translation by Marian Schwartz, is short (almost 150 pages) and consists of two sections (part one is narrated in first person; part two is in third person). It primarily concerns a man, Nikolai Kavalerov, who shares the same age with the author of the world in which he lives and finds repulsive (the fictional version of the then-rapidly industrializing USSR). Kavalerov's spirit, his manner of mind, has been shaped by and is still located in the vanishing 19th century--the age of Flaubert, Baudelaire, Mallarmé; the time when the imagination was king and art had no other purpose than being art.
After getting booted out of a bar, Kavalerov is found in the gutter by Andrei Babichev, a Soviet industrialist who is building a massive cafeteria that will service all of the dining needs of the new society and "give [housewives] back the hours the kitchen has stolen from [them]." Babichev is also developing a sausage that will be inexpensive ("thirty-five kopeks") yet delicious ("seventy percent veal"). Babichev has the wasted intellectual picked up and transported by limousine to his apartment. The following morning, Kavalerov awakens in a light-filled living room and is told by Babichev that it is "fine for [him] to stay on." Kavalerov stays on. But Kavalerov loathes the man who has loaned him "an amazing sofa" to sleep on and found him a little work to do (editing food-processing manuals). The industrialist is loathed because he lacks imagination, and also because he is famous for making affordable sausages for the workers. In one scene, shortly after a super-cheap proto-sausage is made and tested (or tasted) in a lab (or kitchen), Kavalerov is ordered by the scientist (or chef) to deliver the package containing the new sausage to the manager, Babichev. After "[dashing] through the streets with [his] bundle," bitter Kavalerov thinks, "A piece of lousy sausage was directing my movements, my will." Envy is relentlessly funny, particularly the first section of the novel, which has Kavalerov living on Babichev's pity. The second part of the novel is a little more serious. It focuses on the relationship between Kavalerov and a man--who, like him, is a citizen of what Olesha in another story ("Cherry Stone") called the "land of the imagination"--Ivan Babichev, Andrei Babichev's older brother. Ivan has a beautiful daughter, Valya, who is closer to her uncle. She is the Soviet ideal: a woman who is destined to rear the children of the man-machine Volodya Makarov, an 18-year-old soccer star, engineer, and former occupant of Andrei's fabulous sofa. In the end, Volodya and Andrei win the world (Valya), and Ivan and his disciple Kavalerov are reduced to sharing, in a sordid room with a big bed, the sexual favors of an old, widowed, Dostoyevskian hag. This translation of Envy by Marian Schwartz excels in the second section, but makes some big mistakes in the first. For example, the middle of a letter that Volodya writes to Babichev, explaining why he wants to be just like a factory machine, is translated by Russian literary scholar Edward J. Brown in this way: "Why am I not as good as it [a machine]. We invented it, designed and constructed it, and it turned out to be much harder than we are. Start it and it gets to work. And it won't make a single unnecessary wriggle. That's the way I would like to be. Understand, Andrei Petrovich, not a single unnecessary wriggle." Schwartz, on the other hand, translates the same passage in this way: "Calculate [the machine] so that there's not a single extra figure. I want to be like that, too. You see, Andrei Petrovich--so that there's not a single extra figure." A wriggling machine is far funnier than one that produces extra figures. With the new edition, the mirror that is made of English succeeds in capturing the scintillating Russian poetry of Envy, which is replete with images of metallic surfaces, lenses, windows that refract, blur, and darkle the city in which the novel is set, Moscow. Only the comedy suffers a little bit in this translation of one of the funniest books of the 20th century.  -  Charles Mudede        

Envy is a short novel divided into two parts. The first is narrated by Nikolai Kavalerov. Andrei Babichev found him drunk and took him in, letting him move in and sleep on his sofa (these were Soviet times when such living conditions weren't unusual) -- taking the place of soccer player Volodya Makarov (though only for the time being). He also takes him on as a flunky. Kavalerov is grateful, but it's an antagonistic relationship, coloured by Kavalerov's envy.
       The second part, narrated in the third person, recounts the time after Kavalerov has broken with Andrei and moved out -- with Andrei's brother, Ivan, coming into the picture.
       Kavalerov is the sort of person who can't understand why the world doesn't recognise his genius; what he wants, above all else, is fame -- though other than grousing, he doesn't do much to justify anyone paying him the slightest bit of attention. He's not particularly capable, but chooses to see the problem as the world (especially the Soviet one he lives in) making it near impossible for his talents to be realised and recognised. Worse yet, the busy Andrei seems to get and do everything he wants.
       Kavalerov naturally always blames everyone (and everything) else for his failures -- and this is where much of the fun of the novel is to be found:
Things don't like me. Furniture purposely sticks out its leg for me. A polished corner once literally bit me. My blanket and I have always had a complicated relationship.
       Meanwhile, Andrei is being praised left and right for his new sausage-making project, which looks to be a grand success. Kavalerov is baffled:
Why wasn't I infatuated ? Why wasn't I smiling and bowing at the sight of this glory ? I was filled with spite. He, the ruler, the Communist, was building a new world. And in this new world, glory was sparked because a new kind of sausage had come from the sausage-makers hands. I didn't understand this glory. 
       Nevertheless, he does bask some in Andrei's glory and favour (while Andrei, for the most part, benignly ignores him -- and certainly all his babbling).
       When Andrei's brother Ivan returns to the scene, things get more complicated. Supposedly an engineer, but in fact a fabulist, he is not quite the antithesis of Andrei, but there is a good deal of family-tension. He's also a more successful antagonist than Kavalerov. (Still, it makes for an odd shift in the novel; complaining Kavalerov still figures, but is again -- though differently -- in a secondary role.)
       Envy is quite enjoyable, though the odd detail (and some nice rants) please more than the relatively unstructured larger narrative. It's a more 'literary' text than many from the same Soviet period, but has too much of a rough edge to fully convince as either satire or a picture of the times; in many ways it feels like the outline of a larger project.
        Note also that there may be translation issues with this edition of this oft-translated title: Marian Schwartz's 2004 NYRB edition (on which this review is also based) is now the most readily accessible version, but Oliver Ready was damning in his TLS review (3 December 2004):
Envy ought to be a translator's delight. (...) Marian Schwartz, however, has made Yuri Olesha strange in a way no theorist could approve. Here, anything can happen between languages: a leg becomes a head; elementary verb forms and case endings are repeatedly ignored; a crucial recurring statement is first botched and later corrected. The inaccuracies are staggering. (...)
If only Schwartz had consulted the six previous translations. If only the publishers had chosen any one of them, preferably Brown's, for their doomed but handsome edition

- http://www.complete-review.com/reviews/soviet/oleshay.htm

We often envision life in the Soviet Union as laden with hardship, but there was a time when life was normal…almost
Between the horror of the Civil War and the rise of Stalin there was a brief period, lasting for about 5 years, where things seemed ok. The years of struggle were behind, the years of struggle were ahead. The journey towards Communism was still tame and controlled. The mid-1920s were ok. Small scale capitalism had been introduced via the New Economic Program, and some industrious individuals were able to make a profit. Relations were starting to emerge with other countries. A bright and dynamic future seemed near, all that one needed was to reach out and grab it.
None of this would last. Stalin would solidify his power by the end of 1927 and push the Soviet Union into a period of frantic growth and, eventually, into grim paranoia. But the period that Stalinism eclipsed did not simply fall into the dust pan of history. There are traces of it here and there if you are willing to search. Probably one of the more promising embodiments of what the mid-1920s meant for the Soviet Union is Yuri Olesha’s Envy. This novella is dated February-June 1927, just at the end of the strange transitional period we are exploring. In a way, I suppose it could be compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, which has become inextricably linked with the public consciousness surrounding the Roaring 20s.
The Great Gatsby and Envy deal with similar themes, namely the self-destructive tendencies of jealousy and the awkward growing pains of a changing culture.
The plot is relatively simple. The “protagonist” is Nikolai Kavalerov, a homeless 27 year old alcoholic who was taken off the streets by Andrei Babichev, an enterprising albeit sloppy Soviet citizen who strives to create the ideal factory-made sausage that will free housewives from the need to make dinner. Nikolai is given lodging on a sofa left vacant by Volodya, a vibrant soccer player who Babichev treats as a son. Babichev is generous but he is not kind, and his bizarre antics and aloof manner let Kavalerov know that he is not at home in his new dwellings. Kavalerov admires a girl named Valya from afar. Valya, as it turns out, is the niece of Andrei Babichev. She became estranged from her father, Ivan Babichev, at the insistence of Uncle Andrei, who ultimately wishes to have her wed Volodya. Eventually Kavalerov runs away and meets up with Ivan, and the two conspire to take their revenge using the wicked Ophelia machine of Ivan’s design.
The story is rife with political symbolism. Andrei and Volodya represent new Soviet men. Ingenious, efficient, athletic, and inspired, these men are striving to create a better future. They represent everything that is great about the Soviet system. They also represent everything horrible about it. Andrei and his adopted son are quite inhuman, showing very little sensitivity to the needs and feelings of others. They are avoidant, evasive, dull, and detached. Additionally, Andrei represents some of the hypocrisy of the New Economic Policy in place at the time; here is a convinced communist who nonetheless is an enterprising self-made businessman.
Nikolai and Ivan represent the old way of doing things. They are individuals dominated by individualism, pride, envy, and emotion. They have dreams and feel cheated by the new system which rejects their thinking and way of life. They realize that their time is past and they are struggling to preserve their identity and dignity.
Nikolai is the “protagonist” right? We are supposed to support and sympathize with him…right? This book is meant to be a political satire that uncovers the problems of the Soviet system, yes? Why am I putting the word “protagonist” in quotation marks? Why am I questioning all of this? Theyy are clearly being antagonized by the new Communist way of life.
But I really am not sure if Nikolai is actually a “protagonist.” Sure he has struggles and goals, but I am not sure I really empathize with him. By extension, I am not sure if I really accept Envy as a condemnation of the new Soviet lifestyle. Kavalerov rejects the Soviet system and lets his enormous contempt towards it show, but his own way of doing things is just as unacceptable. Kavalerov is highly contemptible. He is an ungrateful and depraved alcoholic whose pride and feelings of inadequacy drive him to horrific lows such as planning murders and beating women. He is a man utterly consumed by envy of the successful Soviet men around him. Much of the story deals with Kavalerov coming to grips with him envy. Part I is about revelation, while part II deals with the refinement of his feelings and revenge. He hates all of the phonies and empty-headed men who claim to be Soviet citizens. Phonies…now where have I heard that before? Oh yeah…
You know how I mentioned Gatsby earlier? Well forget that…The closest thing to Envy is Catcher in the Rye.
Nikolai Kavalerov is a Russian Holden Caulfield. He is young, listless, and boiling over with angst and hatred. Sure he represents human frailty and emotions and individuality, but he just makes us look bad and complains when he has no right to.
So the characters who represent the old order are unlikable…Is this book then a celebration of the new Soviet way of life? Nope. Babichev and Volodya are also exceedingly unlikable. Babichev sings on the toilet and is absurdly selfish and disrespectful, ultimately caring more about ideals than people. Volodya is ok although he would sooner call the militsiya on you than actually have an uncomfortable conversation. The Soviet men just feel like pieces of cardboard and have no sense of romance or affability. Babichev places so much faith in the inevitability of Communism that he gives up on much of his humanity.
Valya may be the critical character here since she is the only dynamic one. While we don’t see her transformation, we at least know that she started off as the emotional sort and gradually drifted away from Ivan towards Andrei. She is still conflicted though, and she feels pulled between Ivan’s individualism and Andrei’s Communist ideals. Olesha does not really grant much time to Valya though, so we really do not see the battle between old and new playing out in her head. By the end of the book though it is clear that she had accepted the new way of life and has rejected both Ivan and Nikolai. I think Valya represents the common person trapped in between the great forces of social change, struggling to determine which side will win. Valya’s arc may also be commentary on the importance of women to social change; perhaps it is women who are the gatekeepers of social change. It was women who overthrow the Tsarist regime in 1917, and it was women who completed the revolution by accepting careers. Men like Andrei may have made the transition easier by using the mass industrialization of food to free women from domestic drudgery, but I digress.
Having slept on it, I can honestly say that I sympathize more with Ivan and Nikolai. I root for the old-fashioned men over the ideal new Soviet vision. Even if the former may be wretched and unlikable they at least have a soul, a personality that makes them approachable. Nikolai is a tragic hero. For the first half of the story he is excited to be growing up with the new Soviet age. For the second half he realizes that he is already an adult, having matured under the previous era, and is therefore an anachronism. He has no future, and he accepts this by living in the present.
If I had to comment on Olesha’s political beliefs I would have to label him as a conservative of the Burkean sort. As the forces of social change were beginning to slide downhill you would find Olesha at the top of hill looking down asking if jumping was really the right decision to make. Maybe he was too scared to jump, but that is fine! We’re cursed with emotions and maybe it is better to accept them and stay at the top than jump into oblivion on the promise of paradise. I need to read more of Olesha’s works to really judge him further, but I’m interested to see how he felt about the Stalin era. While his book functions well as a period piece I think it has a timeless message to offer about what makes us human and what is lost or gained when things change.
According to the omniscient god, Wikipedia, Envy was quite popular but faded out of the public spotlight until the 1950s. The idea that a satire of the Soviet system would be popular and accepted is surprising, but makes sense given how easy it is to hate the individualistic protagonist. The satire is very well hidden. I find it interesting that a book about emotions fell out of favor during the Stalin era (1927-53) only to re-emerge once the bouncy and surprisingly human Khrushchev took office. We shouldn’t dwell too much on this coincidence though…I don’t think that Envy disappeared due to any sort of counter-revolutionary content. Envy was likely forced under the rug due to its avant-garde style.
Stalinism brought about a transformation in the arts. The innovative work of artists like Malevich was shunned in favor of Socialist Realism, which called on art to depict the daily lives of individuals and celebrate the working man. It seems like Olesha enjoyed a fair relationship with the Kremlin (he died of natural causes after all) but undoubtedly he was limited in what he could do. I think this just makes his work richer: it is disagreement hidden beneath a veneer of acceptance.
Envy goes between first person stream of consciousness (not unlike that of Catcher in the Rye) and a more informal sort of story telling. While we usually see things from Nikolai’s eyes the book switches around. It is hard to tell where perspective lies at any given time, and due to the unreliability of some narrators we can’t be too sure of anything. Some things are purposefully left ambiguous. Overall the book is very difficult to comprehend, and I think it would take about 3 or 4 readings to truly grasp it. It’s less tangible than the writing of Gorky. Even then, I still think Envy’s style is, well, enviable. It grants the work a certain amount of levity. Like the characters who struggle with their emotions and their place in a changing world, the reader also experiences the same sort of disorientation and needs to wrestle with some uncomfortable concepts. Some of the jokes and content may be lost in translation, but overall I was able to comprehend enough to see the work for what it really was…I think?
This would be great book for a sadistic high school English class…Instead of spending hours pouring over Shakespeare looking for jokes students could try to find and understand the gags of Envy. -

Can a satirical novel from the early days of the Soviet Union speak to contemporary readers?  Will they even be able to make heads or tails of it?  Russian humor can be, well, different.
To be honest, I’m a little uncomfortable reading Russian literature these days.  The stuff I read is old stuff–pre-Soviet and early Soviet era literature and early science fiction genre stuff.  It’s almost always against the established order, at least partly.  But between what’s happening in the Ukraine and the wildly supported anti-gay legislation and the widespread anti-gay violence currently going on in Russia, I’m starting to feel uneasy reading the stuff.
But read it I do, ’cause I like it.
I liked Envy by Yuri Olesha.
In Olesha’s novel, Andre envy’s Nicolai.  One night, Nicolai finds Andre lying drunk his walk home.   He takes Andrei back to his apartment and gives him the couch. Andre basically moves in, sponging off of the much more successful Nicolai.  In spite of Nicolai’s generosity, Andrei dislikes the man, despising him more and more as he comes to know him.
Nicolai is a very successful mogul of a sort.  He is a model Soviet citizen, the head of food production and distribution for Moscow.  Nicolai is developing a mass produced sausage that will revolutionize food production bettering the lives of all people.  He is also building an enormous dining hall, one that will accommodate huge numbers of people at once, called Two Bits.   Andrei cannot understand how a sausage king can achieve the fame and glory Nicolai has.
The back and forth between the two makes up the novels comedy.  Andrei eventually forms an alliance with Nicolai’s less successful brother ‘who encourages him to kill Nicolai.  Andrei’s brother sees himself and Nicolai as part of an older generation, one that is losing out to the coming man represented by Andrei, a man who finds glory in developing a new kind of sausage.  He urges Nicolai:
“…make people talk about you, Kavalerov (Nicolai). It’s clear that everything is on its way to wrack and ruin, everything has been predetermined, there’s no escape–you’re going to perish, fat-nose! Every minute the humiliations are going to multiply, every day your enemy is going to flourish like a pampered youth.  We’re going to perish. That’s clear. So dress up your demise, dress it up in fireworks, tear the clothes off whoever is outshining you, say farewell in such a way that your ‘goodbye’ comes crashing down through the ages.”
One could publish this in the Soviet Union in 1927, but not after Stalin came to power.  The introduction informs us that while Olesha did not suffer under the Stalin the way so many other writers did, he never wrote another novel.  The satire of Envy wasn’t enough to get him in too deep, but it was enough to keep him from creating more.
I can’t help but wonder how many voices Putin will silence before he and his legions of followers are through. - james b chester

Image result for Yuri Olesha, The Three Fat Men,

Yuri Olesha, The Three Fat Men, Hesperus Press, 2011.
a summary of Three Fat Men
download it here

Boasting a veritable menagerie of characters, including dancing instructors, pies, and talking parrots, and written in the Franco-Italian storytelling tradition, The Three Fat Men is considered an absolute endorsement of the Communist regime. Revolution is brewing outside the palace walls, and the three fat men who rule the land with an iron fist are getting fatter as the news gets worse. Led by the tightrope walker Tibul, the revolutionary forces, made up of ordinary citizens and the palace guard, embark on a mission to rescue Prospero the gunsmith from his imprisonment in the tyrants’ zoo, and to save the life of brave young circus girl Suok, who has been unmasked from her disguise as the favorite doll of the childless men’s heir, Tutti.

“Yuri Olesha (1899-1960), a Soviet prose writer and playwright, is immensely popular with readers for his novel Envy, his short stories, plays and the famous book for children The Three Fat Men, which is really one of his masterpieces.” “Yuri Olesha’s book The Three Fat Men is fantastic, fabulous, abounding in extraordinary transformation and fascinating happenings.” -- Literaturnaya Gazeta

"There was something Beethovenian in Yuri Olesha, even in his voice. His eyes discovered many marvelous, impressive things around him, and he wrote about them briefly, precisely, and excellently."  —Konstantin Paustovsky

"One of the finest, most overlooked works of Soviet era literature. At once a peculiarly hilarious satire full of magic and whimsy, it is also a beautifully written work of literature, brimming with profound metaphors and brilliant turns of phrase. Aplin has done a masterful job with the translation, capturing all of Olesha’s wit and whimsy, while dulling none of his satirical barbs."  —Russian Life
Image result for Yuri Olesha, The Wayward Comrade and the Commissars,
Yuri Olesha, The Wayward Comrade and the Commissars, New American Library, 1960.