Russians in July: Yuri Olesha’s Envy

Yuri Olesha seems to have liked living and writing dangerously. This slim satirical novel Envy was published in 1927, just as the Stalinist purges were starting in earnest. Yet he was also born lucky: the satire was interpreted as being at the expense of the bourgeoisie or the parasitic influences in the ideal Soviet society, so he mostly escaped persecution, unlike many of his contemporaries (Zamyatin, Bulgakov, fellow Odessan Isaac Babel).

Andrei appears to be the model Soviet citizen: a party member and trade director of the Food Industry Trust, who seems to have dedicated his life to feeding the Soviet people (35 kopek sausages and communal dining halls, so no one needs to cook at home). He is rather rotund, naive, easy-going, essentially good-natured. He rescues the narrator (of the first part of the novel), Nikolai Kavalerov, who was lying drunk and homeless on the streets, and gives him shelter in exchange for some light editing chores. But Kavalerov is not grateful: instead, he spitefully observes and reports back to us the reader all of the gross personal habits of his benefactor, and mocks his idealism and ability to get excited over the silliest, most trivial of things.

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-maker’s hands. I didn’t understand this glory. What did it mean? Biographies, monumnets, history had never told me of glory like this… Did this mean the nature of glory had changed?

Kavalerov is filled with even more hatred for Andrei when he discovers that he is not the first ‘rescue project’. Before he came along, Andrei had for many years been harbouring Volodya Makarov, a young football player, in his home. And should Volodya ever return, then Andrei cheerfully admits that Kavalerov would have to free up the space for him. Suddenly, the younger man realises that he is the perpetual outsider. His thoughts could be interpreted as dripping in self-pity, but they show a man who cannot adapt (or perhaps doesn’t want to) to a society that feels alien to him. The author uses to great effect the ‘wooden language’ of Communist propaganda.

… it suddenly became very clear to me how much I didn’t belong with these people who had been called together on this great and important occasion, the utter irrelevance of my presence amongst them… I have neither hard labour nor a revolutionary past behind me…

Many of the angriest, most over-the-top scenes don’t actually occur in real life, they all take place in Kavalerov’s twisted imagination. He is the nihilist who cannot bear the optimism that is being forced on people in the Soviet system. Then he meets the counterpoint to Andrei: Ivan, the poet and dreamer, who lacks any sense of reality or pragmatism, and who happens to be Andrei’s brother, jealous of his success but not really wanting to adapt to the new world. Ivan too lives with one foot in the past, ‘the dwindling era’. And the author clearly notices and makes fun of the flaws of both the capitalist and communist system.

Author photo.

The story appears to be simple, but is embroidered with flights of fantasy, slapstick farce, unreliable narrators and characters who are prone to sudden rants. First person POV becomes a dubious sort of third person (albeit with long monologues which turn it into first person). The casual (and often hilarious) juxtaposition of sordid realism and flights of fancy, of real and imagined conversations, the tangential connections between episodes reminded me of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.

It’s short, sharp, completely barmy. The best description of the effect the book had on me is in the book itself, when Kavalerov talks about the optical illusions created by street mirrors (are they really a thing?).

You don’t know which way is up, as the saying goes. So suddenly have the rules been broken, so incredibly have the proportions changed. But you rejoice in your dizziness…

I read the NYRB edition of this book, in a new translation by Marian Schwartz and introduced by Ken Kalfus.