August 23, 2004 by AK
Yuri Olesha’s Envy re-appears in a new NYRB translation. To read the reviewers, you risk choking on laughter reading this short 1927 novel:
NYRB: “cutting social satire, slapstick humor, and a wild visionary streak… Olesha’s anarchic comedy.”
The Stranger (Yuri Olesha Is Back, and Only Slightly Less Funny): “one of the funniest books of the 20th century.”
The Nation: “satirizing the early Soviet desire to revolutionize all areas of life…”
From Anglophone reviews of Soviet-era masterpieces, one might imagine most of the good literature produced in Soviet Russia was either satire or some kind of “fun.” Envy is an excellent tale by all measures. Olesha rewrote its first page two hundren times–and not in vain. The great collector of metaphors succeeded in putting together a story that only the coldest hearts–or minds deluded by losses in translation–would dare call “funny.”
At most, it’s “tragicomedy” on the tears-to-laughter scale. It’s a tale of, well, envy, and defeat, and surrender, demise pending; the Nation reviewer got it right once: “the impotent sting of the emotion,” and the early Soviet dissident Arkady Belinkov titled his book on Olesha, The Surrender and Demise of a Soviet Intellectual.
The envy of a man whose heart belongs in the bygone, imperfect, sweet age, for the brave new world with its perfect bodies and industrial lustre–a world he admires but can’t bring himself to love.
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