Authors: Yury Olesha

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Russian novelist, short-story writer, and playwright

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Zavist’, 1927 (Envy, 1936)

Tri tolstyaka, 1928 (The Three Fat Men, 1964)

Short Fiction:

Lyubov, 1929

Vishnevaya kostochka, 1931

The Wayward Comrade and the Commissars, 1960

Love, and Other Stories, 1967

The Complete Short Stories and “The Three Fat Men,” 1979

Drama:

Zagovor chuvstv, pr., pb. 1929 (The Conspiracy of Feelings, 1932)

Tri tolstyaka, pr., pb. 1930 (The Three Fat Men, 1983)

Spisok blagodeyaniy, pr., pb. 1931 (A List of Assets, 1960; also known as A List of Blessings, 1983)

Strogiy yunosha, pr., pb. 1934 (A Stern Young Man, 1983)

The Complete Plays, pb. 1983

Screenplays:

Bolotnye soldaty, 1938

Strogiy yunosha, 1942 (adaptation of his play)

Poetry:

Zubilo, 1924

Salyut, 1927

Nonfiction:

Ni dnya bez strochki, 1965 (memoir; No Day Without a Line, 1979)

Biography

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.{$I[AN]9810000880}{$I[A]Olesha, Yury}{$I[geo]RUSSIA;Olesha, Yury}{$I[tim]1899;Olesha, Yury}

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 immediately perceived as signifying the arrival of a major new talent. The few years from the mid-1920’s to the beginning of the 1930’s marked the height of Olesha’s literary endeavors. Of the approximately thirty stories he wrote after becoming a mature writer, about half–including nearly all of those that continue to receive critical attention–belong to this period. He wrote plays based on both Envy (retitling it The Conspiracy of Feelings) and The Three Fat Men. In 1931 he composed his one original, full-length work for the stage, A List of Assets, but soon his writing slowed noticeably, and by the mid-1930’s his career was in a steep decline.

Nikolai Kavalerov, one of the main figures in Envy, is a young man with a romantic outlook who finds himself left behind by the new society that has been established after the revolution. In an era when the Soviet state mandated that literature and the arts demonstrate the virtues of communism–an official policy that came to be called Soviet Realism–Soviet critics looked askance at any work that questioned, even obliquely, the new regime. Although Kavalerov and his ally, Ivan Babichev, suffer defeat at the end of the novel, many Soviet critics believed that Olesha was too sympathetic to the past and gave the novel mixed reviews. Whenever Olesha attempts to show what he imagined to be the ideal figures of the postrevolutionary era–Volodya Makarov in Envy and Grisha Fokin in his screenplay Strogiy yunosha (a strict youth)–the characters appear narrow and wooden. In several of his short stories he does manage to combine the old and the new within a single person, but even then his efforts seem somewhat forced. In a speech to the first Congress of the Union of Soviet Writers in 1934 he admitted that he had, in fact, shared Kavalerov’s view of the world and had been taken aback by the attacks on his character. Olesha went on to promise that he would try to portray the new society, but he remarked that he did not really understand those who were now regarded as heroic workers by the regime.

After this speech he produced only a few stories and film scripts. During World War II he was evacuated to Ashkhabad, in Turkmenistan, where he worked in press and radio. By the time he returned to Moscow after the war, he was virtually a forgotten figure. His name began to appear again during the more liberal years of Nikita Khrushchev’s leadership, and he continued work on the story of his life, No Day Without a Line. This fragmentary work, part autobiography, part memoir, and part essay, was left unfinished when he died from a sudden heart attack in 1960; an edited version was published five years later.

Olesha’s main achievement, which can be seen most clearly in Envy, lies in the exuberance and imaginativeness of his writing. When Kavalerov narrates the first part of Envy he invents entire speeches by other figures, capturing the essence of their personalities in his flights of fancy. His way of looking at the world is that of a child; he sees everything as though it were for the first time. He remarks on how paving stones appear to be various colors when they glisten after a rain and on how the rules of geometry seem to be broken when a street scene is observed through a mirror. The story “Liompa,” one of Olesha’s finest, describes how a young boy is becoming acquainted with the world of things just as things are disappearing from the world of an old man who is dying. The unusual and contrasting visions, one of discovery and one of loss, create a heightened awareness of even the most ordinary of objects.

Olesha, like his heroes, found that his wondrous imagination was not always adequate to the demands of the real world. If his own statements can be believed, Olesha wanted to be a part of the new Soviet society but believed that he did not quite belong, hence, the slight output during the final quarter century of his life after his brilliant debut. Nevertheless, the achievements of those first years retain their importance and their freshness for subsequent generations.

BibliographyBarratt, Andrew. Yurii Olesha’s “Envy.” Birmingham, England: University of Birmingham, 1981. Focuses on Olesha’s masterpiece.Beaujour, Elizabeth K. The Invisible Land: A Study of the Artistic Imagination of Iurii Olesha. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970. A book-length study.Cornwell, Neil. “The Principle of Distortion in Olesha’s Envy.” Essays in Poetics 5, no. 1 (1980). Analyzes the technical aspects of Olesha’s creation of satire.Green, Michael, and Jerome Katsell. “Olesha and the Theater.” In Yury Olesha: The Complete Plays. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1983. A succinct overview of Olesha’s plays and of his career as a writer, paying special attention to how he converted his fiction into plays.Harkins, William E. “No Day Without a Line: The World of Iurii Olesha.” In Russian Literature and American Critics, edited by Kenneth N. Brostrom. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984. Discusses Olesha’s satirical worldview.Peppard, Victor. The Poetics of Yury Olesha. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1989. Analyzes Olesha’s literary language.Rudnitsky, Konstantin. Meyerhold the Director. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1981. An authoritative study of Meyerhold’s work as a director, touching on his dealings with Olesha in staging his plays. Serves as a history of the Russian theater in the first half of the twentieth century, in which Olesha played a brief but important role.Salys, Rimgaila, ed. Olesha’s Envy: A Critical Companion. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1999. A collection of essays that offer a helpful guide to Olesha’s novel.Tucker, Janet G. Revolution Betrayed: Jurij Olesha’s “Envy.” Columbus, Ohio: Slavica, 1996. Examines political and social issues present in Envy and The Conspiracy of Feelings, focusing on the role of intellectuals and literature in relation to the revolution and ensuing Soviet system.
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