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Envy (New York Review Books Classics) Paperback – 3 Jan 2004

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Product details

  • Paperback: 178 pages
  • Publisher: NYRB Classics; Reprint edition (3 Jan. 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1590170865
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590170861
  • Product Dimensions: 12.7 x 1 x 20.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 273,872 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


‘Olesha, as the brilliance of his prose demonstrates, is a tantalising nearly man of Russian letters’ -- The 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 Envy in 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.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Andrew Smith on 1 Mar. 2011
Format: Paperback
While perhaps not to everyone's taste, this book is a nuanced and detailed exploration of what it means to be an existential malcontent. Bad characters tend to be bad, good characters good, but in envy it is made clear that for those with clarity of vision but few achievements the burden of being good may be considered unreasonably heavy. Thought provoking if nothing else, a challenge to settled assumptions both Soviet and modern.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Jane Edwards on 12 Dec. 2014
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Great item
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1 of 13 people found the following review helpful By demola on 30 Mar. 2009
Format: Paperback
An older man literally picks up a young man from the street and lets him stay at his place. The older man is a model apparatchik and the story revolves around the younger man's envy of both the older man's success and another young rival picked up in some other fashion. Your mind runs to why this man likes to pick up young men but this is not a gay story. But then who would be mad to publish one in Stalin's Russia. Maybe I'm reading too much into this.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 13 reviews
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
A small gem from a Russian writer, Envy was published when literary expression earned the writer government censorship or death 9 Nov. 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.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
A quick and fantastic snapshot of Soviet history 25 Jan. 2009
By JohnVidale - 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.
24 of 32 people found the following review helpful
Dostoevsky? You must be joking! 6 Jun. 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)
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Satire isn't enough 27 Aug. 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.
11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Unknown piece of genius writing 16 Dec. 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.
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