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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A small gem from a Russian writer, Envy was published when literary expression earned the writer government censorship or death
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...
Published on November 8, 2006 by T. M. Teale

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21 of 28 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Dostoevsky? You must be joking!
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...
Published on June 6, 2008 by amgh


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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A small gem from a Russian writer, Envy was published when literary expression earned the writer government censorship or death, November 8, 2006
By 
T. M. Teale (Colorado Springs, CO, USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Envy (New York Review Books Classics) (Paperback)
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.
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21 of 28 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Dostoevsky? You must be joking!, June 6, 2008
By 
amgh "amgh" (New York, NY United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Envy (New York Review Books Classics) (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)
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A quick and fantastic snapshot of Soviet history, January 24, 2009
This review is from: Envy (New York Review Books Classics) (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.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unknown piece of genius writing, December 16, 1999
By A Customer
This review is from: Envy (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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Satire isn't enough, August 27, 2012
By 
las cosas (Ajijic-San Francisco) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Envy (New York Review Books Classics) (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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A knowledge of European history is necessary if you are to appreciate this novel, October 30, 2009
This review is from: Envy (Paperback)
To understand this novel, it is necessary to have some knowledge of history. It was written in 1927 in the Soviet Union, at a time when much of the violence and upheaval of the revolution has subsided and before Stalin raised his mighty and ruthless hands. Europe was still in a state of great political and economic turmoil, although the German hyperinflation was over, it was a time of great uncertainty throughout the entire European continent. Fascism had risen to power in Italy in the form of Mussolini and was beginning to grow in strength and appeal elsewhere.
Given the time of interlude in the Soviet Union, there is no glorification of the state and communist party, the main character Kavalerov is a shiftless sort, he is picked up by Soviet bureaucrat Andrei Babichev when he is lying down drunk. Allowed to sleep on the sofa, he is taking the place of a previous man that was also accepted by Babichev. There is a great deal of tension between Andrei and his brother Ivan, a man that claims to have invented a machine that will restore the glory of human feelings. None of the characters have personalities that are appealing; there is little of the purest of human feelings here, as envy and jealousy dominate the more pleasant emotions.
The reader of Dostoevsky will recognize the similarities to this work; furthermore it is also similar to some of the darker literature that came out of central Europe during this uncertain and somewhat lethargic period. Nine years was not enough to erase the stain of the First World War and the subsequent political and economic upheavals led to a period of time when the mood was one of general uncertainty. This is reflected in this work, where the people don't seem to aspire to greatness, they live their lives and focus more on what others do to them. Or what others have that they do not. There is no happy ending, the story just ends.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not up to the "Master and Margarita" but what is?, May 13, 2008
By 
Diego Banducci (San Francisco, CA United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Envy (New York Review Books Classics) (Paperback)
A contemporary and associate of Bulgakov. Isaac Babel, Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov, Yuri Olesha wrote "Envy" in 1927. The Russian authors of that era were attempting to come to terms with increasing government censorship and pressure to write within the confines of "socialist realism," initially moving, as here, in the direction of satire and literary adventure. Intially approved by the government, "Envy" soon made its way to the ever-expanding banned books list and Olesha's career as a serious writer was over. He died in 1960.

Given that historical background, "Envy" is most likely to be of interest to students of early 20th century Russian history and literature. The casual, non-Russian-speaking reader is likely to find it neither enjoyable nor, in many places intelligible.

That person, and I am one, would be better off reading Bulgakov's masterpiece The Master and Margarita.

Some mention should be made of the quality of the bookbinding and printing of "Envy," both of which are excellent. The book is a pleasure to hold in the hand and read.
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7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not to be overlooked, February 19, 2004
This review is from: Envy (Paperback)
Olesha is on par with Gogol, Dostoevsky, Voinovitch or Bulgakov, but he never gets treated that way. The first part of this is brilliant. Possibly meant to be a condemnation of Kavalerov, instead this wicked, jealous, indecent, and meek man is real and quite sympathetic.
The second part is not nearly as good, but still worth it. Some argue that this was pro-Soviet, some anti-Soviet, I think it's somewhere in the middle: an ingenious juxtaposition that forces one to reflect on life and the nature of consciousness, be it a burden or not.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Great novel, but be careful about the translation, August 17, 2014
This review is from: Envy (New York Review Books Classics) (Paperback)
Olesha's Envy is a brilliant and unusual Russian novel. The other reviews give a pretty good idea of its bizarre flavor, but the translations are all flavored rather differently. If you pick one that doesn't have the right ring for you, Envy will seem nonsensical and/or irritating. So here is an early passage in Envy as four translators rendered it in English, in my order of preference. My favorite is Clarence Brown, who seems to capture the more figurative aspects of the description best. I would only recommend against Schwartz's translation, which makes the mistake of comparing the man's groin to the groin of a *female* antelope. (The Russian is антилопы-самца, literally "male antelope.") Olesha is weird, but not nonsensical. The other three translations seem reasonably trustworthy to me.

CLARENCE BROWN in The Portable Twentieth-Century Russian Reader (Penguin Classics)
He usually does his exercises not in his own bedroom but in the room of uncertain function where I live. There's more space and air here, more light, more sunshine. Coolness pours in through the open door of the balcony. Besides, there's a washbasin here. The bath mat is brought in from his bedroom. He arrives naked to the waist, in his homespun drawers, which are fastened by one button in the middle of his stomach. The rose and blue world of the room whirls in the mother-of-pearl lens of this button. When he lies on his back on the bath mat and starts raising his legs one after the other, the button gives up. His groin lies bare. His magnificent groin. His tender macule. His private nook. The groin of a progenitor. I once saw the same sort of groin, suede and matte, on a male antelope. One glance from him must be enough to spark the amorous currents flowing through the girls who work for him, his secretaries and shop girls.

T.S. BERCZYNSKI Envy
Usually he indulges in gymnastics, not in his own bedroom, but in that room of unprescribed purpose where I am kept. Here it's roomier, airier; there's more light, more radiance. In through the open balcony door pours coolness. Besides this, here there's a sink. The mat is moved in from the bedroom. He's stripped to the waist, wearing knit longies fastened by a single button in the middle of his belly. The azure and rose-colored world of the room revolves in the mother-of-pearl objective of the button. When he lays his back on the mat and begins to raise his legs in turn, the button can't bear it. The groin is unveiled. His groin is grand. The tender spot. The forbidden corner. The groin of a production man. It's the same such groin of suede dullness I saw on a buck antelope. The girls, his secretaries and clerks, would certainly be penetrated by love currents from just one glimpse of it.

ANDREW R. MACANDREW Envy and Other Works (Anchor Books, A571)
Usually he does his gymnastics, not in his own bedroom, but in the room of undefined purpose that I occupy. It is roomier here, airier; there's more light, more radiance. Coolness pours in through the open door of the balcony. Moreover, this is where the washstand is. He brings a mat from the bedroom. He is stripped except for jersey drawers, done up by a single button in the middle of his stomach, a mother-of-pearl one in which the pale blue and pink world of the room spins around. When he lies on his back on the mat, raising first one leg then the other, the button comes undone. His groin is exposed. A splendid groin. A tender spot. A forbidden corner. The groin of a production manager. I saw just such a velvety groin on a buck antelope once. Amorous currents must course through his young secretaries and office girls at his mere glance.

MARIAN SCHWARTZ Envy (New York Review Books Classics)
Usually he does his calisthenics not in his own bedroom but in the room with no specific purpose, the one where I'm staying. It's bigger and breezier, there's more light, more shine. Cool air pours in through the open balcony door. Not only that, there's a washstand here. The mat gets moved in from the bedroom. He's stripped to the waist, wearing knit drawers fastened by a single button in the middle of his belly. The room's blue-and-pink world revolves in the button's pearly lens. When he lies down on the mat on his back and starts lifting his legs in alteration, the button can't take it. His groin is exposed. His groin is magnificent. A tender scorch mark. A forbidden nook. The groin of a Producer. I saw a groin of the exact same sueded matteness on a bitch antelope. One look from him and his girls, his secretaries and shopgirls, must get love shocks.
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4.0 out of 5 stars I don't envy him., May 10, 2008
By 
Wordsworth (Greenwich, CT) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Envy (New York Review Books Classics) (Paperback)
Lately, I have found myself on a bit of a reading jag with the Russian literary novelists who were effectively repressed and, thus, went sadly unread during their lifetimes. There is a strange kind of bitter sweetness to the writing as well as power, wit, satire and illumination with a markedly Soviet flare. Because Soviet censorship and cultural repression were ultimately death knells to Russian writers, you have to admire their persistance amid the hopelessness of their culture for their publication. They wrote neither for money nor fame, like American commercial novelists: these Russians wrote because they were driven within their souls to write. These Russians are writers' writers: they never sold out to their cultures and, in fact, suffered immensely because of their opposition to it. The eponymous theme of this novel places at odds an inventor and a bevy of commonplace individuals -- the classic bourgeois versus the proletariat of the Russian class system: serfs versus masters. The inventor is what Nietzsche would call a "Higher Man" and the peasants suffer from "resentiment" as Nietzsche described the envy of the lower classes in "The Will to Power." If you were a higher man, this emotion was expected to be displayed against you by the less powerful who would seek to bring you down to their level. Marx, Lenin and Stalin were all classic Nietzschean higher men. I had a bit of a hard time becoming transported or immersed or even connecting with the characters of this tale and don't really understand the very high marks others seem to give Olesha, who doesn't really compare as well to Lermontov, Bulgakov, Pushkin, Platonov or Zamyatin, for example. Without giving away the ending, let me just say that I was indifferent to it. But in a way the denouement represents a kind of superior Russian realism of the sort Olesha may have wanted to project in Envy. The novel left me flat in the same way that Disgrace and Atonement did: maybe it's just the vapid theme that went wanting in this novel for me. By all means read the Russians but I would seek out the others first and perhaps circle back to Olesha.
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Envy (New York Review Books Classics)
Envy (New York Review Books Classics) by Iurri Karlovich Olesha (Paperback - May 31, 2004)
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