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Envy (New York Review Books Classics) Paperback – May 31, 2004

4.2 out of 5 stars 12 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Review

“In his best novel, all wry humor and narrowed eyes, Olesha presents two sides of the same coin: a self-satisfied sausage king and a drunken failure the former picks up in the street. Poetic and satiric and quite an achievement, it is a novel everyone should read.” —Flavorwire

Olesha wrote only one novel, Envy. The book was published in 1927, 10 years after the Bolshevik Revolution and a few years before the net of socialist realism fell on Russian writers….The narrative is driven by the narrator’s bitter, poetic commentary on the world. The characters represent, loosely, aspects of the new Soviet ethos. Vladimir Nabokov had a low opinion of almost everything produced in Russia after his departure, but he admired Olesha’s writing.
— Columbus Dispatch

In his best fiction, the short novel Envy, Olesha writes about the clash of two worlds, but with a wry, half-defeated yet touchingly affectionate irony that seems entirely his own.
— Irving Howe, Harper’s

Olesha’s stories are supreme and timeless cinema. To read his triumphant short novel Envy is to see it, to find the pages transformed into a screen on which to behold man’s heroic confrontation with the monsters of his own creation…Every page of Olesha demands to be read and seen again.
— The New York Times

Language Notes

Text: English, Russian (translation) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Series: New York Review Books Classics
  • Paperback: 178 pages
  • Publisher: NYRB Classics; Reprint edition (May 31, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1590170865
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590170861
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.4 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #434,721 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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