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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Yuri Olesha

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To purchase Envy

Title: Envy
Author: Yuri Olesha
Genre: Novel
Written: 1927 (Eng. 2004)
Length: 156 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: Envy - US
Envy - UK
Envy - Canada
L'Envie - France
  • Russian title: Зависть
  • The translator of this (New York Review Books, 2004) edition is Marian Schwartz
  • With an Introduction by Ken Kalfus
  • Previous translations of Envy include those by Anthony Wolfe (1936), P. Ross (1947), Andrew R. MacAndrew (1967), T.S. Berczynski (1975), Clarence Brown, and J.C.Butler

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Our Assessment:

B : amusing but unpolished

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Rev. of Books . 28/3/1968 Helen Muchnic
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Summer/2005 Philip Landon
The Spectator . 13/11/2004 Francis King
TLS . 3/12/2004 Oliver Ready

  From the Reviews:
  • "Kavalerov, the jaundiced narrator, finds the regime and its activities monstrous (.....) Yet Kavalerov is himself an object of satire: like Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, he seems in danger of choking on his own spleen. This odd little book weighs collective ideology against individualism, caricaturing both." - Philip Landon, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "An unlikely blend of Modernist experiment and Dostoevskian masochism, Envy (1927) remains most notable for the sharpness of its prose and the charm of its far-fetched similes. (...) Overall, it seems more profitable to read Envy not as a straight reflection of the Romantic confrontation of artist and society, but as the deformation of this conflict on Russian soil and its elision with a more general struggle: can any kind of selfhood or "personality" (a key word in the novel) be constructed by the Russian writer that would not be determined by the corrosive polarities of vanity and self-abasement, tyranny and humiliation, martyrdom and self-absorption ?" - Oliver Ready, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Envy is a short novel divided into two parts. The first is narrated by Nikolai Kavalerov. Andrei Babichev found him drunk and took him in, letting him move in and sleep on his sofa (these were Soviet times when such living conditions weren't unusual) -- taking the place of soccer player Volodya Makarov (though only for the time being). He also takes him on as a flunky. Kavalerov is grateful, but it's an antagonistic relationship, coloured by Kavalerov's envy.
       The second part, narrated in the third person, recounts the time after Kavalerov has broken with Andrei and moved out -- with Andrei's brother, Ivan, coming into the picture.
       Kavalerov is the sort of person who can't understand why the world doesn't recognise his genius; what he wants, above all else, is fame -- though other than grousing, he doesn't do much to justify anyone paying him the slightest bit of attention. He's not particularly capable, but chooses to see the problem as the world (especially the Soviet one he lives in) making it near impossible for his talents to be realised and recognised. Worse yet, the busy Andrei seems to get and do everything he wants.
       Kavalerov naturally always blames everyone (and everything) else for his failures -- and this is where much of the fun of the novel is to be found:

Things don't like me. Furniture purposely sticks out its leg for me. A polished corner once literally bit me. My blanket and I have always had a complicated relationship.
       Meanwhile, Andrei is being praised left and right for his new sausage-making project, which looks to be a grand success. Kavalerov is baffled:
Why wasn't I infatuated ? Why wasn't I smiling and bowing at the sight of this glory ? I was filled with spite. He, the ruler, the Communist, was building a new world. And in this new world, glory was sparked because a new kind of sausage had come from the sausage-makers hands. I didn't understand this glory.
       Nevertheless, he does bask some in Andrei's glory and favour (while Andrei, for the most part, benignly ignores him -- and certainly all his babbling).
       When Andrei's brother Ivan returns to the scene, things get more complicated. Supposedly an engineer, but in fact a fabulist, he is not quite the antithesis of Andrei, but there is a good deal of family-tension. He's also a more successful antagonist than Kavalerov. (Still, it makes for an odd shift in the novel; complaining Kavalerov still figures, but is again -- though differently -- in a secondary role.)
       Envy is quite enjoyable, though the odd detail (and some nice rants) please more than the relatively unstructured larger narrative. It's a more 'literary' text than many from the same Soviet period, but has too much of a rough edge to fully convince as either satire or a picture of the times; in many ways it feels like the outline of a larger project.

       Note also that there may be translation issues with this edition of this oft-translated title: Marian Schwartz's 2004 NYRB edition (on which this review is also based) is now the most readily accessible version, but Oliver Ready was damning in his TLS review (3 December 2004):
Envy ought to be a translator's delight. (...) Marian Schwartz, however, has made Yuri Olesha strange in a way no theorist could approve. Here, anything can happen between languages: a leg becomes a head; elementary verb forms and case endings are repeatedly ignored; a crucial recurring statement is first botched and later corrected. The inaccuracies are staggering. (...)

If only Schwartz had consulted the six previous translations. If only the publishers had chosen any one of them, preferably Brown's, for their doomed but handsome edition

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Envy: Reviews: Yuri Olesha: Other books by Yuri Olesha under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Soviet author Yuri Olesha (Юрий Карлович Олеша) lived 1899 to 1960.

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© 2006-2023 the complete review

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