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Yury (Karlovich) Olesha (1899 - 1960) - also: Iurii Karlovich Olesha - born Feb. 19 (March 3, New Style), 1899 - died May 10, 1960

 

Writer, journalist, and playwright, whose best-known novel, Zavist' (1927, Envy) painted a prophetic picture of the clashing values in the early years of the Soviet Russia. Writing in expressionistc style, Olesha's work differed radically from the school of the Socialist Realism. When the authorities realized that Olesha was more ambiguous than was permissible, he fell from favor. After Stalin's death, Olesha was rehabilitated.
-"How sweet is my life ... ta-rá! ta-rá ... my bowels are flexing ... rá-ta-tá-ta-ra-rí ... the juices are flowing just right, straight through ... ra-tí-ta-doo-da-tá ... squeeze, bowels, squeeze ... tram-ba-ba-boom!" (in Envy)

Yury Olesha was born in Elizavetgrad, Ukraine, into a middle-class family. His father, Karl Antonovich, was an excise officer, an impoverished member of the gentry. In 1902 the family moved to the cosmopolitan port of Odessa, where Karl Antonovich was employed as as a tax inspector in a vodka distillery. According to Olesha, he should have avoided drinking himself: "... I do remember an episode when he put me on a windowsill and aimed a revolver at me. He was drunk, and Mama fell down on her knees, pleading with him to 'stop that.'" His early education Olesha received at home, where his Polish grandmother taught him Russian and mathematics. His contemporaries have recalled that he always spoke Russian with an imperceptile Lithuanian accent. In 1908 Olesha entered Rishelevskii gymnasium, graduating in 1917 with a gold medal in language and literature. He then studied law for two years at Novorossiikii University, Odessa.

Olesha began to write verse under the influence of Alexander Blok and Igor Severyanin. His ballad called 'Clarimonda' appeared in the newspaper The Southern Herald. In Odessa he participated in the activities of the Green Lamp, a literary discussion group, and the politically engaged literary circle, the Poets Collective, whose members also included Ilya Ilf. With Valentin Kataev he was inseparable. Kataev portrayed later his bohemian friend in My Diamond Wreath (1978).

Olesha's sister Wanda died of typhoid in 1919, at the height of civil strife in Ukraine. Rejecting his parents' monarchist sympathies, Olesha joined the Red Army for a year, serving as a telephonist in a Black Sea naval artillery battery. While working as a propagandist at the Bureau of Ukrainian Publications in Kharkov, he published his first story in the Kharkov newspaper Proletarian.

In 1922 Olesha went to Moscow, where he was employed by the railway journal Gudok, which had such writers as Isaak Babel, and Ilf and Petrov. "... my job consisted of stuffing envelopes with letters written by the section head to the various addresses of the worker correspondents," he later recalled. Olesha soon became a leading member of the editorial staff. His columns he published under the pseudonym of Zubilo (the Chisel). However, finding it difficult to adjust himself to boring routines, Olesha spent more time writing in restaurants than in his office. One of his favorite places was  a Georgian restaurant on Tverskoi Bulevard, opposite the Telegraph Building.  

In the 1920s Olesha published satirical verses, which became very popular, and sharp, critical articles. He stressed the freedom of expression, saying "The invisible realm is the adobe of attention and imagination. In it the wayfarer is not alone; two sisters walk at his side, leading him by the hand; they are Attention and Imagination."

Olesha's famous novel Envy appeared ten years after the Revolution and created an sensation. This ambiguous work was first printed in the literary magazine Red Virgin Soil in 1927. It tells the story of a Nikolai Kavalerov and two brothers, Andrei and Ivan Babichev. Andrei, who represents the rising generation, is a hero of the Revolution, the trade director of the Food Industry Trust, and an inventor of a sausage machine. Kavalevov, who  longs for personal fame, envies his success. He allies with Ivan, a romantic dreamer and opponent of the new age, against Andrei. When their plans fail, they take refuge in a boarding house run by a fat widow. And as the narrator in Dostoevskii's novel Notes from Underground, Kavalerov is pushed to the margins of society. The stage adaptation of Envy was entitled A Conspiracy of Feelings (1929). In the original ending Kavalevov lapses into a stupor and is denounced by Ivan as a worthless museum piece, "the man whose life was stolen away," but in the staged version, Kavalevov murders Ivan, instead of Andrei. It took still some time, before critics and party officials began to suspect, that Olesha had drawn a parallel between the automated sausage production and Communist ideals – whether it was the case or not.

Envy was followed by The Three Fat Men (1927), where the circus stars Tibul and Suok are leading the people to over throw repressive authorities. This widely popular novella was made into a play (1930), produced by Konstantin Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theater, a ballet (1935), an opera (1956), a radio drama, and it has been filmed several times.  Olesha's only original play, A List of Assets (1931) was staged by Vsevolod Meyerhold in Moscow.

A dawdler by nature and working in general very slowly, Olesha published little after the early 1930s. In 'The Cherry Stone,' which appeared in a collection of short stories in 1930, Olesha confessed his confusion: "Comrade driver, believe me, I am a mere amateur, and cannot tell you what turn to take." The central theme of the story was the conflict between artistic imagination, the world of metaphors, and everyday reality. Olesha translated Turkmen and Ukrainian authors and wrote film scenarios for such films as Bolotnye soldaty (1938, Swamp Soldiers), dealing with Nazi prison camps, Oshibka inzhenera Kochina (1939, Engineer Kochin's Mistake), directed by Aleksandr Macheret, and Malen'kii leitenant (1942, The Little Lieutenant).

Eventually Olesha withdrew from the public eye, though he defended the need for an independent literature and artistic autonomy before the First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934. Olesha  revealed the feelings he underwent as he found himself incapable of writing until he had "established a common ground" with the new Soviet man. Responding to accusations that the three most talented Soviet writers of the period, Babel, Olesha, and Pasternak, had been slow in producing new books, Ilya Ehrenburg said that a writer's output should not be judged by the standards applicable to construction work.

Following this famous speech his name gradually vanished  from the pantheon of Soviet literature for a period. The dominating aesthetic doctrine known as Socialist Realism was formulated more or less by Maxim Gorky, who was chosen chairman of the Writers' Union. Envy was condemned for its "reactionary" stylistic tendencies. At the peak of Stalin's purges in 1937 Olesha was accused of "antihumanism". Pasternak and Olesha were mentioned among those intellectuals who were allegedly plotting a political diversion.

During World War II Olesha was evacuated with the Odessa Film Studio to Ashkhabad in Turkmenistan. After the war he returned to Moscow, where he constantly moved with his wife from one small apartment to another. In 1954 they were given an apartment in the writer's building on Lavrushinsky Lane. Olesha's only noteworthy theatre piece during his later years was an adaptation of Dostoevskii's The Idiot for the Vakhtangov Theatre. Other works included a stage adaptation of Chekhov's 'Tsvety Zapozdalye' (1959), which was made into a movie in 1970, and a screenplay for a children's cartoon, entitled A Girl in the Circus. Olesha died of a heart attack on May 10, 1960.  He was married to Olga Gustavovna Suok. Their stepson Igor, committed suicide by jumping out of a window in front of both Olesha and Olga.

"Exploring the principles of composition and the struggle of the writer to find a place in the new society, Olesha's work powerfully dramatized the dilemma of the literary intelligentsia in a society that increasingly regarded creative independence with suspicion. If his work represents the epitome of fellow-traveller poetics, then his critical reception in Russia also reveals the attitude of officialdom towards those writers." (Craig Brandist in 'Iurii Karlovich Olesha, 1899-1960', Russian Literature, ed.  Neil Cornwell, 1998)

The publication of a selection of his stories, Izbrannye sochineniia, signaled Olesha's rehabilitation in 1956, three years after Joseph Stalin's death. Posthumously came out the  autobiographical Ni dnia bez strochki: Iz zapisnykh knizhek (1965, No Day Without a Line), a collection of fragments in more or less thematic order, dealing with such subjects as "the family," "Richelieu Gymnasium," "the circus," "Odessa," and "literary figures," and so on.  "There was something Beethovesque about Yuri Olesha, something mighty, even in his voice," said the writer Konstantin Paustovsky. "His eyes spotted many marvellous things around him, and he wrote about them tersely, precisely, and well."

For further reading: The Invisible Land by Elisabeth Klosty Beaujour (1970); Masterstvo Iuriia Oleshi by M.O. Chudakova (1972); Sdacha; gibel' sovetskogo intelligenta. Iurii Olesha by Arkadii Belinkov (1976); The Invisible Land: A Study of the Artistic Imagination of Iurii Olesha by Elizabeth Klosty Beaujour (1979); Yurii Olesha's 'Envy' by Andrew Barrat (1981); The Artist and the Creative Act by Kazimiera Ingdahl (1984); The Poetics of Yury Olesha by Victor Peppard (1989); A Graveyard of Themes by Kazimiera Ingdahl (1995); Revolution Betrayed by Janet G. Tucker (1996); 'Valentin Kataev and Yury Olesha,' in Isaac Babel and the Self-invention of Odessan Modernism by Rebecca Jane Stanton (2012) 

Selected works:

  • Zubilo, 1924
  • Zavist', 1927
    - Envy (translated by P. Ross, 1947; Andrew R. MacAndrew, in Envy and Other Works, 1967; T.S. Berczynski, 1975; Clarence Brown, 1985; C.J. Butler, 1988; Marian Schwartz, 2004)
    - Kateus (suom. Esa Adrian, 1967)
  • Tri tolstiaka, 1928
    - The Three Fat Men (translated by Fainna Glagoleva, 1963; Aimée Anderson, in Complete Short Stories & Three Fat Men, 1978)
    - Kolme paksua (suom. Toivo Ahava, 1964)
  • Zagovor chuvstv, 1929
    - The Conspiracy of Feelings (stage adaptation of Envy;translated by Michel Green and Jerome Katsell, in The Complete Plays, 1983)
  • Vishnevaia kostochka, 1930
  • Zapiski pisatelia, 1931  [The Cherry Stones]
  • Spisok blagodeianii, 1931
    - A List of Assets (translated by Andrew R. MacAndrew, in Envy and Other Works, 1967) / A List of Blessings (translated by Michael Green and Jerome Ketsell, in The Complete Plays, 1983)
  • O Lise, 1948 (illustrated by A. Brei)
  • Izbrannye sochineniia, 1956 (edited by V. Pertsov)
  • Idiot, 1958 (prod., play based on the novel by F.  Dostoevskii)
  • The Wayward Comrade and the Commissars and Other Stories, 1960 (translated by Andrew R. MacAndrew)
  • Povesti i rasskazy, 1965
  • Ni dnia bez strochki: Iz zapisnykh knizhek, 1965
    - No Day Without a Line: From Notebooks (translated and edited by Judson Rosengrant, 1979)
  • Envy and Other Works, 1967 (translated by Andrew R. MacAndrew)
  • P'esy, 1968
  • Izbrannoe, 1974
  • Complete Short Stories & Three Fat Men, 1979 (translated by Aimée Anderson)
  • The Complete Plays, 1983 (edited and translated by Michael Green and Jerome Katsell)
  • Zagovor chuvstv: romany, rasskazy, p'esy, vospominaniia, Ni dnia bez strochki, 1999
  • Kniga proshchaniia, 1999


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