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Envy (novel)

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Original title  Зависть
Language  Russian
Published in English  1936
Author  Yury Olesha
Country  Soviet Union
3.8/5 Goodreads

Translator  Anthony Wolfe
Publication date  1927
Originally published  1927
Publisher  Hogarth Press
Published in english  1936
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Classical Studies books  Invitation to a Beheading, The Village of Stepanchikovo, Sevastopol Sketches, Hadji Murat, Poor Folk

Envy (Russian: Зависть) is a novel published in 1927 by the Russian novelist Yuri Olesha. It is remarkable both for its poetic style, undulating modes of transition between the scenes, innovative structure, biting satire, and ruthless examination of Socialist ideals.


Plot summary

The novel is about a pathetic young man named Nikolai Kavalerov, who refuses to accept Communist values and is consumed by loathing and envy for his benefactor Andrei Babichev, a model Soviet citizen who manages a successful sausage factory. With Andrei Babichev's brother Ivan, Kavalerov attempts to stage a comeback of all the old, petty feelings that were crushed under communism. In the end, Ivan and Kavalerov are crushed by their own iniquity.

Publication History

"Envy" first appeared in Red Virgin Soil, a Soviet literary magazine, in late 1927. Olesha wrote the novel while working at the "Whistle", a widely read newspaper of the Railway Workers' Union. He read pages of the novel to other notable Soviet writers: Mikhail Bulgakov, Isaac Babel, Ilya Ilf, and Yevgeny Petrov.


Envy received glowing reviews throughout the Soviet literary establishment, including in the official state organ Pravda. Soviet reviewers understood the novel as a condemnation of despicable bourgeois feelings, yet Envy can equally be read as a searing indictment of the Soviet value system. A few years after Pravda's praise, the novel was starting to be re-read and people noticed there was something cold and inhuman about the novel's model Soviets and something sympathetic about the bourgeois' earnest but doomed attempt to organize a "conspiracy of feelings". In a letter to Andrei Babichev, Kavalerov writes:

I am fighting for tenderness, for pathos, for individuality; for names that touch me [...], for everything that you are determined to oppress and erase. (Ch. 11, MacAndrew)

Olesha's literary output waned significantly after the publication of "Envy". His novel and short stories went out of print and he went on to work in the cinema and as a critic. After Stalin's death his books were reissued.

In 1960, a reviewer for Time concluded that "Olesha once opposed Communism with such passion as to make Zhivago seem like a gentle reproof."

The true message of Envy likely lies somewhere in between these extremes. Olesha was aware of flaws in both capitalism and communism, and he was not wholly sympathetic to either. During the revolution, he was a strong supporter of communism, but he seems to have become gradually disillusioned after watching it in action. However, Envy cannot be reduced entirely to a political statement; the book devotes much of its energy to exploring the psychology of its characters.


Envy (novel) Wikipedia

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