Carson Ellis
Envy by Yuri Olesha
(NYRB Classics)
$12.95

Soviet writer Yuri Olesha published Envy, his only major work, at the age of 27, during a period designated by scholars of Russian literature as the Silver Age (1917-1934). The novel, which has a new translation by Marian Schwartz, is short (almost 150 pages) and consists of two sections (part one is narrated in first person; part two is in third person). It primarily concerns a man, Nikolai Kavalerov, who shares the same age with the author of the world in which he lives and finds repulsive (the fictional version of the then-rapidly industrializing USSR). Kavalerov's spirit, his manner of mind, has been shaped by and is still located in the vanishing 19th century--the age of Flaubert, Baudelaire, Mallarmé; the time when the imagination was king and art had no other purpose than being art.

After getting booted out of a bar, Kavalerov is found in the gutter by Andrei Babichev, a Soviet industrialist who is building a massive cafeteria that will service all of the dining needs of the new society and "give [housewives] back the hours the kitchen has stolen from [them]." Babichev is also developing a sausage that will be inexpensive ("thirty-five kopeks") yet delicious ("seventy percent veal"). Babichev has the wasted intellectual picked up and transported by limousine to his apartment. The following morning, Kavalerov awakens in a light-filled living room and is told by Babichev that it is "fine for [him] to stay on." Kavalerov stays on.

But Kavalerov loathes the man who has loaned him "an amazing sofa" to sleep on and found him a little work to do (editing food-processing manuals). The industrialist is loathed because he lacks imagination, and also because he is famous for making affordable sausages for the workers. In one scene, shortly after a super-cheap proto-sausage is made and tested (or tasted) in a lab (or kitchen), Kavalerov is ordered by the scientist (or chef) to deliver the package containing the new sausage to the manager, Babichev. After "[dashing] through the streets with [his] bundle," bitter Kavalerov thinks, "A piece of lousy sausage was directing my movements, my will."

Envy is relentlessly funny, particularly the first section of the novel, which has Kavalerov living on Babichev's pity. The second part of the novel is a little more serious. It focuses on the relationship between Kavalerov and a man--who, like him, is a citizen of what Olesha in another story ("Cherry Stone") called the "land of the imagination"--Ivan Babichev, Andrei Babichev's older brother. Ivan has a beautiful daughter, Valya, who is closer to her uncle. She is the Soviet ideal: a woman who is destined to rear the children of the man-machine Volodya Makarov, an 18-year-old soccer star, engineer, and former occupant of Andrei's fabulous sofa. In the end, Volodya and Andrei win the world (Valya), and Ivan and his disciple Kavalerov are reduced to sharing, in a sordid room with a big bed, the sexual favors of an old, widowed, Dostoyevskian hag.

This translation of Envy by Marian Schwartz excels in the second section, but makes some big mistakes in the first. For example, the middle of a letter that Volodya writes to Babichev, explaining why he wants to be just like a factory machine, is translated by Russian literary scholar Edward J. Brown in this way: "Why am I not as good as it [a machine]. We invented it, designed and constructed it, and it turned out to be much harder than we are. Start it and it gets to work. And it won't make a single unnecessary wriggle. That's the way I would like to be. Understand, Andrei Petrovich, not a single unnecessary wriggle." Schwartz, on the other hand, translates the same passage in this way: "Calculate [the machine] so that there's not a single extra figure. I want to be like that, too. You see, Andrei Petrovich--so that there's not a single extra figure." A wriggling machine is far funnier than one that produces extra figures.

With the new edition, the mirror that is made of English succeeds in capturing the scintillating Russian poetry of Envy, which is replete with images of metallic surfaces, lenses, windows that refract, blur, and darkle the city in which the novel is set, Moscow. Only the comedy suffers a little bit in this translation of one of the funniest books of the 20th century.