ENVY.

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been reading Yuri Olesha‘s masterpiece Zavist’ (Russian text), translated into English as Envy (Wikipedia, plot summary), and I understand why Nabokov called it the greatest novel produced in the Soviet Union—not only because it is in fact great, but because it’s Nabokovian in a way hardly any Soviet writing is, with a focus on language and imagery that is sometimes amazingly reminiscent of Olesha’s coeval (both men were born in 1899, less than two months apart). There has been much written about other aspects of the novel (for a well-written analysis of Olesha’s man-centered artistic world, along with those of Babel and Platonov, I recommend Eliot Borenstein’s Men without Women: Masculinity and Revolution in Russian Fiction, 1917–1929), but I want to limit myself to some bits of prose that made me sit up straight and reread them, and that I’m sure Nabokov loved as well. The (inadequate) translations are mine; the Russian is below the cut, along with a couple of perhaps enlightening quotes. Here I’ll just mention that according to Irina Ozyornaya, the Olesha archive contains more than two thousand pages of drafts for Envy; Olesha had worked on the novel for five years, and he said there had been 300 versions of the first page.

Transparent and quivering, like the elytra of an insect, the name of Lilienthal from my childhood years had a marvelous sound to me… That name, flying as if stretched on light bamboo laths, was linked in my memory with the beginning of aviation. The fluttering, gliding Otto Lilienthal was killed. Flying machines no longer resembled birds. Light wings with yellow shining through were exchanged for flippers. You could believe that they beat against the ground on takeoff. At any rate, on takeoff the dust springs up. The flying machine now resembles a heavy fish. How quickly aviation has become industry.
* * *
On the corner a little group of people were listening to the peal of the church bells. They were ringing the bells of a church invisible from the balcony. This church is renowned for its bell-ringer. The gawkers craned their necks. To them the work of the well-known bell-ringer was visible. [...]
I listened from the balcony.
— Tom-vir-lir-li! Tom-vir-lir-li! Tom-vir-lir-li!
Tom Virlirli. Some Tom Virlirli was hovering in the air.

Tom Virlirli,
Tom with a knapsack,
Tom Virlirli, young Tom!

The disheveled bell-ringer set many of my mornings to music. Tom was the toll of the big bell, the big cauldron. Virlirli was the little plates, the cymbals.
Tom Virlirli penetrated me on one of those fine mornings I met with under that roof. A musical phrase turned itself into a verbal one. I pictured vividly to myself this Tom.
A youth, viewing the city. Unknown to all, the youth had come already, is already near, already sees the city that sleeps, suspecting nothing. The morning mist is just dispersing. The city swirls in its valley like a green, glimmering cloud. Tom Virlirli, smiling and pressing his hand to his heart, looks at the city, seeking people he knows in the childish pictures formed by their outlines.
The youth has a pack on his back.
He can do everything.
He is the very arrogance of youth, the very secretness of proud dreams.
Days pass—and soon (not many times will the sun’s reflection leap from the doorjamb into the other room) the boys, themselves dreaming of passing in just such a way, with a pack on their back, along the suburbs of the city, the suburbs of glory, will sing a little song of the man who did whatever he wanted to do:

Tom Virlirli,
Tom with a knapsack,
Tom Virlirli, young Tom!

* * *
A huge cloud with the outlines of South America stood over the city. It shone, but its shadow was menacing. The shadow with astronomical slowness approached Babichev’s street.
Everyone who had already set foot in the mouth of that street and walked against the current saw the movement of the shadow; their eyes were darkened; it took the ground from under their feet. They walked as if on a turning sphere.

That’s just a tiny sample, all from the first part of the book; I may translate more in another post. Here are a couple of facts and a couple of scholarly quotes, followed by the original Russian:


In the 1920s, Olesha wrote for Gudok (The Whistle), a newspaper for railway workers, which also published Bulgakov, Isaak Babel, and Ilf & Petrov.
In the third chaper, Olesha quotes (or rather slightly misquotes) a stanza by Nikolai Gumilyov, who had been shot for alleged counterrevolutionary activities only a few years before.
“Olesha explains that he did not write according to a plan but constructed the novel like a bridge laid on the piers of remembered images and phrases: ‘Someone’s extended arm. The appearance of a tall figure in the bright rectangle of a door.’” Rimgaila Salys, Olesha’s Envy: A Critical Companion, p. 7.
“Olesha takes what is usually conceived of as ornamental and makes it central.” Victor Peppard, The Poetics of Yury Olesha (University Press of Florida, 1989), p. 36.

Сквозное, трепещущее, как надкрылья насекомого, имя Лилиенталя с детских лет звучит для меня чудесно… Летательное, точно растянутое на легкие бамбуковые планки, имя это связано в моей памяти с началом авиации. Порхающий человек Отто Лилиенталь убился. Летательные машины перестали быть похожими на птиц. Легкие, просвечивающие желтизной крылья заменились ластами. Можно поверить, что они бьются по земле при подъеме. Во всяком случае, при подъеме вздымается пыль. Летательная машина похожа теперь на тяжелую рыбу. Как быстро авиация стала промышленностью.
* * *
На углу кучка людей слушала церковный звон. Звонили в
невидимой с балкона церкви. Эта церковь славится звонарем.
Зеваки задирали головы. Им была видна работа знаменитого
звонаря. [...]
Я слушал с балкона.
- Том-вир-лир-ли! Том-вир-лир-ли! Том-вир-лир-ли! Том
Вирлирли. Некий Том Вирлирли реял в воздухе.
Том Вирлирли,
Том с котомкой,
Том Вирлирли молодой!
Всклоченный звонарь переложил на музыку многие мои утра. Том
- удар большого колокола, большого котла. Вирлирли – мелкие
тарелочки.
Том Вирлирли проник в меня в одно из прекрасных утр,
встреченных мною под этим кровом. Музыкальная фраза
превратилась в словесную. Я живоH представлял себе этого Тома.
Юноша, озирающий город. Никому не известный юноша уже пришел,
уже близок, уже видит город, который спит, ничего не
подозревает. Утренний туман только рассеивается. Город
клубится в долине зеленым мерцающим облаком. Том Вирлирли,
улыбаясь и прижимая руку к сердцу, смотрит на город, ища
знакомых по детским картинкам очертаний.
Котомка за спиной юноши.
Он сделает все.
Он – это само высокомерие юности, сама затаенность гордых
мечтаний.
Пройдут дни – и скоро (не много раз перескочит солнечный
зайчик с косяка в другую комнату) мальчики, сами мечтающие о
том, чтоб так же, с котомкой за спиной, пройти в майское утро
по предместьям города, по предместьям славы, будут распевать
песенку о человеке, который сделал то, что хотел сделать:
Том Вирлирли,
Том с котомкой,
Том Вирлирли молодой!
* * *
Огромное облако с очертаниями Южной Америки стояло над
городом. Оно блистало, но тень от него была грозной. Тень
астрономически медленно надвигалась на бабичевскую улицу.
Все, которые вступили уже в устье той улицы и шли против
течения, видели движения тени, у них темнело в глазах, она
отнимала у них почву из-под ног. Они шли как бы по
вращающемуся шару.

Comments

  1. the very secretness of proud dreams.
    Hey, that’s nice!

  2. Yes, that also struck me as an acute idea. It could be useful when when trying to find a basis for understanding some of the behavior of adolescent males. As usual, I found the idea striking precisely because I could immediately associate it with something concrete. It gives me a new take on a friend of mine, although he is no adolescent.

  3. For a well-written analysis of Olesha’s man-centered artistic world, along with those of Babel and Platonov….
    I’ve been reading about 19th c. Frrench life and literature for some time (right now the Goncourt Diaries), and the sex-and-gender norms were really horrifying. The sexual partners of the men I’ve been been reading about were prostitutes (rated by price), cheating wives, house servants, and finally the “grisettes”, very poor working women who just wanted to have a little fun and weren’t necessarily prostitutes, though often they became that.
    At the high end were actresses and opera singers, who were assumed to be courtesans and were capable of soaking a guy for his entire inheritance. There were apparently almost no equal relationships, and the few women who played at all (George Sand, Princess Belgioso, Princess Mathilde, Mme Sabatier) were regarded as marvels of nature.
    Few of these men were married, and the ones who were seem not to have been at all attached to their wives — though obviously there’s a selection bias there, since happily married men probably didn’t hang with the Goncourts, and even if they did, it probably would have been bad taste to talk about sexual happiness in that wretched crew. A fair proportion of the 19th century French authors were celibate or tried to be, and most of the others seem to have had unhappy or squalid love lives (though again, selection bias).
    It was not the “Vive La Difference” France I was taught about as an undergraduate!

  4. Transparent and quivering, like the elytra of an insect, the name of Lilienthal from my childhood years had a marvelous sound to me… That name, flying as if stretched on light bamboo laths, was linked in my memory with the beginning of aviation. The fluttering, gliding Otto Lilienthal was killed. Flying machines no longer resembled birds. Light wings with yellow shining through were exchanged for flippers. You could believe that they beat against the ground on takeoff. At any rate, on takeoff the dust springs up. The flying machine now resembles a heavy fish. How quickly aviation has become industry.

    Well, I wasn’t gonna post it, because I think the connection is tenuous, maybe even solipsistic, but there are only three comments, and the above passage reminded of this one, highlighted by Mark Ford in a review of Javier Marias’s latest novel, Your Face Tomorrow, Volume Three: Poison, Shadow and Farewell (with some context from Ford):

    Deza [the main character] is made to watch a DVD that Tupra [a mob boss] believes demonstrates why he can go around beating up people and killing them — or perhaps he is just taking advantage of an opportunity to induct his recruit into the brute facts of life in order to render him fitter for purpose. The DVD consists mainly of documentary footage of people being beaten up and killed. Deza watches the Mafia chief with whom he dined, and with whose wife he danced that very night, using a penknife to gouge out the eyes of a man tied to a chair, “the way someone uses a dessert knife to cut out the stone from a peach half, or the seeds from a watermelon.” He watches a woman astride a man, smashing his head with a hammer. Tupra explains in Deza’s ear the strategic value of each incident: among the silent witnesses of the torture by repeated hanging of a hooded prisoner is a high-ranking American politician; one of the executioners of three men and a woman by machine gun on a beach in the Golfo de Taranto is in the current Italian government; in the crowd watching a woman being raped by a horse in Coahuila is a prominent, potentially important Mexican businessman.
    “Resist the desire not to watch,” urges Tupra, and Deza slowly feels the poison entering his system:

    And when I use that word “poison,” I’m not doing so lightly or purely metaphorically, but because something entered my consciousness that had not been there before and provoked in me an immediate feeling of creeping sickness, of something alien to my body and to my sight and to my mind, like an inoculation, and that last term is spot on etymologically, for it contains at its root the Latin “oculus,” from which it comes, and it was through my eyes that this new and unexpected illness entered, through my eyes which were absorbing images and registering them and retaining them, and which could no longer erase them as one might erase a bloodstain on the floor, still less not have seen them.

    I guess it’s just the way both authors stop to ponder a word in the midst of powerfully rhythmic prose.
    Okay, I wanted an excuse to post the Marias passage.

  5. Oddly, one of the plot points in Envy is that the young protégé of aging Andrei rescued him from having his head smashed with a hammer. It’s a funny old world.

Speak Your Mind

*