February 01, 1999

Yuri Olesha: A Talent to Be Envied

Yuri Karlovich Olesha was born 100 years ago in Elizavetgrad (Kirovograd), then in Russia, now part of Ukraine, to a middle-class Polish family. When he was four years old, his family moved to Odessa. He went to university (in law) at Novorossisk and joined the Red Army in 1919. AFter leaving the army he began his working life in Moscow as a journalist, for the popular magazine Gudok (The Whistle). There he worked alongside other famous humor writers like Ilya Ilf, Evgeny Kataev and Isaac Babel, all from Odessa.

Olesha’s rose to fame on the 1927 publication of his slapstick novel Envy. It was a ruthlessly satirical attack on the Soviet state and New Soviet Man (but very proi-NEP) and is still considered one of the greatest works of Russian fiction this century. One year later, his fairy-tale of revolution and despotism, Three Fat Men, was published. Even more strident in its veiled attacks on the regime, it too was an instant hit and continued, amazingly, to be published (and performed on stage and screen) throughout the Soviet era.

Olesha also produced a number of wonderfully-crafted plays and stories. We reproduce here two of his stories in step with this issue’s theme of love (from an out-of-print collection published by Ardis Publishers), superbly translated by Aimee Anderson. At present, no collection of Olesha’s stories is in print, although Ardis Publishers does keep Envy in print (800-877-7133, $12.95).

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