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Yury Olesha: Зависть (Envy)

This novel had a huge impact in the Soviet Union when it was published there in 1927, not least because it was anti-communist. Nikolai Kavalerov works for Andrei Petrovich Babichev, sausage maker, confectioner and chief cook. Babichev is the prototype Soviet bureaucrat/businessman and, indeed, he does not look very much out of place well after the fall of communism. Kavalerov, however, is an artist, a poet and, almost inevitably, a drunk. Moreover, Kavalerov feels out of touch with communism and the Soviet Union and yearns to be back in the nineteenth century. The whole issue, however, is presented as the conflict between the values of Babichev, who sends strange memos to his staff about the food they serve and whose main ambition is to produce a succulent and juicy but essentially cheap sausage and, at the same time, introduce huge communal dining rooms serving cheap food, and Kavalerov who is a poet out of touch with his time. Babichev is not alone. Volodya Makarov is a famous football player who also represents the new Soviet system. Makarov calls himself a human machine and proudly compares himself to the machines in the factories. (Compare this with Kavalerov’s view that Things don’t like me.) Kavalerov, however, has his ally, namely Babichev’s brother, Ivan.

The book is written in two parts. The first part is a first person narrative by Kavalerov and is reminiscent of Dostoevsky‘s Notes from the Underground, the story of a man and his hatred for the external world. In this part we see Kavalerov’s hatred and contempt for Babichev. The second part, however, is a third person narrative. However, though it is written in the third person, it is written primarily from the perspective of Ivan Babichev. He hates machines but has created a machine-killing machine he calls Ophelia which, inevitably, kills its creator. It is not only with machines that the pair has no luck. Kavalerov has been waiting for Valya all his life but she is much more interested in the new man, Andrei Babichev, so they end up with the less than desirable (and older) widow, Annechka. Drunk and in bed with Annechka, that’s pretty much all that’s left for anti-communist man.

Publishing history

First published 1927 by Krasnaya nov
First published in English by Hogarth Press in 1936