Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Sound of One Idiot Griping

After delving into the wretched drek that passes for contemporary literature, I'm back at the library for only stuff by authors who are sufficiently foreign and dead.

And that's still no guarantee...

Envy by Yuri Olesha is one of the many anti-Soviet books produced in the early 20th century and beloved by western academics because they're anti-Soviet. There's some other stuff too but that political stance is mainly why it's remembered. 'Cause I can tell ya, it ain't for the characters.

Olesha sets out with a fun and interesting topic - the contrast between Babichev the successful Soviet official and Kavalerov the bitter loser. Bitter losers have a celebrated place in 20th century lit and Kavalerov shows why - he's a whiny, principled mediocrity constantly outrun by his own ambitions. Babichev takes him in, feeds and clothes him and gives him something to do with his life so naturally Kavalerov hates the fat bastard. Babichev is huge by the way, in contrast to Kavalerov's scrawniness. Lots of fun symbolism here.

Porkers of the world, unite!

...Except at times you wonder how much Kavalerov is the standard satire of the egomaniacal loser and how much Olesha is being sincere. I've been re-reading the worst novel in the world at the same time for my side project and I can't help noting similarities - a celebration of individualism at the expense of anything sensible, a denouncement of socialism clearly born from an inferiority complex, and a fetishizing of industrial machinery.

Olesha may very well be satirizing every side here but it's hard to make out because he's opted for that frenetic modernist style of prose. And he's bad at it. Most writers are, that's why you don't see it much anymore. The narrative surges forward like a drunken frat boy who just saw a tit, crashing through people and furniture in a clumsy mess that ultimately goes nowhere.

And then there's Ivan. Half way through the novel, Olesha introduces Babichev's wastrel brother as a foil to the successful Soviet - despite Kavalerov already serving that purpose. While Kavalerov is a fussy jerk, Ivan is just annoying. A deus ex machina who rehashes the entire characterization of the first half of the novel for the second half, before being eaten by his own emotion machine or something.

An editor with no pity might have fixed this. As it stands, this is an embarrassing addition to the company of Bulgakov but you can bet it'll stay in print as long as there are humorless old drips willing to lecture everyone about how Communism was bad and stuff.

Achtung! VectorPress will now be updating weekly on Wedensdays due to the effort required to maintain Atlas Shirked. So you should go read that too. Right now.

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