Portrait of the Artist in a Complex Mirror: Narration and Authorship in Olesha's Envy

David Powelstock, Independent Scholar

No reader of Jurij Olesha's Envy can fail to notice the disorienting shift in narrative perspective between Part I, narrated from the very limited albeit entertaining point of view of Kavalerov, and Part II, narrated more or less omnisciently by—by whom exactly? Some have identified the narrator of Part II as Kavalerov, perhaps older and wiser (Morch, e.g.); others have emphasized that both narrators can be seen as extensions of the author (Cornwell, Lev Levin). There is little textual evidence to support interpretations of the former type, while those of the latter sort are too broad to be satisfying. In this paper I revisit the narrative duality of Envy, beginning from the beginning (what facts does the text present to the reader?) and proceeding via the impact of the text on the implied reader.

The first salient fact is overlooked by most scholars: the narrative shift, almost always described as "abrupt" (Cornwell, Barratt, and others), is in fact not so sudden. The reader can only know for certain that Kavalerov has relinquished the narration at the beginning of the fourth chapter of Part II, when he appears for the first time in the third person ("They stepped away from the mirror"). The preceding three chapters certainly sound different than Kavalerov's Part I voice, if only because in them the book first represents the voices of characters other than Kavalerov: a sustained exposition of Ivan Babichev's story, with extensive passages of reported speech, culminating in Ivan's police interrogation presented as dramatic dialogue ("Investigator: And so." "Ivan: Are you interested").

This brings us to the second salient fact, also rarely noted: the first three chapters of Part II are barely narrated at all. They consist mostly of fragments of reported speech, with little or no sustained plot line. The dominant (to use the Formalist term) of these chapters is Ivan Babichev's character, and (to continue in the Formalist vein) this dominant is allowed to deform the narrative structure. Once again, given Kavalerov's idiosyncratic monologue in Part I (often characterized as quintessentially "artistic" or transformative), a reader could be forgiven for continuing to attribute this fractured discourse to Kavalerov. The textual facts are, at the very least, ambiguous.

The third textual fact: when the temporal line of the novel is restored at the beginning of chapter 4 of Part II, Kavalerov has been replaced as narrator and the reader is thrown—now wholly unexpectedly—back to the locus of the final episode of Part I, the "street mirror" where Kavalerov first meets Ivan. Now, and only now, is the reader presented with Kavalerov in the third person. The return to the mirror, I claim, is a crucial detail, whose significance far exceeds that usually given it as merely one of many distortional devices. Kavalerov's approach to the mirror represents the first time in the novel when he sees himself as others see him. This moment of "reflection" prefigures the much greater revelation that occurs only when Ivan uses Kavalerov as symbol in his own agenda. When Kavalerov, urged on by Ivan, begins to act on his solipsistic understanding of the world, his purely subjective perspective collapses as the gap between his self-perception and the perception of others becomes comically evident.

My paper proceeds from these facts to elaborate an interpretation of Envy as a novel of artistic transformation. Part I, I claim, is generically "zapiski" which, despite their imaginative, style are incapable of becoming art, at least novelistic art, due to Kavalerov's solipsism, his inability to view himself and the world from any perspective other than his own. (Part I bore the subtitle "Zapiski" in a draft. By the way, the framing of Part I as "zapiski" is a reflection on *Kavalerov's* limitations. In the context of the novel as a whole under Olesha's authorship, Part I appears exactly as it ought to in order for the overall effect I discern to be achieved. It fails as art only when considered as the product of Kavalerov's pen alone. And, of course, it should not be forgotten that "zapiski" have a tradition as a literary genre.) For this reason, his "notes" are merely narrated, while Part II is in fact "authored" in the sense that the work acquires the novelistic structure that Baxtin argues can only be achieved when subjectivity is enriched by "outsidedness" (vnenaxodimost'). Part II, after chapter 3, is generically a povest'. (In drafts Part II bore the more formally literary title of "Zagovor chuvstv.") I am not necessarily suggesting either that the narrator of Part II is Kavalerov at a later time (Morch) or that Part II aims to "explode the myths constructed by Kavalerov in Part I" (Barratt). Although neither interpretation is implausible, I wish to emphasize (1) the artistic transformation effected by the narrative shift and (2) its compositional significance, i.e. the combination of the parts, rather than merely their contrast.

One may further speculate on the significance of the textual phenomenon I try here to distinguish. It might, for example, be seen as a reflexive gesture on Olesha's part—an aesthetic correlative of the rueful awareness that the idiosyncratic perception of the willfully individualistic artist was inappropriate, either for worthy art in general or in the specific context of the new Soviet Union (a judgment regarding Olesha's politics hangs in the distinction). Fundamentally, however, my paper aims to establish a phenomenological interpretation of the novel's formal shape, upon which further socio-historical, philosophical, or political interpretation can be layered.