The Construction of Envy: Olesha and the Soviet Production Novel

Mary Nicholas, Lehigh University

Iurii Olesha's 1927 work Envy is one of the most unusual treatments of the construction theme in Soviet literature, and its failure to conform to expectations for the genre has meant that it is rarely included in discussions of the production novel. Its fragmented narrative and dreamlike plot make this a difficult novel to follow, and workers looking for inspiration in their daily lives on the construction site would have had to struggle with the disjointed story that Olesha offers. Those who managed to master Envy's difficult form might still have had problems with the work's conclusions: the building under construction is incomplete at the end of the tale, and the characters themselves have not yet succeeded in the "reconstruction" of self that was an important part of the genre. Worst of all, the narrator of Envy, whose first-person monologue occupies much of the work, is disoriented by, jealous of, and alienated from the construction process.

Nevertheless, I argue that Envy is a compelling and useful example of the production genre. In fact, to exclude the novel from a discussion of the genre is to narrow the generic definition unnecessarily, to mimic, in effect, Stalinist critics who wished to control which works of literature would be part of the acceptable canon and which would not. Olesha's Envy, with its focus on construction as a theme and its reliance on the metaphor of building, clearly belongs in a study of the production novel. Its eccentric conclusions about the role of building in contemporary society only emphasize how artificially narrow our inherited critical categories have been.

The need to redefine our definition of the production novel is confirmed both by the text itself and by comments from Olesha and his contemporaries, particularly Olesha's own “public confession” in a speech to the Writers' Congress in 1934. This speech, which Iurii Libedinskii called "one of the most significant events of our Congress," is a fascinating example of the transformative pressures on writers during the crucial period of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Tellingly, Libedinskii concluded that Olesha's work was a graphic demonstration of the "process of radical change in view of reality that all Soviet authors” underwent just before and during the First Five-Year Plan. The idea of Envy as an exemplary production novel and Olesha as its activist author informs my work, which offers a simultaneous critique of previous approaches to both the writer and the production genre.