Wednesday, June 30, 2010

NYRB Challenge #34: One To Read During the World Cup. . .

The choice of Envy by Yuri Olesha, translated by Marian Schwartz, as my next challenge choice was dictated somewhat by this post on NYRB's own blog, pointing out that part of the book contained a soccer match between Moscow and Germany. As the World Cup team I was supporting (Switzerland) failed to advance, but Germany was still a contender, I thought it would be a timely read.

And the soccer match may be the most ordinary thing that happens in this novel.

First published in 1927, the object of envy for the protogonist Nikolai - a young, disaffected, arrogant and lazy drunk - is Volodya, a handsome, talented soccer player who is like a son to the business man Andrei, a man proud of developing a very large and cheap type of sausage. Andrei has taken in Nikolai, given him a few odd jobs, and offered him a temporary refuge on his sofa - but only until Volodya returns from visiting his family. And Nikolai feels this slight keenly, enhanced by his conviction that Andrei's beautiful niece Valya is intended for his rival. Then there's Andrei's crazy brother Ivan who has supposedly invented a complicated machine called Ophelia that will destroy his brother's financial empire.

This is post-revolutionary Russia where the citizens are not only trying to adapt to a new political reality, but also to the cold culture of modernity where mechanics overrides human emotions. As Ivan rants to Nikolai:

The millennia are like a cesspool. Floundering in the cesspool are machines, pieces of iron, tinplate, screws, springs. . . A dark and gloomy cesspool. And glowing in the cesspool are rotten stumps, phosphorescent mushrooms - fungi. These are our emotions! This is all that's left of our emotions, from the flourishing of our souls. The new man comes up to the cesspool, tests it, climbs in, picks out what he needs - a piece of machinery will come in handy, a nice wrench - and tramples the rotten stump underfoot, crushes it.

The emotions - the most prevalent of these being envy - are expressed in a series of mostly hallucinatory dreamlike episodes and the slightly surreal stories that Ivan relates to Nikolai while drinking. On occasion the fanatasical language also infiltrates and poetically elevates some of the more pedestrian activities:

It was early morning. The street was jointed. I moved from joint to joint like a bad case of rheumatism. Things don't like me. I'm hurting the street.

There's not a lot of plot to this short, often comic novel - it could almost be summed up as one man's search for a decent bed for the night - but I enjoyed reading it as another interesting European perspective to set alongside - for example - German expressionism, in attempting to describe or predict the future effects of technology and machines, so prevalent in many artistic endeavours during the 1920s and 30s, and the inspiration for many of the science fiction novels that followed.

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