The Tale of the Unextinguished Moon and Other Stories
by Boris Pilnyak, translated by Beatrice Scott
Washington Square Press (The Russian Library), 266 pp., $4.95
Love and Other Stories
by Yuri Olyesha, translated by Robert Payne
Washington Square Press (The Russian Library), 230 pp., $4.95
Envy and Other Works
by Yuri Olesha, translated by Andrew R. MacAndrew
Doubleday, 288 pp., $1.45 (paper)
Pilnyak and Olesha had in common the misfortune of having been born with a writer’s gift in Russia at the turn of the century, Pilnyak (whose real name was Boris Vogau) in 1894, Olesha in 1899. Both achieved sudden fame, Pilnyak in 1922 with the publication of his novel, The Naked Year, Olesha in 1927 with his novella, Envy. Both were very popular in Russia in the late Twenties and early Thirties, and both fell from grace. Olesha vanished for some years about 1938, but then returned, and died in Moscow of a heart attack in 1960 (while correcting proofs, it is said, of an article on Hemingway, who was one of his great enthusiasms). Pilnyak was hounded to death; he disappeared in 1937 and is presumed to have been shot. The theme of both, or rather their understandable obsession, was the Revolution; both “accepted” it, though not slavishly, and, in spite of persecution, remained loyal citizens of the USSR. Here the similarities end. Their common theme served different ends. Their modes of writing were antithetical. The temperaments that showed through their work could not be more diverse.
Pilnyak was intoxicated with words; his writing is a breathless declamation, a verbal blizzard, like the storms that howl through his pages. His mind sweeps over vast areas of land, over centuries, cultures, and societies; it revels in the shock of contrasts and flings together, in violent juxtaposition, the primitive and the civilized, East and West, primeval superstitions and advanced scientific inventions, savage beasts and decent men. His works are discordant symphonies, disordered mosaics; the flutes and cymbals are not orchestrated, the bright stones do not fall into a pattern. He loves vigor and also chaos, and is fascinated by decay; his whole being gravitates toward the passionate, the elemental, the bestial, and is attracted by death. His voice is tuned to anarchy. Dutifully, he believes in reason and progress, but emotionally he is with the ageless and subliminal.
The two forces are in either latent or open conflict in nearly everything he writes. When dealing with the rational, he is rather wooden, as in the lengthy, tiresome. “The Birth of a Man,” one of his later stories, meant to illustrate the sensible new mores and emotions of intelligent Soviet men and women. But in the realm of instinct, he can create impressively somber effects, as he does in “Above the Ravine,” a darkly poetic sketch, written in 1915, in which all life, man’s as well as beast’s is symbolized in the cruel little tale, with a wild, Doré-like setting, of how two birds of prey live out the cycle of their simple existence. In other stories we are given the clash between the old world and the new in a way that, without praising either, sees something good in each and emphasizes the brutality of both: in “A Thousand Years” the remnants of a diseased and callous, but cultivated, aristocracy are obliterated and replaced by an illiterate, brutal …