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, but vigorous peasantry; in “At the Gate,” one kind of lust and rowdiness is supplanted by a less luxurious, but essentially similar variety; in “Wormwood” an archeological dig progresses on a site where its 2,000-year-old finds are not more ancient than the superstitions of the present inhabitants, where the pestilential deaths are the same as those of pre-Scythian peoples, and the deserters in nearby woods are like the outcasts of medieval Russia; in “The Cheshire Cheese” a Russian émigré is as lonely in the fine culture of old London as are the cultured, raped, and plundered Russians in their native region on the volga. But in some of the later tales the atmosphere of Witches’ Sabbaths, of horror, pain, and savagery, of cataclysms and elemental onslaughts gives place to settings that are not so lurid and dramas less sensational, sometimes even, as in “The Human Wind,” having little to do with the Revolution.
The title story holds a special place in Pilnyak’s life and work. It is based on the notorious case of the popular Red Army Commander, Frunze, who died as the result of unnecessary surgery which Stalin had ordered him to undergo. Pilnyak’s story, written soon after the incident, first got him into trouble. Artistically, it is one of his best—uncharacteristically subtle, tight in structure, and subdued in tone. Its atmosphere is icy, with the chill of rigid, tyrannical absolutism that is like the glacial indifference of doom. On the night before his operation, decreed by “the man who never bends,” the warmly human Commander Gavrilov, who foresees his death, amuses a friend’s little girl by lighting matches for her to blow out. At the end, the child, unable to distinguish between the small, bright, human fire and the cold light of inexorable destiny, is puffing out her cheeks in an attempt to extinguish the moon.
IN 1923, when Trotsky, in his Literature and Revolution, coined the term “fellow-travelers” to describe writers who went along with the revolution only up to a point, and, in a brilliant analysis, used Pilnyak as one of his illustrations, Olesha had not yet come into prominence. He too was a “fellow-traveler,” though he differed from Pilnyak in his method of traveling and in the reasons he did not go the whole way. Their theme was the same, the contrast between the old world and the new; but whereas Pilnyak set it forth in large abstractions, bold colors, huge designs, and thunderously swelling rhythms, Olesha dealt with it in miniatures, in finely etched observations or fairy-tale fantasies, in unobtrusive ironies, and the modulated cadences of a gentle prose. Pilnyak traced the general contours of the historic moment; Olesha looked inside, and wrote not of the collapse and rebirth of civilizations but of what it might mean to a quiet inhabitant of the old world to be confronted, and dominated, by the resoundingly active one of the new.
Both writers speculated on what was gained and what was lost in the convulsive shift of values, but Olesha’s was a reticent nature and his gift was introspective. In a little book of autobiographic and critical pieces, Not a Day Without a Line, posthumously published in Russia in 1965, he spoke of how he worked: slowly, “glancing backward,” as it were; trying to remember, as if what he was “about to write had already been written,” wishing that he too could “walk through life backwards as in his day Marcel Proust had succeeded in doing.” A meticulous, reflective artist with a reverent love of words who, says Victor Shklovsky, would draw a phrase out of himself “as one draws a sword out of its scabbard,” who set himself the task of knowing himself and of dramatizing the complex experience of self-discovery, Olesha wrote very little: two short novels, a few plays, some short stories, a fragmentary journal. The metaphor, he said, was to him the essence of writing; unlike Tolstoy, for instance, who threw off images like sparks while he was “occupied with moral, or historical, or economic discussions,” he was ruled by the image, his thoughts converged on it, the figure of speech was not an illustration, but the essence, of what he wrote.
And indeed all of Olesha’s work may be read as metaphor. The tone is quietly ironic, the images unique, and, through them, a puzzling world is not so much described as presented in its implications. “Love,” for example, is a laughing argument in disguise about Marxism and “reality,” a comparison of two kinds of distorted perception, that which results from such physical defects as color-blindness and the more insidious variety, induced by such emotional imbalance as infatuation. The former can be analyzed and is, therefore, acceptable to a Marxist; it distorts appearances only, and the nature and degree of its error can be estimated and discounted. But the other perverts essential truth, and the range of its error is incalculable. A color-blind Marxist may live with a clear conscience, but not an infatuated one in the spell of a lover’s “idealism.” Nevertheless, in this pleasant tale, it is the latter distortion, with all its dangers, that, under the irresistibly persuasive reality of love, wins out in the end. So also in “The Cherry Stone,” the “invisible land” of private feelings and the visible one of public buildings are reconciled in the happy vision of a future in which they are united. “The Fellow-Traveler Sand” yearns to break his habit of endless introspection, to give all his attention to the outside world in the manner of a scientist, and to do for proletarian drama what Schiller, in Intrigue and Love, had done for the bourgeois. The fellow-traveler Olesha, determined, like his creature, to stop studying himself in the mirror and, like him, having persuaded himself that the cliché as well as “the high-faluting phrase” are both “aspects of life,” attempted, in 1931, to write his own Intrigue and Love. The result is a play called A List of Assets, a melodramatic, nationalistic, simplistic discourse on Soviet ideology, with which Olesha had already dealt much more subtly in his stories, and notably in Envy, his masterpiece.
For in Envy Olesha is himself, not a Soviet patriot nor a self-conscious reincarnation of Schiller, but himself in that shadowland of yearnings which was his special province. He was never at home, except in his “shop of metaphors,” neither in remembrances, like Marcel Proust, nor, like Tolstoy, even in his doubts. Olesha’s essence is homelessness and a longing for a home, which he finds only in craftsmanship, in precise, metaphoric statements of unresolved questions. Olesha is the craftsman of unrest, of a restrained anxiety that is never elevated to philosophic principles. He is not an ist of any kind, neither Existentialist, nor Socialist, nor Idealist. He has an admiring envy of Great Conclusions and Positive Affirmations, but is too modest to assert his own and too honest to parrot others’. He is simply an observant citizen of the early Soviet state, living in his troubled perceptions and sensations and his independent questionings, making his way between the old world and the new over the desert of overthrown concepts, like the jilted narrator of “The Cherry Stone” sauntering through the wasteland of empty lots alongside blank walls, on which he casts a long, uncertain shadow.
Olesha sympathizes in an amused and tender way with the rejected dreamer, with Nikolai Kavalerov of Envy; and he appreciates, without any possibility of identification, Andrei Babichev—the accepted man of action, Kavalerov’s counterpart and the thorn in his flesh, the man Kavalerov despises and admires, to whom he is attracted and whom he hates, whose benefactions he resents, whom, in short, he envies. Babichev is a kind of Soviet George F. Babbitt, conceived in a divided mind and drawn in outline. Babbitt was written from assuredness; Sinclair Lewis knew where he stood and what he thought of his society. But Envy is an image of bewilderment. It presents a necessity that is both unacceptable and desirable; it is a metaphor for the crude and demonstrably worthy new world of useful objects, in which private dreams are unnecessary and absurd, and where the self-loving self-regarding man is rightly—but how wastefully!—discarded, while the busy, hearty, social creature is necessary and exalted. Yet, the useless one is endearing and the admired, and admirable, one repellent. It is an image of irresolution and dissatisfaction, of incommensurable values weighed in the scales of historical necessity: emotions, dreams, the delicate realm of the imagination on one side, and, on the other, the coarse world of heavy objects, ledgers, building materials, cheap food. Babichev deals with things, Kavalerov with fancies. And Kavalerov comes to a pitiful, disgusting end of joyless self-indulgence.
LIFE ITSELF is things, Olesha is saying, somewhat quizzically and sadly. He is himself, he writes in his journal, “only a namer of things. Not even an artist, but just a kind of druggist, a wrapper of powders and maker of pills.” The old man in the story called “Lyompa” thinks of death as a gradual disappearance of things; bit by bit they elude his grasp, vanish from his field of vision, and only their useless names remain. When he dies, his little grandson runs in shouting excitedly: “Grandpa! Grandpa! They’ve brought you a coffin!” On the other hand, visions themselves are architectural constructions, machines, as in Envy, castles in the air, as in “Love.” Such is Olesha’s allusive way of speaking about the new society and the old, about “materialism” and “idealism.”
As to these collections: Mr. MacAndrew’s is fuller than Mr. Payne’s, his translations are accurate, and his Introduction is a thoughtful critical essay. This cannot be said of Mr. Payne, whose work is full of inaccuracies. In his Preface, for example, he speaks of Olesha spending his childhood “in a typical Jewish bourgeois family” and even allows his fancy to picture the boy looking “as though he might become a Talmudic scholar,” whereas in Not a Day Without a Line Olesha refers several times to the Roman Catholic atmosphere of his home. Although this detail of his upbringing has little significance for his writing, Mr. Payne’s mistake is important as an indication of a careless nonchalance that seems to be characteristic of him. His interpretations of Olesha’s works are unreliable, and a spot check of his translations reveals gross blunders, of which the following may serve as a sample: An amusing self-portrait of the artist as a small boy: “Oh, the schoolboy’s gray jacket!… You stood around my body… Your shoulders had nothing in common with my shoulders!” becomes in Mr. Payne’s version: “Oh, the gray jackets of a school boy! They do not surround you…and their shoulders have nothing in common with ordinary coats.” A pity! For Mr. Payne has undertaken the editorship of “The Russian Library,” and his projected list of publications contains very fine, important works. It is to be hoped that they will be more scrupulously edited and better translated than his Olesha, as well translated, one hopes, as Pilnyak has been by Beatrice Scott, whose version is very good indeed.
March 28, 1968