What Are They Reading?
By Yuri Olesha.
New York Review Books. 152 pp. $12.95.
It's the first three chapters of Yuri Olesha's Envy that really bite, that really get across the impotent sting of the emotion. Which isn't to say the novel doesn't have its moments after that (and at an efficient 152 pages, they don't take long to reach), just that when you're satirizing the early Soviet desire to revolutionize all areas of life, it doesn't get much more caustic than: "War has been declared on kitchens. You can consider a thousand kitchens vanquished."
The general on this particular front is Andrei Babichev, director of the Food Industry Trust, who, out of pity, has taken in the novel's narrator, Nikolai Kavalerov: "Envier."
"This," Kavalerov sarcastically declares while watching his benefactor work out, "is an exemplary male specimen." "Specimen": the scientific language recalls the Soviet desire to engineer the "new man" who'd finally bring about socialism. Babichev's accomplishments are slightly more modest: a cheap, efficiently produced sausage, a communal cafeteria. Kavalerov envies them anyway.
The role of "new man" is reserved for Babichev's protégé, Volodya, who mostly plays soccer and aspires to be one of "the machines," envying their fierce indifference. So Kavalerov envies Volodya's envy, not to mention his claim to Valya, Babichev's niece. Pretty soon Kavalerov's convinced himself he's competing for her affections even as he gets tangled up in a "conspiracy of emotions" (one which, including Kavalerov, achieves the staggering strength of: two), a last protest in defense of feeling, of the interior life the Soviet regime was ostensibly determined to make obsolete. After the dissolution of property, when all needs were met by people fulfilling their roles in the vast bureaucratic and productive apparatus coordinated by the state, envy, love, ambition, recklessness, would be leveled, tempered by the efficiency of the industrial machine, until they simply withered away.
"He, the ruler, the Communist, was building a new world. And in this new world, glory was sparked because a new kind of sausage had come from the sausage-maker's hands." I admit that I find that a world in which sausage-makers get their fair share of fame has its attractions. As we grope past the exhausted possibilities of Soviet efficiency and American envy (after all, what else drives all our conspicuous consumption, of SUVs and Soviet novels alike?) for some new e-word, it might help to get a grip on some of the common ground the systems shared. The conviction that an economy based on industrial labor (or, these days, Wal-Mart and all those service-sector jobs regularly touted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics) could possibly be fulfilling for most people seems unlikely, if not outright absurd.
Why not instead a world where we're free to be useless? A world where we didn't pop Prozac every morning, plan our meals on the South Beach diet, and imagine "working from home" as liberation? A world in which, like Olesha, we nourished not just work but the life outside it, the whole unruly, glorious mess of our emotions.