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Despite all the critical attention that has been showered upon Yury Olesha (1899-1960) during the past twenty-five years, this Soviet writer remains a highly enigmatic figure whose oeuvre continues to generate major interpretive disagreements. Victor Peppard's monograph, whose purpose is "to demonstrate that there is in fact an identifiable set of interconnected poetic principles that governs Olesha's work and gives it artistic coherence," explores what he considers to be the three dominant elements in his poetic system: 1) defamiliarization, 2) carnival, and 3) dialogicality.
In the first chapter, "From Metafiction to Metaliterature," the author examines the aesthetic innovations that Olesha introduced in his works. Basing his analysis on Shklovsky's notion of ostraneme ("defamiliarization" or "estrangement"), Peppard asserts that Olesha, in keeping with the spirit of artistic experimentation that inspired the best Soviet writers of the 1920s, attempted to rewrite the rules of writing in his texts, thereby forcing the reader to reevaluate and reformulate the very processes by which literature is produced. Olesha emerges from Peppard's analysis as "a persistent recaster and reshaper of familiar forms and conventions." The most salient examples of this generic and structural defamiliarization, he argues, are provided by Envy (with its ornamentality), Three Fat Men (with its multitextuality), and No Day without a Line (with its metaliterary nature). In Chapter Two, "Variations on the Carnival," Peppard concentrates his attention mainly on the text of Envy, which, he claims, is "so profoundly permeated with the spirit of the carnival" that it serves as "a special exemplar of carnivalistic fiction in twentieth-century Russian fiction." Bakhtin's theory provides the basis for his examination of the various carnivalistic features, such as eccentricity (scandal scenes and verbal haranguing), mésalliances (parodic doubles), and the dynamics of crown-ing/discrowning [End Page 646] (mock kings and jesters), that appear throughout Envy. Peppard also connects two forms of popular entertainment from modern culture—sports and circus—with the carnival spirit underlying Olesha's literary works, a spirit that culminates in Envy with that "great carnivalistic event," the soccer match. The author concludes his study with a chapter on "The Poetics of Dialogue," where the theories of Shklovsky and Bakhtin are once again invoked, this time to provide the framework for a discussion of the widespread ambivalence that informs Olesha's writings. Competing narrative voices and perspectival viewpoints (adult and child, artist and athlete, and so on), Peppard notes, combine to create a highly complex and dialogical literary structure.
Peppard's monograph provides a number of illuminating observations about important (and, until now, largely unexplored) aspects of Olesha's poetics. One shortcoming, however, is the author's unfortunate tendency in his discussions to refrain from addressing broader implications raised by the notions of carnival, defamiliarization, and dialogicality. One wishes that Peppard, who is clearly knowledgeable about his topic, would have strayed more often from his narrow rhetorical plan, thrown off his exceedingly reverent (and thus sometimes restrictive) discipleship to Shklovsky, Bakhtin, and Morson, and speculated more freely and expansively about Olesha's poetics. Nonetheless, his book does represent a valuable addition to the scholarship now available on this remarkable Soviet writer.