The Macksey Journal


Yuri Olesha’s 1927 novel Envy—the author’s magnum opus and an often-overlooked tour de force of modern Russian Literature—depicts the world through the eyes of an isolated loner named Nikolai Kavalerov. Kavalerov’s vision of the world is distorted, surreal; he asserts that he is afflicted by “thinking in images,” a phrase which this paper traces back to the Russian Formalists’ debate as to whether or not “art is thinking in images.” This paper goes on to argue that Kavalerov’s mode of seeing is not only avant-garde in its defamiliarization, it is inherently photographic: Through the distorted lenses of mirrors and backwards binoculars, we encounter a visual space that is flattened, foreshortened, and cropped, as the forms of objects take precedence over their real-world function. Kavalerov’s photographic vision is then situated in an art historical context; while it draws from the same inspirations as Olesha’s Constructivist avant-garde contemporaries, it is ultimately Romantic in nature. Although many scholars have focused on how this visual treatment stems from Kavalerov’s need to control and dominate the world, this paper argues that more than anything it is a symptom of the narrator’s desire to retreat from reality: Kavalerov’s mind comes to resemble a personal camera obscura, a self-made version of Plato’s cave that he shrinks into in order to hide from the bite of objective reality.