Of all human vices, Schadenfreude is most likely the worst: those afflicted do not seek their own success but the failure of others. Hoping that your neighbor, your brother, or that lovely girl in the office meets with some disastrous circumstance just so that you may feel better about your own mediocrity hints at another form of malicious glee. The one which arises when you daydream about stripping a fellow human of his or her accolades, spouse, money, or anything else they might have earned. In countries where egalitarianism is promoted and preferred, it is not uncommon to see others looking over their shoulders at your small plot of land which, in essence, is just like everyone else's. Or so you think. Upon further scrutiny you realize that in contradistinction to adjoining plots yours boasts, in a small, shaded, almost inconspicuous corner, one dark blue violet of infinite beauty. You have not really noticed this violet before, but everyone in your vicinity cannot take their eyes off it. After a certain amount of time, you begin to hear rumors of others' having had similar flower seeds and good earth, only to have seen their flowers killed by an errant footprint or simply scooped up by an enterprising passer-by. What you will never hear is that everyone tried with equal effort but unequal talent to grow such a violet, and only you succeeded. In fact, you will soon learn that you, of all people, tried the least and were also granted by whatever grants people such powers, the least amount of talent to make a violet bloom. And yet only you have it, which can only mean skulduggery. Germany, a country of unabashed egalitarianism, even coined a word for such a "conspiracy of feelings," a Neidgesellschaft, or society of envy, a place where people are supposed to be equal or close to equal, or at least given as many opportunities as possible to be equal, but where oftentimes human beings' competitive nature gets the better of them. Which brings us to this sensational novel.
The time is the 1920s and the scene is the New Russia. Today we have, admittedly, another New Russia; but back then the legacy of the Soviets was yet to be sensed by anyone except the most prescient and cynical among us. A new society meant reinventing not only the wheel, but also poetry, government, sexual relations, sports, and, perhaps most importantly, simple creature comforts such as sausages and pillows. The sausage maker is a man called Andrei Babichev. He is a large, boisterous fortyish businessman – appropriate socialist terminology is "Director of the Food Industry Trust" – drunk on his own salubrity and boundless, throbbing volition (calling him energetic would be incredibly unfair to marathon runners and other such slouches). As all good citizens do, he dreams of a new world where everything is better than it once was, and where men like Andrei can rule because they have the greatest amount of resilience to creeping mortality. He sings, bellows, and generally expects to be the center of attention wherever he finds himself drumming up business. Despite being a self-made man, he was attacked by some hooligans about ten years ago and survived only thanks to the timely intervention of a burgeoning soccer star, Volodya Markov. Since that fateful incident Markov and Andrei have been like son and father to the point that Andrei would like Markov to marry his lovely niece Valya. Valya is sixteen and Volodya twenty-seven but soon to be capped by the Soviet squad and therefore very eligible. His stated goal is to become a football "machine," to have no superfluous movements or thoughts in the perfection of his craft – the purest allegorical illusion that the Soviets could foist upon their supporters and citizens. This all sounds like a dandy setup for a new, improved society bereft of any malice, underachievement, or selfishness. And it would be were it not for the introduction of two characters – Andrei's older brother Ivan, and a mysterious fellow called Nikolai Kavalerov.
Once upon a time, we are told, there were three Babichev brothers: Roman, the eldest and most gung-ho about defending the homeland; Ivan, a devout non-conformist and a bit of a parasite; and Andrei, the bright-eyed baby who went abroad to pursue his studies and whatever else needed to be pursued. Roman was executed for his role in a revolutionary force's terrorist actions, and we all know what happened to Andrei. But what about Ivan? It is an accepted premise that artistic types, bless them all, often have little inclination to do anything else except engage in their art, a formula which this philosopher rationalized and ultimately justified in a famous discourse. Ivan is most definitely such a man: creative, moody, impractical to a preposterous degree, he too dreams of transforming the New Russia – but not by means of the platitudinous robotic achievements that would so typify Soviet culture at its apex and nadir. No, Ivan is a true artist, which means his genius stems from both originality and a thorough knowledge of the work of his forerunners. While Andrei wants to build a better salami, Ivan's brazen mind envisions a dream machine, soap bubbles that would expand to the size of a hot-air balloon, and his most enigmatic creation, the so-called "Ophelia" machine. What this latter construct entails is not immediately revealed, although it is clear that Ivan considers it his masterpiece and legacy. He finds, however, few sympathizers. Andrei wants no part of him and is only interested in Valya for the sake of Markov; everyone else seems to think him raving mad, a Bohemian louse or some combination of the two. His disheveled appearance and crushing negativity regarding the achievements of his younger brother are reflected in his overwhelming ambition to annihilate Andrei, an ambition shared by Kavalerov, who dances innocuously across the novel's stage without affecting anyone or anything. He and Ivan share a striking number of opinions on matters great and small, and even end up bedding the same widow despite her repulsive demeanor and shape. Kavalerov talks to Andrei, but is brushed aside as if he doesn't really exist; Ivan does exist, or at least we think he exists, and is given similar treatment. Neither one can dissuade Valya from her upcoming nuptials with Volodya, and the effete duo continue to stir up trouble in local pubs with the overt intent of overthrowing Andrei or some substantial chunk of Andrei's world. Ivan – or Kavalerov, a bit hard to tell them apart at times – even mistakenly absconds with a letter from Volodya in which the goalie recommends that Andrei sever all ties with Kavalerov. This infuriates Ivan and Kavalerov in equal measure, which leads them to do, of course, nothing of consequence except scheme.
There are more than a few indications about Ivan and Kavalerov's real identities, although secondary literature conveniently tends to overlook them in lieu of more traditional reading approaches. One important clue is Valya's reaction to both men: she does not treat Ivan like her father, nor does she even acknowledge that Kavalerov, who becomes obsessed with her, actually breathes much of the same air she does. Another hint might be derived from a solid knowledge of the oeuvre of this writer, who specialized in long-winded diatribes about the humiliated, those in life who do not have voices because they are drowned out by guffaws of ridicule. Unlike Dostoevsky, Olesha presents his tale in the most compact of forms, and one that bends in a green arch over every last sumptuous detail. The "Vainglorious and Thoughtless Man," Kavalerov, will be known forever and ever for his envy, just like Iago – and just like, for that matter, Ivan, who once grew a blue violet out of a wart after claiming he had a remedy. But some people have more ambition than simply growing exotic flowers.