After reading so many 19th century authors who seem to go to great lengths (often literally) to broadcast their own opinions (nihilism is dumb! Christianity! Peasants!), I’ve found Zamyatin and Olesha’s willingness to embrace ambiguity and nuance very refreshing. Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy all appeared to have well-formed ideas about how one should live and seemed to utilize large parts of their novel to convey these thoughts. Turgenev has long periods of philosophical debate about the tenets and merits of nihilism. The premise of Dostoevsky’s entire work was premised on the question of how someone functions in a modern society and he comes to the relatively straightforward conclusion that God can solve it all. Tolstoy spends literally hundreds of pages romanticizing the simplicity of peasant life and concludes that living for God is the only way to go.
Zamyatin and Olesha, by contrast, seem much more willing to embrace vague and open-ended conclusions. Both critique communism and the new Soviet Union while simultaneously acknowledging some benefits. While Tolstoy was perfectly at home making broad categorical statements (“All happy families…”), Zamyatin and Olesha seem very uncomfortable doing that, preferring to prod and poke rather than wholly praise or condemn. This is perhaps best exemplified by the warm welcome Envy received in the Soviet press and its simultaneous endorsement by critics of the Soviet Union. After reading so many novels that seemed like lectures, I’ve really appreciated Zamyatin and particularly Olesha’s willingness and ability to praise opposite ends of the spectrum at the same time.
Does anyone else feel the same way about the transition from the 19th to the 20th centuries?