Tuesday, 11 September 2012

IVAN GONCHAROV Oblomov (1859)

 Penguin Classics, c. 1990

He was a man of about thirty-two or three, of medium height and pleasant appearance, with dark grey eyes, but with a total absence of any definite idea, any concentration in his features.  Thoughts promenaded freely all over his face, fluttered about in his eyes, reposed on his half-parted lips, concealed themselves in the furrows of his brow, and then vanished completely –– and it was at such moments that an expression of serene unconcern spread all over his face.  This unconcern passed from his face into the contours of his body and even into the folds of his dressing gown.

Translated by DAVID MAGARSHACK, 1954

The Novel:  Ilya Ilyich Oblomov is a Russian nobleman, owner of a vast country estate he never bothers to visit, a timid, easily duped individual whose usual response to life's problems is to avoid them, preferably by sleeping on the couch while snugly wrapped in his fancy but increasingly tatty dressing gown.  His life consists of sitting round his St Petersburg flat, berating his loyal but stupid servant Zakhar for failing to clean it properly, eating three large meals a day and reluctantly accepting the occasional unwanted visit from men like Tarantyev –– dubious 'friends' who drop in only when they're hungry or need another loan he can always be relied upon to supply with no questions asked.  Oblomov has no ambition, no energy and no interest in improving his estate or bettering the lives of the serfs charged with the thankless task of farming it for him.

But he has one friend, Andrey Stolz, who refuses to allow him to succumb to his self-perpetuating torpor.  Stolz harangues him each time they meet, insisting that he take an interest in his neglected estate and regain the enthusiasm for social reform they once shared in their youth.  Oblomov would like to do this but, as he repeatedly reminds his friend, he lacks both the drive and the willpower required to do so.  Nor does the prospect of leading what Stolz deems to be a normal social life hold much appeal for him.  It seems like too much trouble to leave his flat, to actually talk to people and pretend to take an interest in things that generally leave him feeling bored, upset or both.  As he explains, 'They’re all corpses, sleepwalkers, worse than me, these members of society and the public!'

Things change, however, when Stolz introduces him to Olga Ilinsky, an orphan much younger than himself whose desire to bring him out of his shell and 'improve' him proves too strong to resist.  Oblomov falls in love with Olga and, under her watchful eye, gradually begins to take an interest in life again, attending parties and occasionally even the opera with her and her widowed aunt.  Meanwhile, his failure to renew the lease on his beloved flat forces him to vacate it and move to the outlying suburb of Vyborg and the ramshackle house of Agafya Matveyevna, the hardworking sister of Tarantyev's shady business associate Ivan Matveyevich.  But Oblomov is so naïve, so wary of confronting anybody on any issue whatsoever, that he fails to see the arrangement has been devised by the two men to allow them to keep lining their pockets at his expense without him catching on to to it.

Oblomov's life does improve for a time after his move to Vyborg.  Agafya Matveyevna spoils him because she considers him 'a gentleman' and Olga continues to love him in spite of his refusal to commit to any plan of action that might actually hasten their marriage.  But the disease that is 'Oblomovitis' – the inability to see the point of doing anything, including anything as 'exhausting' as becoming officially engaged or attending to his business affairs –– proves to be a stubborn one to cure.  Oblomov continues to dither and procrastinate, refusing to heed Stolz's advice to go and put his badly-run estate in order, preferring to hire another suspicious friend of Ivan Matveyevich's to travel there and do the job for him while he stays in Vyborg, avoiding his responsibilities and living the same timid, obscure and ultimately pointless life he's always lived with scarcely a thought for the long-term consequences of his actions. 

Goncharov's great achievement in Oblomov was to make its protagonist a sympathetic character rather than the purely farcical one he might have become in less compassionate hands.  Stolz and Olga never stop loving him and nor do the equally lazy Zakhar or his landlady, who gladly goes hungry to ensure he'll always have something tasty to nibble on at supper time.  They appreciate his finer qualities – his kindness, his honesty and sincerity – even as they despair of changing him or making him realize that he's frittering his life away.   'A regular ocean of evil and baseness may be surging round him, the entire world may be poisoned and turned upside down – Oblomov will never bow down to the idol of falsehood, and his soul will always be pure, noble, honest.'  This is how they see him despite his faults –as a man who, in some respects, is their moral superior because he refuses to lie to them, himself or the world about who and what he is. 

Oblomov has often been described as a satire, which it is, but it's also a heartrending portrait of a man for whom life has become an overwhelming proposition, too difficult and frightening to be faced in any normal adult way.  It speaks to the part of all of us that yearns to solve our problems by hiding from them or, better still, by pretending they don't exist.  As its translator David Magarshack notes so perceptively in his introduction:  'Oblomov can hardly be said to be a typically Russian character:  there are thousands of Oblomovs scattered all over the world.'  It's this sense of universality that's makes the novel one of the lesser-known classics of Russian literature, placing it on the same level as the best work of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev and Chekhov (who once claimed that Goncharov was 'ten heads above me in talent').

The WriterIvan Goncharov was born in 1812 in the western Russian town of Simbirsk, which was later renamed Ulyanovsk in honour of its other famous inhabitant, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.  Goncharov's father was a successful grain merchant, a prime example of the kind of hated Russian capitalist that Lenin's Bolshevik revolution would successfully overthrow in October 1917. 

Goncharov was initially educated at a Moscow boarding school –– where he taught himself to read English, French and German –– before spending eight miserable years at a commercial college to which he'd been sent by his mother in order to prepare for a career in the Russian civil service.  In 1831, unable to tolerate his mind-numbing commercial studies any longer, he left the college and enrolled at Moscow University –– a place where he was at long last able to study literature and befriend other would-be writers who shared his enthusiasm for the poetry of Aleksandr Pushkin.  In 1832, while still at the university, he published his first book – a translation of a novel by the French writer Eugène Sue.  During this period he also composed many stories and poems he would later either disown or destroy. 

He graduated in 1834 and returned briefly to Simbirsk before taking a civil service job in St Petersburg.  He also worked part-time as a tutor in the Maykov household, teaching Latin and Russian Literature to the future poet Apollon Maykov and to the future literary critic, Apollon's younger brother Valerian.  It was in the Maykov home that he met Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Ivan Turgenev – the novelists who, along with Tolstoy, would soon come to dominate Russian literature and inspire his own decision to abandon poetry for fiction. 

His first novel, An Ordinary Story, appeared in 1847 in the St Petersburg journal The Contemporary Review.  Despite being liked by the critics (and Tolstoy) it would be another two years before the story Oblomov's Dream a fragment of what was still many years away from becoming his second novel –– appeared in the same magazine.  He stopped working on Oblomov to plan his third novel, The Precipice, and to serve as private secretary to a Russian admiral on a round-the-world voyage which lasted three years.  In 1856, one year after his return to Russia, he was appointed to the post of literary censor by the new 'progressive' Czar, Alexander II.  He took the job seriously, sometimes angering less conservative writers who felt he didn't do enough to help them get their work approved for publication.  He was, by all accounts, very much his father's bourgeois son when it came to the always contentious subjects of politics and social reform.

Seven Stories Press, 2008
He resumed work on the long-abandoned Oblomov soon after accepting his new position and it was published, in installments, in another St Petersburg review in 1859.  The book was so successful that he was able to retire from the civil service by 1867, although another ten years  passed before he published what proved to be his third and final novel, The Precipice.  Unlike its predecessors, it was poorly received by both the critics and the public whom he'd been convinced, wrongly, would adore every word of it.  Although Goncharov lived until 1891, he published nothing more besides some short sketches, a small number of theatre reviews and a handful of essays in the years leading up to his death.  He supposedly planned to write a fourth novel but no evidence of its existence has ever been discovered.

In his final years, Goncharov fell victim to paranoid delusions which saw him accuse Turgenev of trying to steal his plots.  Ironically, he ended his days in much the same way as his most famous character chose to live, hiding from the world in the St Petersburg flat he rarely left, frantically writing a resentment-fuelled memoir which remained unpublished until 1924. 

Click HERE to read more about the most recent English translation of Oblomov by MARIAN SCHWARTZ, published in 2008 by Seven Stories Press

You might also enjoy:
IVAN TURGENEV Fathers and Sons (1861)
GEORGE MEREDITH The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859)
EDITH WHARTON Ethan Frome (1911) 

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