Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov, translated by Stephen Pearl

By Ivan Goncharov
Translated by Stephen Pearl
(Bunim & Banigan, 443 pp., $45)


Anyone with a claim to literacy is familiar with the names of Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Dostoevsky, and can cite some of the titles of their most famous works. But Goncharov and his novel Oblomov, of which a new translation, a snappily colloquial and readable one, has just been published—who ever heard of them?

Well, Beckett for one, who was told to read Oblomov by his mistress Peggy Guggenheim, and soon signed some of his letters to her with this cognomen. I recall my teacher at the University of Chicago long ago, the renowned classicist David Grene, who had been a fellow student of Beckett’s at Trinity College, Dublin, telling me that the future famous writer was well-known as a very late riser and missed classes for this reason. Since the main character o fOblomov also finds it very difficult to leave his couch—whether he succeeds in doing so or not (literally as well as symbolically)constitutes the main thread of the extremely tenuous action of the novel—Beckett’s instant attraction to this character is easily comprehensible. There is also good reason to believe that the figure in Waiting for Godot bearing the Russian name of Vladimir is a tribute to this unexpectedly Slavic aspect of Beckett.

Aside from their greater familiarity, none of the titles of the more famous Russian writers can rival Goncharov’s in having provided anew word to the Russian language. Open any Russian dictionary and you will find the word oblomovshchina, defined, in the first onet hat comes to hand, as "carelessness, want of energy, laziness, negligence," and specifying its origin in Goncharov’s novel, where the word itself is used. Scarcely any other novelist, Russian orotherwise (except perhaps Cervantes), could boast of having created a character whose attributes have left such an indelible impression on the vocabulary, and on the national psyche, of his country.

So who was Ivan Goncharov, and why has the character he created taken on such ineradicably symbolic proportions? He was born in1812 in a town on the Volga named Simbirsk, which struck all who came to visit it, including the poet Lermontov, as the epitome of "sleep and laziness." "Even [the] Volga," he wrote, "rolled here slower and smoother." Goncharov himself later agreed that "the whole appearance of my home town was a perfect picture of sleepiness and stagnation."

He came from a very prosperous merchant family, and was one of the few Russian writers of this period descended from such a ackground. When he wished to study at the University of Moscow, it was necessary for him to obtain freedom from the guild of merchants in order not to be forced to follow in his father’s footsteps. Despite climbing the ladder to the highest ranks of the civil service, and even being appointed tutor to a presumed inheritor to the throne who died prematurely, it would appear that Goncharov could never shake off a certain sense of discomfort deriving from this relatively lowly origin. He was known for his shy and retiring personality, and such reticence may well be attributed to a lingering uneasiness about his status in the carefully delineated Russian caste society. The merchant class in Russia had little, ifany, contact with the Western European values that had shaped the aristocracy, and was generally regarded as backward and obscurantist. Goncharov was perhaps unable to overcome the psychological results of this inauspicious heritage, despite his success.

His father died when he was seven, and a tenant of the family, a nex-naval officer of noble birth who was also a Freemason, moved into the main house on the family estate, thus becoming asubstitute father (his relations with Goncharov’s mother are unclear). He opened Goncharov to a wider cultural horizon and amore elegant and sophisticated way of life than was customary among the merchant class. It may also have provided Goncharov with a tenant- landlord pattern that was later used in Oblomov in reverse, so that the upper- class anti-hero ultimately marries the lower-class landlady who has unstintingly taken care of all his material needs, and whose devotion allows him to sink into a restful if self-defeating torpor. Curiously enough, in his later years Goncharov also assumed responsibility for the family of his manservant, whose widow and three children were taken into Goncharov’s home and, since he never married, constituted another wise absent family. Here he was following a pattern already depicted in Oblomov, in which the protagonist derives some satisfaction from tutoring the children of his landlady by a former marriage.

Goncharov very early learned French and German—and English, too ,which was much less common; and he read widely in the Romantic literature of the time. Initially sent to a School of Commerce at the urging of his mother, he later spoke of this establishment with loathing, and was then allowed to enroll in the department of philology at the University of Moscow. Here he came into contact with some of the leading minds of his era, when Romanticism and Idealism and combinations thereof were imported from Germany and became all the rage in Russsian culture. In contrast with literary rivals such as Turgenev and Tolstoy, who inherited fortunes, and more like Dostoevsky, who was dependent on his writings for his income, Goncharov was forced to earn his living. On graduation he entered the civil service bureaucracy.

Some notion of how he regarded his post can be gathered from the pages of his novel in which he describes Oblomov’s reaction to the brief period in which he served in a similar situation. Reared I nthe lap of comfort and indolence, Oblomov had instinctively assumed that his life would continue to be much the same in the bureaucracy. "Oblomov’s misgivings only increased when he saw packages flashing by marked `urgent’ and `extremely urgent,’ when he was made to write out and copy all kinds of papers and documents, rummage in files and fill writing pads as thick as your arm whimsically referred to as `notes.’" Worst of all was that "a couple of times they even got him out of bed in the middle of the night to make him write some `notes.’ ... Everything had to be done fast, everyone was always rushing somewhere non-stop.... The dreariness of it filled him with dread: `it doesn’t seem to leave a moment for living!’ he complained." It is not surprising that when Oblomov carelessly sends a document off to Archangel instead of Astrakhan, he decides to retire rather than "face the music."

Unlike that of his fictional creation, Goncharov’s civil service ecareer was eminently successful; but it is likely that he felt a similar tedium about it. In any event, he astonished all who knew him by accepting an appointment that required him to travel around the world. In 1852, he became secretary to Admiral Putyatin of the Russian Navy, entrusted with the task of inspecting Russian possessions in North America (they were never reached) and more importantly with seeking a commercial treaty with Japan (it was never concluded). Goncharov kept a notebook on his travels, and later published sketches of his impressions and observations in a work titled The Frigate Pallas, which met with some success. It waswritten in the ironically subdued, semi-humoristic style cultivated in Oblomov, which he had already begun but found difficult to complete.

Upon his return, Goncharov accepted a position in the censorship that supervised Russian publications, and retained it until his retirement in 1867. This exposed him to fierce criticism from the radicals, and even some of his more moderate friends found it difficult to accept the notion of a writer working as a censor. "If I wrote the devil knows what," he complained in a letter to a friend, "even then there would be no compassion for me, if only because of my title and position."

Still, Goncharov’s record, based on his censorship reports, indicates that Russian literature may well have benefited from his supervision. No one studying nineteenth-century Russian culture can fail to be struck by the extent to which, contrary to what occurred after the Soviet takeover of power, radical criticism of the prevailing regime managed to appear in print. Of course Russian writers used what came to be known as Aesopian language, which expressed their subversive ideas indirectly; but everyone knew how to read what was implied in the figurative imagery. Indeed ,Goncharov was criticized by other censors for his "liberalism," andhe approved some extremely radical articles on the assumption that ,as he wrote in one report, "extreme views show themselves to be flimsy before strict science and die away from the contact of critical analysis."

Despite the rigid self-control that allowed him to pursue a successful career, Goncharov was nonetheless assailed by inner obsessions that led to an episode whose equal it would be hard to find elsewhere in literary history. He began to work on Oblomov simultaneously with another book, which eventually became his third novel, Obryv, or The Precipice; and he often spoke with Turgenev of his plans for this latter work. In 1859, while Oblomov was appearing in installments, he accused Turgenev, with whom he had been on the best of terms, of having stolen some of the ideas for The Precipice and using them in his own novel A Nest of Gentlefolk in 1859, and then again a year later in On the Eve.

The outraged Turgenev asked that other members of their literary circle pass judgment on Goncharov’s accusations, and several agreed to read Goncharov’s plans and the novels in question. Their decision was that the relations between the plans and the novels were too indistinct to justify Goncharov’s charge: whatever similarities existed arose from the fact that both had been created "on the same Russian soil." Even a member of this impromptu jury who was close to Goncharov wrote that "my friend Ivan Alexandrovich played a very unenviable role in this event," and praised Turgenev for behaving with "that particular grace which is the property of decent people of highly educated society." Turgenev broke off all relations with Goncharov, though they were presumably reconciled, at least in public, at the funeral of a member of the jury in 1864.

So Goncharov was far from being an engaging or ingratiating personality, and he had few intimate friends. Dostoevsky, who admired Oblomov, once wrote of its author that he embodied "the soul of a petty official, not an idea in his head, and the eyes ofa steamed fish, whom God, as if for a joke, has endowed with a brilliant talent." Despite the decision of the literary jury, Goncharov continued to believe that Turgenev had pilfered his conceptions, and his delusion reached such a pitch that he claimed Turgenev was not only using them himself but passing them along to French friends such as Flaubert and a whole host of other writers including the Goncourts, George Sand, and Daudet. He even went so far as to write that Flaubert’s L’Education sentimentale is "simply an abbreviated Precipice."

When his own novel was harshly criticized as "reactionary" and proved to be a failure with the public, Goncharov consoled himself with the illusion that its lack of success was because his own thematic inspirations had already been used by others. "What an effect this novel could and should have made," he wrote, "if only they [Turgenev and his accomplices] had not run ahead with their copies." It is little wonder that he spent the last years of his life in relative solitude.

Goncharov was by no means a prolific writer, publishing only three novels. His first, A Common Story, in 1847, was written without much difficulty, and aroused the enthusiasm of the important critic Belinsky as well as the praise of Tolstoy, who was just beginning his literary career. A chapter of Oblomov, the famous dream of his childhood, appeared in a collection of new writing published in1849, but the novel itself was not completed until ten years later, in a burst of inspiration that surprised Goncharov himself. As for The Precipice, his letters contain endless complaints about the lack of a similar inspiration, though it was finally finished at the urging of the editor of an important journal. To be sure, Goncharov’s obligations as bureaucrat and censor gave him less time than others to devote to literary composition; but his notion of "realism" also proved a hindrance to the seemingly effortless productivity that he so obviously envied in his presumed imitator, the perfidious Turgenev.

Goncharov’s understanding of "realism" is expressed in an exchange of letters with Dostoevsky, one of the contributors to an anthology of well-known writers that he was putting together in 1874. A famine had raged a year earlier in the province of Samara, and the proceeds from this volume were to be used for famine relief. Dostoevsky sent in a series of "little sketches," one of which contained the depiction of a priest whose behavior indicated a certain influence of the fashionable Nihilism of the radicals. Goncharov found this portrait unconvincing and expressed his opinion to Dostoevsky, who replied that priests of this kind did exist: his sketch had been taken from life; such a type was beginning to be known. Goncharov retorted that a type is formed only "when it has been repeated many times, or been noticed many times, has become customary and is well known to all."

Dostoevsky’s sketch of this burgeoning type was deleted from his contribution, but it is easy to see how the creator of Raskolnikov would be especially alert to social and cultural phenomena of this kind. Goncharov’s own literary horizon, by contrast, was limited by his preconception of "the typical. " Its advantage was that it allowed him to endow a character such as Oblomov with an almost mythical stature. In 1859, a resounding article titled "What Is Oblomovshchina?" by the radical critic Nikolay Dobrolyubov hailed the central figure of the novel as the epitome of all those "superfluous men"—beginning with Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and continuing in works by Herzen and Turgenev (the term comes from Turgenev’s story "The Diary of a Superfluous Man")—that formed a sub-genre of the Russian novel up through the 1860s and beyond. Dostoevsky’s Nikolay Stavrogin, in The Devils, may be considered an effort to provide this type with a religious-metaphysical foundation that was beyond Goncharov’s range.


The reader first meets Oblomov at the age of "thirty-two or -three, "past his first youth but hardly decrepit. The description of his face already indicates the vagaries of his character, which will be developed at great length and in endless variations. "A thought would flit, bird-like, randomly across his face, glint briefly in his eyes, light on his gently parted lips, hide in the furrows of his brow, and suddenly vanish; then his whole face would radiate an even glow of unconcern. This unconcern would pass from his face into the lineaments of his body, into the very folds of his dressing gown." Such a depiction already indicates the pattern of Oblomov’s life, his capacity to be roused momentarily by "a thought," which invariably arises as a response to the necessities of external social existence, and then his relapse into "an even glow of unconcern."

A few paragraphs later, the dressing gown is referred to again as being "of Persian cloth, a real Oriental robe without the slightest European touch.... The sleeves, in true Asiatic fashion, were much wider at the shoulder than at the wrist." Like many other details that first seem casual, this robe takes on symbolic proportions as the book advances. Some critics have interpreted it as a reference to an "Asiatic" tendency in the Russian character; and Oblomov’s efficient and successful friend Stoltz, whose father is German, certainly forms a "Western" contrast to Oblomov’s indolence and practical helplessness.

Oblomov occupies a single room in an apartment of four rooms, spends most of his time lying on a couch, and very rarely stirs from his outwardly opulent but totally neglected dwelling. He is looked after by a faithful manservant named Zakhar, who both scorns and adores him, and much prefers having a drink with other lackeys and flunkeys to performing household chores. Goncharov obtains a classic comic effect—one is sometimes reminded of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza- -with the amusing and sometimes heated exchanges between the two, which continually contrast bleak reality with decayed grandeur and exalted daydreams.

A number of people come to visit the recumbent Oblomov on the firstday of spring, which is treated as a holiday in Russia, and several unsuccessfully invite him for a drive to one of the outlying suburbs of Petersburg. Goncharov was a master of satirical parody, and here he takes potshots at various targets. There is a writer named Penkin, an advocate of "the realistic tendency" in literature, who advises Oblomov to read a sensational work about to be published called The Love of the Bribetaker for the Fallen Woman, which depicts, he insists, "all the workings of our society... the weak but corrupt dignitary and his whole retinue of duplicitous officials." But when Penkin compares it to Dante and Shakespeare, Oblomov objects "and almost rose to his feet in his amazement." Sounding like someone who has just read Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk, he vehemently reacts: "Show us your thief, yourprostitute, your pompous idiot! But where’s the human being, where’s the humanity in all this?" Oblomov’s weaknesses and failures are most often comic, but Goncharov raises him above thelevel of caricature by these occasional outbursts of genuine identification with the feelings of others—a capacity most valued by those closest to him in the novel, his friend Stoltz and the woman he almost marries, Olga Ilyinskaya.

A famous set-piece of this first part of the novel is "Oblomov’sDream," which overcomes him as he falls asleep after pondering his continual failures to behave like others in meeting the obligations of real life. "Futile regrets about the past and the bitter recriminations of his own conscience pricked him like sharp needles. He strove desperately to find some guilty party or other to whom he could shift the burden of these recriminations," and he decides, much to his relief, that "it’s all Zakhar’s fault." This obviously evasive answer, this refusal to assume the burden of responsibility himself, is nonetheless essentially true if extended to include the world that had given birth both to Zakhar and himself, the world that he recalls in his dream.

What Goncharov evokes here has been accurately called a pastoral idyll, and it is difficult briefly to do justice to its intermixture of lyrical celebration with gentle satire. It is a world in which nature and man live in a state of eternal harmony. Nature contains nothing menacing or threatening; even death comes naturally and without suffering to those who pass quietly away inold age. People contentedly exist in a self-enclosed universe with little or no knowledge of others. When peasants took their grain "to the nearest river port on the Volga," it was "the equivalent to them of Colchis and the Pillars of Hercules of classical Greek mythology."

Image after image from both nature and literature is used by Goncharov to emphasize the placidity and the tranquility of this way of life, which could not be more different from the dramatic Romantic pageantry of Sir Walter Scott, with its "ancient bard, a wild goat for ... supper and a ballad sung by a young damsel to th eaccompaniment of a lute." Instead, life for the young Ilya Ilyich, as well as his parents and all the others of similar rank who shared the life of Oblomovka, went undisturbedly and unquestionably on its unending rounds of "christenings, name days, family celebrations, fast and feast days, noisy dinners, gathering of relatives, welcomes, congratulations, formal occasions of tears and smiles. "All work was done by an army of peasant serfs, who appear in the background from time to time to be rebuked, as Oblomov always does with Zakhar, for one infraction or another of their appointed tasks.

The young Ilya Ilyich was guarded by peasant nannies who stirred his imagination with horrific tales taken from Russian folklore, as well as others recounting the "derrring-do of Ilya Muromets" (his namesake); and they both left "an indelible impression on the young Oblomov’s mind and imagination." Carefully guarded from doing anything that might involve the slightest possibility of injury, he is unable to play with the other children. Sent to a school run with German rigor by Stoltz’s father, it was there that the two boys became lifelong friends; but Ilya’s own family sought any excuse (and even invented some) to keep him at home, so as to spare him the presumed hardships of the Stoltz schooling. To satisfy the school’s requirements he was aided by his friend Andrei, who plays the same role in Oblomov’s later years, and whose character, partly shaped by his Russian mother, is softened by his contact with Russian tenderness and emotionalism. If there is any social and cultural lesson for Russia to be derived from Oblomov, it would be that Russia needs a fusion of the two.

One of the problems in the interpretation of Oblomov is to what extent Goncharov, while unsparing in his portrayal of Oblomov’s defects, nonetheless retains a certain affection for the world that produced him. The radical Dobrolyubov was entirely right in viewing Oblomov’s character as an implied attack on the social milieu from which he came, and a whole line of criticism simply expands and develops this view of the book. But this milieu is portrayed withsuch loving detail, and the satire is so muted and even affectionate, that it has raised questions about the "ambiguity" of Goncharov’s point of view. It is perfectly clear in any case that, while grateful for Dobrolyubov’s enthusiasm for his novel, he didnot share the latter’s radical principles. Vladimir Korolenko, a noted turn-of-the-century writer, acutely remarked that "Goncharov, of course, mentally rejected `Oblomovism,’ but deep inside he loved it with profound love beyond his control."

Part 1 ends with the arrival of Stoltz, previously only evoked in Oblomov’s dreams and musings or mentioned by the narrator. Parts 2and 3 of the book recount Oblomov’s involvement with Olga, a young girl whom Stoltz has known since childhood and whom he introduces to his friend. Stoltz initially saw her "merely as a delightful child full of promise," who possessed a "sunny temperament" and was free of any "spurious sophistication." Intrigued by Oblomov, about whose peculiarites she had been informed by Stoltz, she decides to rescue him from his inertia—to bring him back to life.

Oblomov himself avoided romantic entanglements during his early years in Petersburg, even though there had been numerous opportunities, "because of the trouble involved in establishing such close relations." He particularly avoided "the pale `damsel indistress’ type, usually with dark eyes hinting glisteningly at `tormented days and harrowing nights.’" (This is a good instance of how Goncharov uses his seemingly objective third-person narrative voice to carry on his polemic with Romantic stereotypes, and occasionally with stock reactions of the reader that he anticipates and ridicules.) But since Olga, reversing the usual relation of th esexes, takes the initiative in this instance, Oblomov is caught up in emotions that he never before experienced.

The course of their relationship is narrated with a great deal of wry humor, as Olga carries out her intention of transforming Oblomov’s life—partly, it is suggested, to satisfy her own vanity. "And it would be she who would work this miracle, the shy, silent Olga whom no one had ever listened to before and who had barely experienced life herself—yes, she would bring about this transformation!" The intricacies of their romance are marked by a skillful use of symbolic detail—the aria "Casta diva" from Bellini’s Norma; a sprig of lilac that she hands to Oblomov but then throws down in a moment of pique; the reports that she requires him to write of the books he claims to have read; and when he carelessly utters an opinion about art, even a visit to the Hermitage— the equivalent for Oblomov of a trip to the ends of the earth. Oblomov continually doubts that so attractive a young woman could become seriously involved with a hopeless idler like himself, and his own oscillations are noted by the narrator with both penetration and amusement.

Oblomov even writes her a lengthy letter claiming to renounce her for her own good; but eventually they become engaged. Olga insists that their engagement remain undisclosed until Oblomov takes up the burden of actually traveling to his estate, complete its necessary repairs, and investigate the continual diminution of the income from his three hundred peasant serfs. But he is incapable of occupying himself with such financial details, and so he is systematically swindled by the bailiff left in charge. Although tormented by the uncertain status of his connection with Olga, which leads to social embarrassments only adding to his inner dismay, and continually assuring her of his imminent departure, he proves unable to keep his word. Meanwhile, forced out of his apartment, he moves to one in a "street with no houses, just fences and grass, with ruts in the dried mud."

On his first visit there, he notices that the face of the landlady, though she was dressed shabbily and incongruously, "projected an impression of simple good nature," and "her bust, even though covered as it was ... could have served as a model for a painting and sculpture of a firm, healthy and substantial bosom without even a suggestion of immodesty." Always occupied with accomplishing some necessary household task, Agafya Matveyevna’s bare elbows were inconstant motion, and when she bent down Oblomov "could see underneath a clean skirt, clean stockings and round, plump legs. "Most important, he would suddenly be confronted with a hand mysteriously appearing and offering him something delicious to eat or drink.

Goncharov thus discreetly suggests both the erotic attraction of the landlady, divorced from any of the tasks imposed by a union with Olga, and the return, as it were, to the childhood delights of Oblomovka. Ultimately this leads to the replacement of the increasingly disillusioned Olga by the devoted Agafya, dedicated entirely to Oblomov’s happiness as she understands it. Olga eventually marries the much more suitable Stoltz, and both intervene to rescue Oblomov and Agafya, whom he will marry, from the clutches of her brother and his rascally cohort, who have concocted a scheme for bleeding them dry. All these twists and turns of the action are given a larger significance by a passage in which Stoltz, contemplating his own marriage, reveals the literary ancestry of Goncharov’s creation.

With a smile and with blushes alternating with frowns, he watched the endless procession of love’s heroes and heroines file past: he saw Don Quixotes in steel gauntlets and the ladies of the imaginations remaining true to each other through fifty years of separation; he saw ruddy-cheeked shepherd boys with their bulging, innocent eyes and their Chloes, minding their lambs. Powdered marquises with their knowing glances and lewd smirks paraded past him in their frills and furbelows; behind them came the Werthers who had shot, hanged and strangled themselves; there were the faded spinsters in their convents shedding the endless tears of the lovelorn; there were the mustachioed latter day heroes with their flashing eyes, the witting and unwitting Don Juans, the sophisticates who tremble at the very suspicion of love but secretly adore their housekeepers—the procession went on and on.

Thus Oblomov is placed in this literary line as the latest incarnation of a perennial theme. And not only is he located in such an expanded literary and historical context, but his tirades from time to time also raise ultimate questions about the meaning of human activity and human life itself. Accused by Stoltz ofoblomovshchina, Oblomov answers back "with a strange, searching look, " but "mildly and without heat": "Isn’t everybody looking for the same thing as me? ... Surely the purpose of all this hustle and bustle of yours, all these passions, wars, trade and politics is to achieve precisely this very peace and quiet, to strive for this ideal of paradise lost?" Stoltz can only reply that "Russia needs hands and heads to develop and explore its inexhaustible reserves." This is hardly an adequate response to Oblomov’s large question. The same theme arises much later when Olga, living a married life of perfect happiness, is overcome by an inexplicable sadness. Stoltz can only console her by replying that "yes, that’s the pric we pay for Prometheus’s fire, but don’t think of it as a burden or a curse." One feels Goncharov reaching here for Dostoevskian themes, which he felt himself incapable of exploring but which confer upon Oblomov’s character, even if only in passing, much more than a social and cultural purport.

And yet the social and cultural implications first analyzed by Dobrolyubov are what continue to give Goncharov’s novel its ever-renewed topicality. It is no surprise that Lenin (who was also born, incidentally, in Simbirsk) time and again refers to Oblomov as a figure embodying all the forces opposing the transformation of Russian society that he wished to bring about. Nor could Mikhail Gorbachev resist invoking Oblomov to characterize those opposing his policy of perestroika. But the book’s appeal exceeds the country and the culture of its origins. Oblomovshchina is a spiritual condition and a social problem that we all may recognize, whether it delights us or not. As Richard Peace has observed, Oblomov "has significance beyond that of its continuing relevance to Russian society and Russian culture. Happy, indeed, would be the reader who beyond laughter at Oblomov’s subterfuges ... would not be aware, too, of an uneasy feeling of self-recognition."

Joseph Frank is a professor emeritus of comparative literature and Slavic languages and literature at Stanford University and the author, most recently, of Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet (Princeton University Press).