1842 to 1880: what a forty years for readers of literary masterworks!  Beginning with Gogol’s Dead Souls and ending with Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace (1869), Anna Karenina (1877), Notes from Underground (1864), Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1869), Fathers and Sons (1862) all appeared in the literary heavens.  Extend the time to 1899 and include Tolstoy’s Resurrection.  Throw in Dostoevsky’s The Gambler (1867) and Demons (1872) and the sky is alight. With Chekhov’s shorter fiction from the 1880s it virtually burns.   Almost all achieved wide fame not only in Russia but, in translation, the entire western world. They formed the  the most recognized constellation in the literary heavens of serious novels.

There is one author and one title that shone brightly alongside these for Russian readers but which is scarcely visible, even today, in the English reading world.  Ivan Goncharov‘s Oblomov appeared in 1859, earlier than all but Dead Souls, following a 1849 short story of the same name which became incorporated in the novel.  Tolstoy himself is quoted as saying “I am in rapture over Oblomov and keep rereading it.”   Chekhov avowed that “Goncharov is ten heads above me in talent.” And yet, as widespread as Oblomov’s fame (and condition) is in Russian, few readers in the west would know his name or the malady it identifies.

It is possible that Oblomov‘s lack of admirers among English readers is due to the lack of adequate early translation.  Neither Constance Garnett nor Louise and Aylmer Maude, the early, path breaking Russian-English translators picked it up.  Of the four early translators listed, though several had translated other Russian novels, none were of readership-sparking stature.  I’ve not seen the 2006 Stephen Pearl effort but the 2008, Yale University offering, by Marian Schwartz, is an absolute wonder of lucid, flowing English without giving into the temptation of turning the people or the setting into something out of 19th century England  –or New England. [Full disclosure, Marian is a friend of mine.] In the 552 pages of text I found only three “ouchies” worth mentioning, which I will later. If anything can remedy the Oblomov blind-spot in the English reading world this translation might do it.

Oblomov as depicted on a Turkish blog

Perhaps another reason Oblomov was not incorporated into the universally acknowledged constellation of [translated] Russian novels was that it didn’t seem, well, very Russian.  Though it came before those we know best, Crime and Punishment, The IdiotWar and Peace, Anna Karenina, Brothers Karamazov burned into our collective understanding an image of the Russian character: serious, tragic, God bound, epic.  Humorous, not so much.  The Russians themselves know otherwise, but Goncharov’s pudgy, indolent, innocent, hero Oblomov is so different from what the translators had been working on, perhaps he seemed impossible to translate; perhaps he seemed trivial.  Among serious people a sleepy simpleton may be regarded as simply an error, not worth the effort.

Too bad.  Oblomov would have tickled the funny-bones of millions of High School students since the 1920s had he been better known, and brought them insight into themselves and the great mysteries of love.

Ilya Ilich Oblomov is introduced to us on the first page, in bed. He does not get out for 152 pages until his best friend, the dashing and vibrant, German-Russian, Stoltz arrives.

And what an amusing turn of 150 pages it is.

“As soon as he awoke, he intended to rise immediately, wash and, after drinking his tea, think hard, come up with an idea, write it down and in general study the matter properly.

He lay there for half an hour, agonizing over this intention, but then he reasoned that he could do this after his tea, and he could drink his tea, as was his habit, in bed, especially as nothing was keeping him from thinking lying down.

And so he did.  After his tea he sat up from his couch and was about to rise.  Looking at his slippers he even began lowering one foot toward them from the bed, but pulled it back immediately.

Several friends come in to visit.  “Don’t come any closer!  You’re straight from the cold!” he implores them.  One, Volkov, wants to get him up and out.  He offers to take him to the Mussinkys.

“Today is their day. Why don’t you come along? I’ll introduce you.
“What’s there to do?
“At the Mussinky’s?  Please, half the town goes there. What’s there to do? This is the kind of house where they talk about everything.”
“That’s what’s so boring, that it’s about everything.”

Volkov departs, unsuccessful in his invitation, “…au revoir!  I still have ten places to be… what a lot of gaiety there is in the world.”  And our man Oblomov?

Ten places to be in one day. Poor man! thought Oblomov. And this is life! He gave a good shrug. Where’s the human being in all of this? To what end does he split himself up and scatter himself about.?

Even his doctor tells him:

“If you spend another two or three years in this climate lying here all that time and eating fatty, heavy food, you will die of a stroke.”
Oblomov gave a start.
“What can I do? Teach me, for God’s sake!” he implored.
“The same thing other people do: go abroad.”
“Abroad!” echoed Oblomov, dumbfounded.
“Yes, what of it?”
“Have mercy doctor. Abroad? How can I?”

What is amusing, to me at least, is the way Goncharov takes to extremes, and thus to laugh out loud humor, the Oblomov in all of us; the wish to find a cool place in the sheets and roll over and drift back to sleep, the urge to let the telephone ring, to not go out the door to yet another party from which we will return deflated and edgy.  We recognize Oblomovschina in Walt Whitman’s great love of sauntering, lolling, ambling…

I loaf and invite my soul,
I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

…the same Walt Whitman about whom it was said when fired from the New York Aurora, “There is a man about our office so lazy that it takes two men to open his jaws when he speaks. . .”

Like other works which tickle us by running out to the full, individual character traits such as clumsiness, shyness, foolishness  it helps us see, and be tickled by, our own possession of those very traits, and usually, to see beneath such disabling characteristics in others the core of a genuine, kind, honest person.

Oblomov on a French review site

Of course we modern readers would find such complete indolence difficult to accomplish.  Oblomov, being the only son of minor landed gentry, has an out: a man-servant, Zakhar, almost as lazy as himself.

Zakhar had delineated for himself a well-defined set of activities, once and for all, and beyond that he would never voluntarily go.

In the morning , he put the samovar on and cleaned the boots and the clothes the master had requested, but by no means anything he had not requested, even if it had hung there for ten years.

Then he would sweep — though not every day– the middle of the room, never getting as far as the corners, and wipe the dust from any table that had nothing on it, so that he would not have to remove any objects.

Almost as lazy as Oblomov, though being the servant it is manifested in different ways.

Zakhar opened the door with a tray, which he held in both hands and, entering the room, he tried to close the door with his foot, but missed and kicked the air, whereupon the glass fell and with it the stopper from the decanter and a roll.

Oblomov. trying to get out of bed and Zakhar trying to escape his master’s orders cannot go on forever, of course. 150 pages just about exhausts the possibilities. And what better thing to disturb a lazy man’s mind than love? His friend Stoltz whirls him into the presence of a 20 year old woman, Olga. Oblomov is awkward to the point he would be thought to be somewhere on the autistic spectrum today:

“Sing something, Olga Sergeyevna,” asked Stoltz.
“But what if Monsieur Oblomov is in a mood now to stop up his ears?” she asked, turning to him.
“Now I should pay you a compliment, ” replied Oblomov. “But I don’t know how, and even if I could, I wouldn’t”
“Why is that?”
“What if you sing badly, ” remarked Oblomov naively, “Afterward I would feel awkward.”

But she does sing, and it’s Bellini’s soul stirring, “Casta Diva” from Norma. Poor Oblomov is lost. And soon Olga.

“Her cheeks and ears were flushed with agitation. From time to time the play of lighting bolts of the heart flashed on her fresh face,a beam blazed out of passion so ripe it was as if her heart had experienced a distant future time of life, and then suddenly this transitory beam died, and again her voice was fresh and silvery.’

He resists as best he can; he knows how love might disrupt his life. He had dreamed of having a wife, but…

He dreamed of the smile on her lips, but not a passionate smile, eyes not wet with desire, but a smile sympathetic to him, her husband… He never wanted to see her tremble, or hear her heated dream, her sudden tears, her exhaustion, and then her mad transition to joy…She ought not suddenly to turn pale, faint, or experience shattering outbursts. “Women like that have lovers,” he said, … “and so many troubles: doctors, the waters, and all manner of whims. One can’t fall asleep in peace!”

But, and rather quickly,  he is shaken out of his lassitude, indeed pulled up from it by her insistence:

She was constantly teasing him with light sarcastic comments for his idly spent years, issuing harsh sentences, and punishing his apathy more profoundly and effectively than Stoltz had. [She began] reminding him of his purpose in life and his obligations, strictly requiring movement, and constantly calling forth his intellect, sometimes by entangling him in a delicate, vital issue familiar to her, sometimes coming to him with a question about something that was unclear to her or beyond her grasp.

He struggled, racked his brains, bobbed and weaved so as not to stumble in her eyes or to help her sort out a knotty problem, if not cut it heroically.

This renewed engagement with the world reveals something of Oblomov, perhaps at the root of his laziness — a deep, true, sad sense of himself. One conversation lays it bare:

“What purpose do I have?  None.”
“The purpose is to live.”
“When you don’t know what you’re living for, you don’t care how you live from one day to the next.  You’re happy the day has passed and the night has come, and in your sleep you bury the tedious question of what you lived for that day and what you are going to live for tomorrow.”
What you lived for!” she repeated.  “Could anyone’s existence be unneeded?”
“Yes,  Mine for instance.”

Our lazy clown, Oblomov, like all clowns, reveals the sadness below the endearing smile, the gestures of a simpleton.

Goncharov’s author’s heart is always tender as he tells us about his hero and the great battle to raise himself from the sofa.  His language is droll, not scathing, both as to Oblomov himself and the battle of the sexes between the two.  As love deepens, they change.  He notices, and is bewildered.

 What is the matter with her?  What is she thinking and feeling now?  He was wracked with questions. Truly, I don’t understand a thing!
How, indeed, was he to understand that something had come about in her that takes twenty-five years and twenty-five professors and libraries to bring about in a man, and only then after he has wandered the earth, sometimes even entailing the loss of moral aroma, freshness of thought, and hair?  She has entered the realm of consciousness and had done so at so little cost and with so little effort.

 

As in all terrifying love affairs he finally writes the letter.  It’s not you, it’s me.

Only yesterday was I able to look deeper into the abyss into which I’m falling and did I resolve to stop myself.  I will tell you plainly:  you do not and cannot love me…  Your genuine “I love you” is not genuine love but a future love.  It is merely the unconscious need to love, which, due to a lack of real sustenance, in the absence of fire, burns with a false light that does not warm …  … Before you is not the man you have been waiting for and dreaming of.  Just wait. He will come and your eyes will open.  You will be vexed and embarrassed at your mistake, and this vexation and embarrassment will hurt me.

 

Which letter, as many of us know, leads only to misunderstandings, tears and possible reuniting.  She is thrown into sobs

“Here, take it away so that I don’t have to cry any longer whenever I look at it.”
He silently tucked it into his pocket…
“Won’t you at least do justice to my intentions, Olga?” he said softly.  “This is proof of how precious your happiness is to me.”
“Yes, precious!” she said, sighing. “No, Ilya Ilich, you must have become envious that I was so quietly happy, so you rushed to disturb my happiness.
“Isn’t that why I am giving you up?” he said “Because I foresee your happiness ahead and am sacrificing to it.  Do you imagine I’m doing this cold-bloodedly?  Aren’t I crying my insides out?

 

Perhaps it won’t spoil much to tell you that love triumphs, though not in the way the story sets out.  Oblomov gradually retreats to a bed, despite Olga’s love and best intentions, to be tended to by a fine landlady and housekeeper, with the most fascinating plump, white elbows.  She cares for man as tenderly as a baby — the state from which Oblomov is never fully able to extract himself so strong are his memories of his childhood, his mother and the servants at the family dacha, Oblomovka.  He is trapped, as he himself declares by Oblomovschina, a word I would think could join those other names become states of mind, like mesmerized.

Of course Goncharov had something else in his mind than a simple man with universal characteristics.  In Russia of the 1850s this oblomovshcina had a very particular local meaning as well as the larger human one, one which would have been very present in the minds of contemporary Russian readers, and even today is a stronger part of national self-understanding than it will be in the west.  The Russian ways of centuries were coming to an end:  the emancipation of the Serfs under Nicholas wasn’t to happen for two more years, though the nation was well into the process; it had been abolished in the Austrian Empire in 1848, in Livonia (now divided between Latvia and Estonia) in 1819 and Estonia in 1816. The disaster to Russian armies at the hands of the British in the Crimean war had lit a fire under reformers of all kinds, The land owners were too weak to oppose the wider social movement, in good part because they were the heirs of large estates, not those who had conceived them and drove the serfs to make them into productive units.  As Turgenev among others, describes in Fathers and Sons, the status quo between master and servant was breaking up.  Oblomov is an extreme, and comical, version of the type.

Yet we are drawn to him, as Stoltz and Olga are.  His laziness is not ill-tempered or dissolute.  Beneath it is a cherubic sweetness.  As Olga thinks to herself,

[Her] love was justified by his meekness, his pure faith in good, and most of all his tenderness, tenderness such as she had never before seen in a man’s eyes.

Or, as Stoltz says of him late in the book:

…he has something in him more precious than any mind:  an honest and loyal heart!  This is his natural gold.  He has carried it throughout his life unharmed. He has been pushed and fallen.  He has cooled, fallen asleep, and finally, been beaten and disenchanted, having lost the will to live.  But he has not lost his honesty and his loyalty.  His heart has not emitted on false note and no mud has stuck to him.  No fancy lie will flatter him, and nothing will draw him down a false path.  An ocean of dirt and and evil could boil around him, the whole world could be poisoned and turned upside down–and Oblomov would never bow down to the idol of hypocrisy, and his sould would always be pure, bright and honest.

High praise, indeed.

One is reminded in reading Oblomov of another “holy fool,” the better known Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, following Oblomov by almost 10 years.  Dostoevsky himself noticed it, peevishly:

…my Idiot is also an Oblomov after all  … Only my idiot is better than Goncharov’s . … Goncharov’s idiot is petty: there’s a lot of the petty bourgeoisie  while my idiot is noble and elevated.”

 

And, of course, Myshkin is tragic.  Russian.

Myshkin can’t decide between two women and leads to disaster for all.  Oblomov can’t respond to adult love and wounds a warm and vibrant young woman.  She recovers and fulfills the prophecy he had seen for her while he basks contentedly in the warm embrace of a replacement mother/servant love…  “If the sun failed to rise tomorrow, the sky spread with storms, and a howling wind race from one end of the universe to the other, nonetheless he would find his soup and roast on the table, his linen clean and fresh, and the cobweb swept from the wall, and he would never know how this was accomplished….”  Love does its work, in its various guises and Oblomov ends as it should, placidly for him, whirling and doing for his friends.  An almost complete and happy ending — in a Russian novel!

As with other Russian novels of the period, the steady hand of a good editor would have been appreciated…. We know Oblomov’s fate 120 pages before the end, and are treated then to the story of the development and growth of the love between Olga and Stoltz.  It continues Goncharov’s theme — the nature of love– but at the expense of leaving the object of the tale behind.

Goncharov allows himself a plenitude of pages to extemporize on the nature of love, and its appearance in people’s lives.  Oblomov, for all his inability to get moving on matters at the dacha is minutely, if somewhat fancifully, observant of Olga.

He could not understand where this strength in her came from, this tact — the way she knew what to do and how, no matter what happened.

That’s because one of her eyebrows never lies straight  but is always slightly raised, he thought, and above it she has a fine, barely noticeable crease,  There, in that crease, that’s where her persistence makes its nest.

Oblomov swings wildly from thinking he is worthless to accusing himself of being a despicable Don Juan, from declaring his love to declaring himself ready to step aside if Olga begins to love another.  He warns her of “the hellish force” that can implant itself in a man’s heart, that he might lose control, and…!  He spins into a delirium because “The servants know!”   He cries out the agony he still read about in today’s young, hip love stories: “Lord!  Why does she love me?  Why do I love her?  Why did we meet?”  and blames it on the go-between:  It’s all Andrei’s doing.  He infected us both with love, like smallpox.”  And reveals once again his set-point: What kind of life is this, nothing by alarms and upsets!  When will I have peaceful happiness and serenity?

He even has his Hamlet moment, considering the problem of “‘to be or not to be.”

Sub-plots rear up, delightful in themselves, shedding light on the Russian character and the society in which it is embedded but which, under a steady hand, might have been pruned back, to let the mind linger longer on the main elements of the story.  Even the core of the novel, the original short piece of 1849 that became the chapter “Oblomov’s Dream, describing the placid a-passionate nature of the man though his dream, is quite luxuriant,  48 pages a thoughtful gardener might have trimmed to good effect.

As to the ‘ouchies” in Schwartz’s marvelous rendering: on page 367 the first:  “He chewed them out…” Non! Non!  A phrase that leaps out of American WW II soldier dialect.  Non! And a few pages later, asking about a young girl learning to knit, “Is Masha really getting the hang of it?”  Meaning is absolutely right; time and date, not. It’s an idiom thought to originate in 1840s America, before the putative time of the novel. Oh, and a bit later Oblomov “got all hot and bothered.” Same problem; a frozen phrase that seems out of time and place in early 19th century Russia.    And that’s it!

And what wonderful images and language through out…

“…a mirror coated in dust as thick as muslin…”  “Friendship drowned in love …”

“…he was so overcome by weeping it was as if twenty beetles had flown in and were buzzing around the room …”

“…he went to the theater and yawned as if he were about to swallow the whole stage…”

 

If I could translate as well as Marian I’d have another job.

There is, by the way, at least one movie, from Russia, about the famous man.  It’s not bad but surely is not great.  As most movies do, liberties are taken.  The alternate, and truncated ending proposed in its 2.3 hour running time is misleading in the extreme.  As I would in most cases I say, Read the Book!  You’ll remember Ilya Ilich Oblomov for many years, and know to plead to friends and family from time to time to let you alone, you’ve come down with a case of Oblomovschina!