Oblomov - Ivan Goncharov, Marian Schwartz I’m going to have to review Oblomov on two levels. First on its merits as a novel; and then as a book that worked on me on an especially personal level.

In the first instance, as a novel, Oblomov is a success. Solely on its merits, I would give it three stars without compunction and recommend it to all my GoodReads friends. Ivan Goncharov divides his somnolent epic into four parts. Part I, in which our hero, Ilya Ilich, barely manages to get out of bed, is the most consciously humorous and satirical. Much of Oblomov’s day is taken up with thinking about what he should do (most critically, writing that letter to his bailiff about reorganizing his estates*) and greeting various acquaintances who drop by and try to convince him to come out to a social affair at Ekaterinburg. We also meet Zakhar, Oblomov’s devoted servant, who’s been with him since he was a child. Their relationship is reminiscent of that between Arthur and Hobson in the movie “Arthur” or between Bruce Wayne and Alfred of “Batman” fame. If that were the extent of Goncharov’s efforts, Oblomov would be remembered only in the dusty halls of Russian Lit departments as a pleasant amusement. But Goncharov goes beyond the social satire to explore what it means to live in the subsequent chapters through the life of the tragically flawed Oblomov.

Parts II and III recount Ilya Ilich and Olga Sergeyevna’s abortive love affair, and introduces us to Oblomov’s closest friend – Stolz, a man who embodies all the energy and interest in life that Ilya Ilich lacks. Compare:

“At the time he was still young, and if he could not have been called lively, then at the least he was livelier than he was now. He was still full of all kinds of aspirations, still hoped for things, still expected much of fate and of himself; he was still preparing for an arena, a role….

Days followed other days, however, years took other years’ place, his fluff became a stiff beard, lackluster points took the place of the light in his eyes, his waist rounded out, his hair began falling out mercilessly, he turned thirty, and he had not advanced a step in any arena and was still standing on the threshold of his own arena….

His role in society seemed to be working out better for him.

During the first years of his sojourn in Petersburg, in his early, youthful years, the calm features of his face livened up more often. His eyes radiated the fire of life for longer and poured out beams of light, hope, and strength. He worried like everyone else, hoped, rejoiced over trifles, and suffered over minor details.

But all that had been long ago, during that tender period when a man assumes in any other man a sincere friend and falls in love with and is prepared to offer his hand and heart to nearly any woman – something others did indeed accomplish, often to their great regret thereafter and for the rest of their life.

In these blissful days, Ilya Ilich also knew his share of soft, velvety, even passionate gazes from the crowd of beauties, masses of highly promising smiles, two or three undeserved kisses, and even friendlier handshakes that brought tears to his eyes.

Actually, he never did let the beauties capture him and was never their slave or even a very assiduous admirer, if only because intimacy with women entails a great deal of trouble. Oblomov tended to limit himself to a bow from afar, at a respectful distance.”
(pp. 58 and 61)

And Stolz:

“Stolz was the same age as Oblomov; he too was over thirty. He had served, retired, taken up his own affairs, and had in fact earned himself a house and money. He owned part of a company that sent goods abroad.

He was constantly in motion. If the company needed to send an agent to Belgium or England, they sent him. If they needed someone to write a draft or put a new idea into practice, they chose him. Meanwhile he both went into society and read, but when he found the time for this, God only knew.

He was all bones, muscles, and nerves, like a purebred English horse. He was rather gaunt, and he had almost no cheeks at all. That is, he had the bone and muscle but no sign of soft roundness. The color of his face was even and rather swarthy, without any pink, and his eyes were expressive, though a little green.

He made no unnecessary movements. If he sat, he sat quietly; if he did in fact act, he used only as many gestures as necessary.

Just as his organism bore nothing extra, so in the moral aspects of his life he sought a balance between what was practical and the finer demands of the spirit. These two aspects proceeded in parallel, crossing and intertwining as they went, but never getting entangled in complicated, insoluble knots….

He took pleasure in delight as he would a flower plucked along the road, until it withered in his hands, never drinking to the last drop of bitterness that lies at the bottom of any pleasure.

A simple, or rather, direct and authentic perspective on life – this was his unfailing objective, and as he worked gradually toward attaining it, he understood just how difficult it was and was inwardly proud and happy whenever he happened to note a twist on this route and take a step straight ahead.”
(pp. 174-175)

Olga is a young woman of Stolz’s stamp, and he encourages her to draw Ilya Ilich out of his shell while Stolz is abroad. Olga’s attentions work all too well. She and Oblomov fall in love, and even plan marriage. Problems arise, however, as Oblomov’s indolence and fears reassert themselves over his genuine feelings for Olga; and Olga begins to doubt the wisdom of their relationship (and her feelings are as genuine as Ilya’s). When the two return to St. Petersburg and Olga re-enters the social whirl of her friends, she and Oblomov draw apart, and in a wrenching scene they break up:

“‘Why did it all die?’ she asked suddenly, looking up. ‘Who cursed you, Ilya? What did you do? You’re so good, and smart, and kind, and noble…and…you’re dying! What destroyed you? There is no name for this evil.’

‘Yes, there is,’ he said, barely audibly.

She looked at him with eyes full of questions and tears.

‘Oblomovschina!’ he whispered, and then he took her hand and was about to kiss it but couldn’t so he pressed it firmly to his lips, and his hot tears fell on her fingers. Without looking up or showing her his face, he turned and left.”
(p. 407)

Part IV introduces a certain amount of drama when Oblomov moves into a new apartment and is defrauded by another acquaintance, Tarantiev, and his landlady’s brother. His situation and fortune are redeemed only by the timely return of Stolz, who quickly puts Ilya Ilich’s affairs to right.

This uncharacteristic drama in Oblomov’s life is balanced by Agafia Matveyevna, the landlady. She’s a widow who quickly becomes the center of Oblomov’s life. She organizes his household, caters to him in a way Olga was incapable of and manages to fulfill (as much as could be) Ilya’s ideal of a life and a wife:

“‘Well, I’d get up in the morning,’ began Oblomov, folding his hands behind his head, and an expression of serenity washed over his face. In his mind, he was already in the country. ‘The weather is splendid, the sky is blue as blue can be, not a cloud in the sky,’ he said. ‘In my plan, one side of the house has a balcony facing east, toward the garden and the fields; the other faces the village. While I’m waiting for my wife to wake up, I put on my housecoat and take a walk around the garden to breathe the morning vapors. There I find the gardener and we water the flowers together and prune the bushes and trees. I make a bouquet for my wife. Then I go to the bath or the river to bathe, and as I’m returning, the balcony is open and my wife is there wearing a smock and a light cap that looks like it’s just barely holing on, as if it were about to fly off her head. She’s waiting for me. “Your tea is ready,” she says. What a kiss! What tea! What a comfortable chair! I sit down by the table, and on it are cookies, creams, and fresh butter.’

‘After that?’

‘After that, I put on a roomy coat or jacket, put my arm around my wife’s waist, and she and I take a stroll down the endless, dark allée, walking quietly, thoughtfully, silent or thinking out loud, daydreaming, counting my minutes of happiness like the beating of a pulse, listening to my heart beat and sink, seeking sympathy in nature, and before we know it we come out on a stream and field. The river is lapping a little, ears of grain are waving in the breeze, and it’s hot. We get into the boat and my wife steers us, barely lifting her oar.’…

His attitude toward her was much simpler. For him, Agafia Matveyevna, her elbows in constant motion, her eyes resting on everything with concern, her constant passage from cupboard to kitchen, from kitchen to storeroom, and from there to the cellar, her omniscience with regard to all things domestic and all household comforts, embodied the ideal of that inviolably tranquil life, as vast as the ocean, the picture of which had been indelibly etched on his soul in childhood, under his father’s roof.”
(pp. 192-193 and 422)

What redeems Oblomov as a human being, what sets him apart from the usual parasites of the Russian elite, is the nobility and gentleness of his spirit. He’s spontaneously kind and selfless. The tragedy of Oblomov is Ilya’s fatal flaw – his Achilles’ heel – the profound ennui that obviates much of the good that he’s capable of and that his friends recognize in him.

I don’t know Russian but this is a lively and interesting translation which (from what I gather from the professional reviews) successfully translates Goncharov’s language and intent. I’d recommend this to anyone, especially those interested in forgotten classics of Russian literature.

The reason this book merits four stars in my virtual library is its personal significance. Rarely does a particular book move or resonate with me. More often it’s a slow accumulation of ideas and reading that upon reflection reveal a pattern of influence. Those authors who have “blown my mind” began with – fittingly – a Russian: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who I began reading in 11th grade. Then I met W. Somerset Maugham, who was introduced to me by a friend who made the off hand remark that I reminded him of Larry from The Razor’s Edge. I devoured Of Human Bondage on a train ride to Seattle. Soon after, I made the acquaintance of Joseph Conrad and William Saroyan. In my post-GR life, there’s been Baudelaire, Ivy Compton Burnett, Sylvia Townsend and T.F. Powys, among others. The common denominator is that all of these authors wrote about people or viewpoints with which I identified powerfully.

Oblomov joins those ranks. While Ilya Ilich’s life, dreams and philosophy don’t map one-to-one with Terentii Efimovich’s, they bear an uncomfortably close resemblance. Parts II and III were particularly painful to read because they reflected my first marriage so closely.** I can’t claim to have now resolved the paradoxes in my life, and my “Olga” failed as spectacularly as Ilya’s. Like Oblomov, I can respect, admire and at times envy the lives of the Stolz’s in my life but (also like Oblomov) I can’t grasp the “why” of those lives. Oblomov compels me to re-examine my life.

* As an FYI, Oblomov was written pre-1861. Ilya Ilich is the owner of 300 serfs and a large estate somewhere to the east of St. Petersburg whose labor and income support his indolence.

** Anyone curious enough can read the enumerated portions of Oblomov themselves and draw their own conclusions about my sordid past :-)