Oblomov, by Ivan Goncharov

Oblomov cvr

Ivan Goncharov’s 1859 novel has as its central character Ilya Ilyitch Oblomov, a member of the landed gentry living in St Petersburg on the receipts from his provincial estate.  Oblomov is fantastically lazy and the first few dozen pages see him barely getting out of bed as he receives a stream of visitors who entreat him to go to various places with them, all of whom he puts off as he would rather be lethargic indoors than active outside.  We also get the sense from this opening section that he has so-called friends who are willing to exploit his idleness.

We learn that Oblomov is happy to receive an income from his inherited estate which he hasn’t seen since he was 18, less interested in its management; in a letter he has received he is being entreated by his country neighbour to take a direct role but cannot rouse himself to deal with the matter, less to make the thousand-mile journey to see the situation for himself.  Not even a rapidly diminishing income and no idea how much the estate should be producing can motivate him.  He would rather lie on his sofa making plans that are never finalised.  His approach is to put off today what he can leave until tomorrow, which is essentially everything, every day.  Inertia has become a way of life, so that he cannot finish a book or read a newspaper, and has no idea what is going on in the world other than what he hears in garbled form from others.  An attempt at a career in the civil service had predictably not been a success, and he has never tried anything since.  Close contact with women is eschewed lest they disturb the unfluctuating tenor of his life.  He is looked after in ad hoc fashion by his servant Zakhar, himself lazy, disorganised and not above purloining the odd kopek from his master.

After this opening, a long section entitled ‘Oblomov’s Dream’ describes his reverie of childhood, and shows the roots of his indolence in a culture that was ossified, wanting every day to be like the previous one (this portion was published separately in 1849 but the rest of the book took another ten years to emerge).  Here on his ancestral estate Oblomovka, Oblomov had led a cosseted existence, kept from school on the flimsiest pretext, with servants to cater to the family’s every need, including dressing him.  He has carried these habits of passivity into adulthood and this way of life has become an ideal, such a fixed point that he is unable to drag himself from it, recreating it in adulthood though he is now far away from Oblomovka.  It is easier to look back fondly on a golden age of childhood, fantasising over what was, than face present realities.  Rather than stir himself to take care of his finances, Oblomov would live in poverty, as he is forced to do later when he is being swindled out of the remittances from his estate: life may intrude with its unpleasantness, but he will manfully ignore it.  While the reader feels aghast at such monumental apathy, the question arises to what extent Oblomov is responsible for the way he has turned out.  His laziness has been absorbed from an upbringing in a family that would rather make do and mend than follow a task through.

The hero of the novel is not, despite its title, Oblomov, it is his friend Andrey Stolz (not that Oblomov can be truly called a hero).  They had known each other from childhood but had followed completely different paths.  Where Oblomov was indulged, Stolz’s father taught him business and, blessed with a natural vigour, Stolz was keen to make his way in the world.  It is significant that he had a German father whose shrewdness was a contrast to Stolz’s Russian mother, from whom Andrey absorbed culture, not practical skills.  Stolz is a well-rounded person in way that Oblomov isn’t, making him a rather obvious counterpoint; that is a flaw in the novel because Stolz is seen in a didactic light whereas Oblomov is subtly drawn.  Stolz is energetic, pursuing opportunities as a means to achieve a satisfying life rather than for the sake of acquisition.  He could easily lose patience with his friend but he does not give Oblomov up as a bad job, badgering him to take an interest in life and his estate, and when Oblomov finds himself in difficulties, assists him by taking on Oblomovka as a tenant and putting it in order, preventing its owner being further cheated.

Stolz unwittingly creates upheaval in Oblomov’s life by introducing him to Olga, a young woman living with her aunt.  Astonishingly the pair fall in love, and the middle part of the novel is largely concerned with charting their increasingly rocky relationship.  This shows Oblomov to be not completely inert – after all it would be hard to sustain nearly 500 pages of the man solely in bed or on his sofa.  In fact the middle section of the novel sees him remarkably active as he pursues his romance with Olga.  She is intelligent but inexperienced, and falls into that category of women who think they can change their menfolk and who overestimate their powers.  She sees Oblomov as someone who with a little chivvying could be transformed into an active character.  For his part he is ambivalent, running hot and cold as he contemplates what marriage would entail.  Fortunately, he realises she would be better off without him (and vice versa) as he is incapable of change, and she breaks off their secret engagement when she reaches the same conclusion.

It is no surprise when eventually Olga and Stolz become attracted to each other and marry after some philosophical debate.  In spite of Oblomov’s constant ability to disappoint, they remain attached to him.  But what do they see in him?  They value his sincerity, goodness and honesty, so they say.  The reader may find this an unconvincing reason for Stolz to put himself out so much on Oblomov’s behalf.  They are easy virtues when not backed by actions to demonstrate them, and anyway, is it true?  When he gets cold feet during his engagement to Olga he pretends to be ill as an excuse not to have to see her.  She becomes worried and goes to him, at which point she realises he has been untruthful.  Oblomov invariably behaves in a cowardly manner in order to avoid having to deal with unpleasantness, just as he would rather make plans in his head than travel to Oblomovka and act as his own estate manager.  He has friends he doesn’t deserve, and treats them shabbily.  Stoltz knows that for Oblomov, it is out of sight out of mind when a visitor, himself included, departs.

At the same time, Goncharov’s depiction is not completely pessimistic because Oblomov has found a balance that suits him.  On the surface it may seem incomplete against Stolz and Olga’s marriage yet they have their worries, such as Olga suffering a crisis, described at length, which boils down, in typically Russian style, to feeling unhappy because she is too happy.  Stolz feels that he has perpetually to keep to extraordinarily high standards in order not to disappoint her.  The best of us would struggle; for Oblomov it would have been a disaster.  He finally achieves the stasis he desires with Agafia Matveyevna, his landlady, who bears him a son he names after Andrey Stolz (the thought of Oblomov rousing himself to the height of passion necessary for procreation may stretch the reader’s boggle threshold).  In Agafia he sees a sympathetic soul akin to his own (not to mention naked elbows as she works that are quite hypnotic).  She stands in contrast to Olga in not making demands on Oblomov while supplying his bodily comforts, mainly in the shape of food.  In his choice he is a better judge of character than Andrey, who looks down on Agafia and suspects her motives even though she is genuinely devoted to Oblomov, prepared to pawn her valuables when his funds dry up entirely.  With her care, and once Andrey has sorted out the corruption both at Oblomovka and closer to home and the remittances are again flowing freely, Oblomov has finally reached some kind of nirvana.

This nirvana sadly has its downside.  His lack of mobility creates a cycle of weight gain and poor health.  He refuses to heed his doctor’s advice and drinks more than he should.  At last he has a stroke, followed by another one, and dies (on his sofa naturally) of a heart attack.  It is difficult not to see Goncharov drawing a parallel between Oblomov and the sclerotic state of the Russian body politic.  Oblomov’s death really is not greatly different to his life, for all the impact his existence had on the world.  Symbolically, Goncharov is asking if the same is true of Russia.  Threaded through the examination of Oblomovitis (oblomovshchina), the term Stolz coins to describe Oblomov’s malaise, and a critical examination of the decaying aristocracy’s complacency, is a satire on government corruption and bureaucracy (Goncharov was a civil servant so would have seen it at first hand).  When current affairs come up in conversation, it is invariably other nations who are doing things.  Russia, like Oblomov himself, seems mired in somnolence.  Agafia’s brother is a corrupt government employee who loses his job when his bribe-taking is exposed by Stolz, but by the end of the novel he has managed to get his old job back and is extorting larger numbers of kopeks from his victims than before.

Oblomov may have been a failure, but the novel’s ending hints at a positive future.  When he dies there would have been few to grieve.  He has left a legacy in his son, however, and Stolz takes the child under his wing.  One knows that with Andrey’s tutelage the boy will be like him rather than Oblomov.  At their final meeting Andrey does not bother to tell Oblomov that Oblomovka is changing: the railway is coming which will give the area a new energy, new ways of working, education will change attitudes, and the sleepy life which had satisfied generations of the family will be swept away.

It is surprising how much affection the reader generates towards Oblomov when strictly speaking he is a parasite, both on those around him and on society generally.  The reader is always conscious, or should be, that his lifestyle can only be obtained at the expense of others’ labour, mainly the serfs at Oblomovka, of whom he owns (literally) 300.  One stylistic choice in this elegant translation by David Magarshack is to refer consistently to peasants rather than serfs, which mutes that aspect.  He does use the word serf in his brief introduction, in which he describes the novel as ‘a powerful condemnation of serfdom’, but the casual reader might not notice.  One wonders how Oblomov’s life would have changed after the emancipation in 1861.  The suspicion has to be that he could not have coped with this changing world, whereas his son Andrey will thrive with the new challenges as Russia drags itself into the modern world.

I think we have all met the odd Oblomov who does not engage with life and trickles along with as little exertion as possible.  Oblomovitis need not be a total personality characteristic; we can all be partial Oblomovs, procrastinating, or ignoring jobs entirely we would rather not undertake, living with a less than perfect situation instead of doing something about it.  If Oblomov were alive now he would be frittering his time watching light entertainment on television to alleviate his ennui, an activity which requires no effort.  Goncharov’s inspiration was partly the Russian nobility certainly, but Magarshack says that Oblomov cannot be considered Russian alone as there are ‘thousands’ like him all over the world.  That it is a gross underestimate, and there may be an element of him in many who feel that they are asked to pay too high a price for, in Stolz’s words, ‘Prometheus’s fire’.  Oblomov can be seen as an existentialist novel in which Oblomov demonstrates his inauthenticity by not making choices, and Goncharov has created a truly universal character.  The author inserts himself at the very end of the novel in company with Stolz, and he casts himself in a slightly Obomovian light, with his ‘apathetic face’ and ‘sleepy eyes’.  However, he writes Oblomov’s story, immediately showing that he is no Oblomov at all.

A minor footnote to this novel.  When I was in Moscow recently I went to a restaurant called ‘Oblomov’ which was a beautifully decorated establishment, with much more efficient service than its name might suggest.  There I found ‘Beef Oblomov’ on the menu so of course how could I not choose it?  It was a type of goulash and was very nice.  It is an indicator of the profile of this novel in Russia still that it should have a restaurant and a dish named after it, though I’m led to believe that nowadays it is read less than it is admired from afar.  That is a shame because we all need to be aware of, and guard against, any tendency to Oblomovitis; Goncharov shows us where it can lead.

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