Oblomov’s Travels

The Frigate Pallada

by Ivan Goncharov, translated by Klaus Goetze
St. Martin's, 649 pp., $35.00

Ivan Goncharov
Ivan Goncharov; drawing by David Levine

I first read about the account by the nineteenth-century Russian novelist, Ivan Goncharov, of his voyage in the frigate Pallada in Prince Dmitri Mirsky’s superlative History of Russian Literature, a model of its kind, and for the history of any national literature. Goncharov is known to Western readers as the author of Oblomov, the classic novel about a Russian gentleman of the old school. First published in 1859 it was translated into English in the Twenties, and its hero, together with the notion of “Oblomovism,” has become almost as much of a byword with us as he is in Russia. The novel has even been made into a film and a play which had a run in New York.

Goncharov’s first novel, A Common Story, was praised by the magisterially ideological critic Belinsky, in the same terms in which he had singled out Dostoevsky’s first novel, Poor Folk. But Goncharov never really fitted the fashion for “compassionate realism.” In Oblomov’s Dream, an idyllic novella that prefigured the big novel to come, he already revealed that his true inspiration was his own brand of nostalgia. His sense of the future and of its representative, the energetic and compassionate Stolz, who tries to rescue his friend Oblomov from inertia, was really an excuse for returning to the past, and to the sense of true individuality that incarnated it for Goncharov. His ideal future “types,” like Stolz and like Volokhov in The Precipice, his only other novel, are as dead as mutton. Only the past can make characters live for his imagination; only futility can make them real. The deepest reproach that Oblomov utters to his servant Zakhar is that he will compare his master with other people.

Nostalgia is common enough in Russian literature, as indeed in any other, but rapid development, the shock of the new, gave it a special poignancy. For Goncharov we only live and are in small domestic matters: progress and ideology take away our true being. This was not a recipe for a successful career as a novelist in nineteenth-century Russia, and Goncharov can do no more in The Precipice than repeat, in a much feebler form, the pattern of Oblomov. Its composition overlaps that of his masterpiece, and it took him almost twenty years to complete it. During that time his curious phobia about individuality, taking a most un-Oblomovan form, persuaded him that his friend Turgenev and other writers were stealing all the ideas in it. He was even convinced that Flaubert had stolen from accounts of his work in progress to write L’Education sentimentale, whose hero has indeed a touch of the Oblomov about him. Goncharov produced his account of all this in an odd document he called An Uncommon Story, which remained unpublished until the Twenties of this century.

A Common Story appeared in 1847 and Oblomov in 1859, The Precipice a decade or so…

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