The Short Happy Life of Ilya Ilyich Oblomov


by Ivan Goncharov, translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz
Seven Stories, 552 pp., $33.95; Yale University Press, 576 pp., $16.95 (paper)
Stephen Parker
From the recent American edition of Oblomov; photograph by Stephen Parker

Ivan Goncharov worked on Oblomov for about ten years, from the late 1840s until 1858, but a reader is left with the impression that the hero was born to him in a single vision, and that the five-hundred-plus pages of the book are an attempt at novelistic elaboration of what is essentially one idea: What if a man were so indolent that he could do nothing? Aristocrats in Russian literature before and after Oblomov suffer from ennui, waste time, despair of finding moral purpose. But nonetheless they helplessly go on doing things: drinking, gambling, marrying, fighting duels, joining the Freemasons. Not Oblomov. He spends the first third of the book shambling around his apartment in a robe. When he finally gets dressed, near the beginning of Part II, it is only because his best friend, Stolz, has absolutely insisted on it.

Oblomov is still young—in his thirties—and in good health, but he retired years ago from his civil service post. He lives in St. Petersburg on the income from his country estate. For years he has been trying to write a letter to the bailiff with a plan for reorganizing the estate, but he has never gotten past the first sentence, foundering each time over questions of grammar. He might read a few pages of a book or newspaper, but then his mind wanders. He rarely goes out in mixed company, though he’ll dine with bachelor friends—they alone don’t mind if he loosens his trousers and naps after dinner. In his dusty apartment, old food gathers flies. Oblomov’s servant, Zakhar, as little inclined to work as his master, helps Oblomov to maintain this state of squalor.

Why does Oblomov live this way? One thing that’s clear from the outset is that he is not merely lazy. “For a lazy man,” Goncharov explains, “recumbence” is a “pleasure.” For Oblomov, it is “his normal state.” He doesn’t just avoid work, but also the pursuit of most pleasures, with the important exceptions of eating and dozing. He doesn’t play cards, drinks moderately, and isn’t much of a seducer (“intimacy with women entails a great deal of trouble”). Even in his dreams, he is not a man of action. Oblomov’s fantasy of the future (which he has imagined in minute detail) is a string of quiet days on his estate, in which he and a charming, cultivated wife “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.” This relatively modest dream would not seem to be out of reach for Oblomov—he already has the estate, after all. Yet he lacks the drive to take any steps toward realizing his wishes. To court a woman, for…

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