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The Short Happy Life of Ilya Ilyich Oblomov

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)
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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 instance, requires a whole set of efforts, beginning with getting dressed, that he is unused to making.

To explain Oblomov’s way of living, Goncharov points in many directions: his coddled upbringing; the sleepy, backward culture of his native province; his natural tendency to daydream and lie about; the superficiality and materialism of his Petersburg peers, which repel him and keep him at home. One thing Goncharov doesn’t mention is the idea of a melancholic temperament, which is where we often locate the source of such extreme passivity. He casts Oblomov’s condition as a comic one: our hero favors very short-term pleasures over long-term ones—he exchanges the pleasures of companionable society for the pleasure of not having to bother to put on his boots. But the novel’s undertow of sadness, even horror, is strong. Oblomov is unsettling because he seems to exist in two different registers, as a comic figure of exaggerated, self-satisfied indolence who nonetheless regularly gives voice to a profound sorrow over his condition: “Other people lived so fully and expansively, whereas he felt as if a heavy stone had been left on the narrow and pitiful path of his existence.” He is self-conscious in a way that no farcical character or Rabelaisian grotesque would be.

Goncharov, the son of a rich merchant from Simbirsk, a provincial capital on the Volga River, attended Moscow University in the early 1830s and then moved to St. Petersburg, where he had a long career as a civil servant. In both Moscow and Petersburg he was mostly on the margins of the great literary ferment of his generation, though he did go to the salon in the apartment of the critic Vissarion Belinsky in the 1840s and developed a vexed friendship with Turgenev. Goncharov didn’t like crowds, large gatherings, or public attention, and was frightened by the fame that came with the tremendous success of Oblomov. From the late 1850s until his death in 1891, he retreated from social life and spent a great deal of time alone in his apartment.

In the novel’s dazzling opening section, Oblomov has a dream while napping on the sofa, a dream that turns into a kind of family history of Oblomovian lethargy. It’s a typical summer day of his childhood: his mother spends the entire morning conferring with the female half of the household about the menu for lunch; his father sits in front of a window shouting advice to passing serfs. A heavy midday meal is followed by a long nap. The household never regains the morning’s momentum: meals, strolls, and vacant reverie fill the rest of the day until everyone goes to bed praying that “God grant tomorrow be just the same!”

The only incident Oblomov remembers disrupting the sluggish rhythms of family life is the arrival of a letter addressed to his father. Letters are nearly unheard of, and at the sight of the envelope

they all froze. The mistress’s countenance even changed a little. All eyes were aimed at and all noses pointed toward the letter…. “Stop, don’t break the seal, Ilya Ivanich,” his wife insisted tearfully. “Who knows what kind of letter is in there? It might be something terrible, some disaster.”

Oblomov’s father agrees to lock the letter away unopened, but its presence so preoccupies the household that no one can stop talking about it. After four days of unbearable suspense “they crowded around [the letter] and uneasily broke the seal.” It turns out to be from a family friend asking for a recipe for beer. Everyone agrees it must be answered at once, but weeks go by, the recipe is not found, a reply not written, and anyway, when they consider the cost of a postage stamp—it seems best to wait. The letter never gets answered.

Oblomov always thought that he would become patriarch of the estate in the mold of his father. But his is the first generation of Russian provincial nobility who are supposed to go to university, join the civil service, live in Petersburg, and have ambitions, or at least acquire a sheen of cosmopolitanism. Oblomov chafed at having to study and work. “When am I to live? When am I to live?” he would ask himself. But what is living—is it to lose oneself in activity, or to enjoy stillness and peaceful contemplation? Oblomov, inclined to the latter, cleared his calendar of all conventional obligations to make time for “living,” only to find that life had slipped out of his grasp.

At the same time, Oblomov has looked around at what his peers do, and he isn’t impressed:

You walk into a room and you can’t admire enough how symmetrically seated the guests are, how calmly and thoughtfully they’re sitting—over cards. There’s no getting around it, it’s a glorious purpose in life!

Goncharov’s social satire is fairly mild (compared, for example, to Gogol’s spectacular pageants of corruption and stupidity in “The Government Inspector” and Dead Souls). But he raises the question of whether the people who pass judgment on Oblomov might not themselves have gotten life wrong. While Oblomov lies around in his robe at the beginning of the book, one friend after another whirls into his apartment. The first visitor is an excitable young dandy, breathless with news. His friend Misha has been promoted! He’s had a new riding coat made for the start of the season! He’s going to the ballet tonight! He’s in love with one of the Goryunova sisters! After the dandy come more emissaries—a career bureaucrat, a writer—with news from the outside world.

Each visitor urges Oblomov to spend the weekend with him in Ekaterinhof, a Petersburg suburb with a park and pleasure garden. We can imagine a shadow novel to Oblomov, in which the characters converge in the bucolic setting of Ekaterinhof to scheme, fall in love, or lose their money, as characters in novels will. But our actual hero refuses to go, and after each guest leaves he shakes his head in wonder and pity. “Ten places to be in one day. Poor man!” It’s not only that his friends’ actual preoccupations seem trivial to Oblomov; it’s that he shrinks from the idea of being engrossed in anything, whether work or social life or even literature. “Where’s the human being in this?” Oblomov wonders about his friends’ pursuits. “To what end does he split himself up and scatter himself about?” To Oblomov, to be absorbed in any task is to lose something of oneself; a person can maintain his full dignity only in repose.

Oblomov intrigues us in part because the idea of a novel about doing nothing seems a curiosity for its era. How will Goncharov bend novelistic convention to accommodate a character who hates to leave his apartment? In fact, he approaches the idea of plot with a kind of clever innocence: he comes up with a way to shove Oblomov off the sofa for just long enough to have a plot. Oblomov is not the “book about nothing” that Flaubert dreamed of in the same years, existing solely on the force of its style. Necessity, in the form of an eviction from his apartment, forces Oblomov out the door, and a chain of events follows in which he moves house (twice), courts two different women, and is nearly swindled out of his income by a scheming friend. This period of activity lasts only about a year, framed on each side by many years of Oblomov doing very little. The two situations that traditionally create a character—arrival as a youth in the capital city and marriage—are pushed to the edges of the book, while at its center is Oblomov’s single, earnest attempt to change the way he lives.

He is inspired in this short-lived effort by two figures. The first is Stolz, his childhood friend and his antithesis: ambitious, intellectually curious, and hard-working. No reader of Oblomov has ever fallen in love with the virtuous Stolz. Goncharov invests him with great moral authority: Stolz and Oblomov have a running debate about Oblomov’s idleness, and while Oblomov holds his own for a while with some trenchant criticisms of the Petersburg rat race, Stolz forces him to concede that being a shut-in has not led to a fulfilling life. It is Stolz who coins the famous term for Oblomov’s condition, or at least his worst tendencies: Oblomovshchina, which Marian Schwartz, in her fine new translation, has restored to the original Russian (it has been translated in other editions as “oblomovism” or “oblomovitis”).

Oblomovshchina is the entire syndrome of lethargy and aimlessness passed from one generation of Oblomovs to the next. “Work is life’s form, content, element, and purpose—at least mine,” Stolz lectures. “You’ve driven work clean out of your life, and what has come of it?” Stolz urges Oblomov to go back to his family estate, take over its management, and start a village school for his serfs. But by this point, Goncharov has so thoroughly convinced us of Oblomov’s undisciplined mind that the idea of his playing the liberal Russian landowner—keeping accounts and teaching his peasants the latest agricultural methods—seems laughable.

As for Stolz himself, his own line of work remains suspiciously vague. “He owned part of a company that sent goods abroad,” Goncharov writes. “If they needed someone to write a draft or put a new idea into practice, they chose him.” Stolz drags Oblomov “here and there” while he tends “to affairs.” Whatever Stolz does, it seems, must be so tedious that Goncharov can’t bear to describe it. Stolz represents an idea that we instinctively hold dear, but would be hard-pressed to prove: that work and effort are salutary in themselves, even in the absence of a noble goal. He has a descendant in Tolstoy’s Levin in Anna Karenina—after a day now and then spent mowing rye with his peasants, Levin feels vastly superior to his brother, who maintains his genteel repose.

Oblomov, of course, recoils from doing work for any reason at all. But Stolz introduces him to a young woman, Olga, who makes it her mission to reform Oblomov’s sloth. Oblomov falls in love. He and Olga spend an enchanted summer strolling the grounds of her family’s country house. Under her influence, Oblomov gives up his naps and reads improving books. They agree to marry.

But when they return to the city in the fall, Oblomov begins to have doubts. He has rented a comfortable room in a suburban part of the city called the Vyborg side, and he hates to think of all the new responsibilities marriage will bring: he will need a new apartment, he will have to keep track of his money, he will have to go to social events at Olga’s side. A wedding, it turns out, is not only “poetic,” but “also a practical, official step toward a substantive and serious activity and many rigorous obligations.”

Looking ahead at a lifetime without naps, Oblomov balks. He finds many excuses to avoid going to visit Olga in town, which is conveniently separated from the Vyborg side by a body of water and bridges that close in bad weather. It is finally left to Olga, younger but far more perceptive and practical, to confront him and call off their plans: “You fall into a deeper and deeper sleep with every passing day,” she tells him, while she herself “will never grow old and never tire of life.” Oblomov regretfully admits this is true. They agree to part ways (she later marries Stolz). The reader is relieved that the awkward pretense of Oblomov’s possible conversion has been dropped. Goncharov may not be writing against novelistic convention, but he has created a character who resists being novelized: Oblomov is always the same, no matter what transformative situations Goncharov has in store for him.

What is remarkable about Oblomov’s fate is how close he comes, through little effort of his own, to realizing his dream of perfect placidity. After he loses Olga, he turns his eye to the widow who keeps his lodgings, Agafia Matveyevna, a marvelously efficient housewife who makes delicious pastries. Goncharov likes to identify Agafia metonymically by her bare arms and especially her elbows, always in motion as she bustles about the kitchen and yard. Oblomov admires these industrious elbows; Agafia is happily joined to her labor in a way that he can never be:

Each day he became friendlier and friendlier with his landlady. The idea of love never occurred to him, at least not the kind of love he had recently endured like smallpox, measles, or a fever. He shuddered at its memory.

Instead of love, Oblomov finds ease. Agafia Mateveyvna demands nothing of him, she is pleased to make him comfortable in her house and thinks it right that a gentleman (as opposed to a person of the urban middle class like herself) should lie around all day. Goncharov makes a point of the fact that she is enlarged and fulfilled by their companionship, while Oblomov is merely satisfied. Though no one would call him a serious thinker, there is a wide gap in education and experience between him and Agafia, who is incurious and more or less illiterate: “To any question that did not concern some positive goal known to her, she replied with a grin and silence.”

It’s not a heart-pounding romance, but it does turn into a marriage. Stolz drops in on Oblomov a few years after he has moved in with Agafia, and is shocked to find that the couple have a three-year-old son. In typical fashion, Oblomov has drifted passively into a common-law marriage. On the whole, his undemanding life with Agafia Matveyevna would seem to be as good as it can get for him. The marriage agrees with him. He dotes on his son and Agafia’s two other children from her first marriage. And conveniently for all of them, Stolz has taken over the management of Oblomov’s family property, and ensured that Oblomov will have a comfortable income for the rest of his life. He never has to think about any of his immediate wants again, and quietly drops any larger questions of what to do with his life:

Looking closely into and thinking hard about his daily life, as he became more and more accustomed to it, he finally decided that he did not need to go anywhere or search for anything else, that his life’s ideal had come to pass, albeit without poetry….

Some years after settling into Agafia’s house, he has a debilitating stroke, and another year later, a fatal one. His doctor blames his inactivity and heavy lunches, and so does Goncharov: “His perpetual rest, perpetual silence, and lazy crawl from one day to the next quietly stopped the machine of his life.”

In all, he seems to have wrested more from life than one could have expected. Where Bartleby, Oblomov’s exact contemporary, effectively starves himself to death, Oblomov finds a way to do nothing and still get fed. The hero needs only a mild pro forma reproach from his author (“he had gotten off cheaply in life, and made a profit from it”), and we can delight in his fortune.

But Goncharov won’t quite let Oblomov rest, even as he ties up all the loose ends for him. Just as Oblomov has been caught all along between comedy and horror, he is subject to two different judgments from his author. Is he merely naughty for having gotten away with his indolence, or, as Goncharov also suggests, has he eaten and slept himself to death, demonstrating a will to self- negation that is analogous, not opposite, to Bartleby’s? “He quietly and gradually fit himself into the simple and wide coffin of the remainder of his existence,” Goncharov writes, “a coffin made by his own hands, like the elders in the desert who, turning away from life, dig themselves a grave.” Can a man who has just acquired a wife, a son, and a merry household really be said to have turned “away from life”? Yes, Goncharov insists, because life is struggle, and Oblomov has yet to struggle for anything at all.

This seems a vexing conclusion, for it elides both the changes in Oblomov’s life and also the problem that has, implicitly, kept him in check all along: our efforts are often in vain, and their rewards, if any, are often disappointing. In this ambiguous, forked ending, Goncharov seems at once to acknowledge and to turn away from the darkest implication of the character he has created—that it’s perfectly reasonable to see no point in the struggle.

Letters

Levin’s Moral Mowing September 30, 2010

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