Saint of Inertia

Oblomov and His Creator: The Life and Art of Ivan Goncharov

by Milton Ehre
Princeton University Press, 295 pp., $14.50

Ivan Goncharov
Ivan Goncharov; drawing by David Levine

On the face of it, it is extraordinary that one of the great comic novels of the Russian nineteenth century should have come from the hand of the most pedestrian, industrious, conservative of state officials, Ivan Goncharov, a man outwardly devoid of fantasy and lacking inventive powers. From what leak in a mind so small and sealed did the unconscious drip out and produce the character of Oblomov, the sainted figure of nonproductive sloth and inertia; one of those creatures who become larger and larger as we read?

The simple view—still held by some Soviet critics and encouraged by remarks of Goncharov himself—is that Oblomov was an exposure of the laziness and ineffectiveness of the land-owning class; but as it grew in the slow process of the writing (which took between ten and thirteen years) the novel became far more than that. Several contemporary critics have even suggested a prophetic kinship with Beckett and have noted the protest against the work ethic that has created a sense of emptiness and boredom in the modern world. Everyone exclaims at the influence of Don Quixote, to which Russian literature has so often responded; and, thinking of Goncharov’s case, one could say that it is just as extraordinary that the author of the neat Exemplary Novels should also have burst the formal bonds of his period. All one can say is that literature has a double source: one in life, the other in literature itself, and if one is going in for the influence game, Goncharov’s admiration for Tristram Shandy—the corresponding English comedy of domestic lethargy—may be thought to have helped to bemuse his dilatory and very literary mind. Like Sterne he was following a tune in his head.

The interest of Professor Ehre’s scholarly work lies in his close knowledge of Russian critical writing and his observation of the detail of Goncharov’s impulses and methods as a novelist. Oblomov appeared to be a work of objective realism as minute in this respect as a Flemish picture done from the outside, yet in fact it comes from the inner, so to say, secret anxiety of an organized, even carefully dulled temperament. This anxiety is a nostalgia for what has been lost, an edginess suggesting fear of a hidden “abyss” that lies close to one who, torn between the ideal and the practical, has opted for the respectable golden mean.

There is, at times, an air of fret in Oblomov’s nature that makes him seem on the brink of madness from which surrender to his sloth, perhaps, saved him. This madness came out in the form of paranoia in Goncharov himself toward the end of his life when he accused Turgenev and even Flaubert of stealing his ideas. Goncharov was State Censor and, may be, the man who had such political power over the works of his contemporaries had been quietly boiling with the jealousies…

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