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 later. But in 1852 something altogether unexpected and uncharacteristic occurred to break the even tenor of Goncharov’s ways as a comfortably-off Petersburg rentier who wrote novels. It was as if Hamlet had embarked on a career as a pirate, or Flaubert joined the French Foreign Legion. A trade mission was being fitted out for a voyage to Japan, and in an incautious moment Goncharov said how much he would like to go. The minister to whom this was reported took him at his word. He tried to wriggle out of it but in vain. On October 7 the frigate Pallada set sail from Kronstadt, the Russian naval base in the Gulf of Finland, with Goncharov on board.

It seems likely that the Russian government had got wind of the American intention to send Commodore Perry’s squadron for the same purpose of opening up Japan to trade. If so, they jumped the gun, for the Pallada, commanded by Admiral Putyatin, began her voyage several months before Perry got started. Perry had less far to go, but on the other hand there was already a sphere of Russian influence in the Far East, and their possessions on Sakhalin made the Russians physically much closer to Japan. In fact the Russian government was almost as dilatory as Oblomov; the Pallada was old and leaky, and was not impressive as a ship of war. Moreover Russian diplomacy was also hampered by the outbreak of the Crimean War, in which Russia faced a temporary alliance of Turkey, England, and France. This occurred during the Pallada’s long voyage. Goncharov says little about the war situation, but it haunted the whole expedition, and led to his being eventually put ashore at Ajan, on the far shores of Siberia, to find his own way home as best he could. Here his book ends, with his safe arrival in Irkutsk on Christmas Day, 1854.

The commander, Admiral Putyatin, was the involuntary cause of the book’s being less interesting than it might have been. In the role of his secretary Goncharov did not get on with him at all, but one would never guess this from his narrative, which takes the wise course of hardly mentioning the admiral. Unkovsky, the frigate’s captain, and his first lieutenant, Possyet, disliked their admiral even more intensely, but again no word of this appears in Goncharov’s blandly informational pages. Not for the first or last time a Russian writer was well aware by hard tradition of the value of being discreet. Temperamentally Goncharov was in any case a good-natured and peaceable soul, wishing harm to no one and never reconstructing events in malice. His own temperament makes the book what it is. But had the battle of wills and personalities on board the ship been more evident, instead of being quietly suppressed in his narrative, his account of the voyage might have been even more of a masterpiece.


In any case to call it a masterpiece begs the question. In Russian, and for Russians, it certainly is one. I remember the pleasure I had from it when I was learning Russian, because I felt I could see how the language at its most supple and engaging worked in Goncharov’s sentences, and transformed the usually not very remarkable details of travel into a personal landscape, like the one we find in Virginia Woolf’s novels, or in Francis Kilvert’s diaries. As the translator, Klaus Goetze, observes: “The book purports to be a travel book, but it really is a piece of autobiography.” It was a genre the Russians were just beginning to explore, the genre of Tolstoy’s Childhood and Boyhood, which were being written at about the same time, and of Aksakov’s accounts of his family and of the estate where he grew up. Whereas Tolstoy and Aksakov returned to their beginnings to create an interior description, Goncharov made an equally effective use of the long voyage, which was for him the most memorable thing in his life, the otherwise rather uneventful life of a St. Petersburg gentleman author.

In a sense he was to do the same thing with the novel form itself, for Oblomov is autobiography too, the kind in which the author explores by means of exaggeration one side of his nature, to him familiar, although to others perhaps barely visible. Oblomov is a creation of lyric sloth, which Gonchorov deeply and humorously understood, though not himself especially lazy or given to procrastination. Goncharov was a big ungainly fellow, stout rather than fat, an endomorph of characteristically Oblomovan type, as can be seen in an excellent group photograph, often published in Tolstoy biographies, in which the central figure is Turgenev, and the young Tolstoy, just back from the Crimea, lounges in his artillery officer’s uniform. Tolstoy, whose manners were not of the best, seems to have regarded Goncharov rather disdainfully, as he did Turgenev himself.

Aksakov and the early Tolstoy are probably not so hard to translate; at any rate it has been done in a workmanlike manner, and in Aksakov’s case even elegantly, their idioms finding a comparatively smooth and ready equivalent in English. But with Goncharov it is a different matter. Oblomov loses a great deal in translation. Klaus Goetze does his best, but his sense of English, though colorful, is stilted, and he produces a good many peculiarities that have no equivalent in Goncharov’s text. In his preface he offers a reason for this, which is rather touching:

I was born in Berlin in Germany, and at the age of eighteen I didn’t know a word of Russian. At the Berlin University’s School of Business, which I attended, I fell into the hands of Baron Von Der Osten-Sacken. He was my first Russian teacher; a Baltic nobleman, aristocratic and world-weary, with nicotine-stained fingers. He kindled in me admiration for him and a life-long fascination with Russia, the Russian people, Russian literature, Russian language. Many years later, in Cambridge [Massachusetts], I studied Russian again with Maria Yulievna Azarova, a splendid, highly intelligent and very kindly woman who had lived in Russia both under the Tsars and the Soviets. One day she casually mentioned Goncharov’s Frigate Pallada, saying that I would enjoy reading it.

Both Goetze’s preface and his text are full of pleasures, with a zest for Goncharov’s own enjoyment of places and people, and this more than makes up for any laboriousness in his rendering of the original, and his sometimes infelicitous slang.

After a stormy crossing of the North Sea the frigate put into Portsmouth, and while it was refitting, Goncharov explored London, recording his impressions much as Dostoevsky was to do a few years later, when he visited the Great Exhibition and wrote upon his return to Russia his “Winter Thoughts on Summer Impressions.” Goncharov has little to say of objective interest beyond what was commented on by the general run of travelers. Like most of them he did not care for the sense he got of England and the English, though he admired the beauty of the women and their long legs, showed off to good advantage by the way they lifted their skirts to cross the streets. Of the material way of life, and the many ingenious contrivances which English people apparently used in their houses, to get through the business of the day so expeditiously and without the aid of events, he writes with a humorous contempt. England struck foreigners then much as America was to do fifty years later, and Goncharov writes about London’s universal vulgarity and hustle as Henry James on his visit in the early 1900s was to deplore that of New York.


Goncharov was pleased to put aside England, even the funeral of the Duke of Wellington which he had witnessed, to concentrate on the happier arrival in Madeira, after a stormy passage in the leaky Pallada, and the longer voyage down the South Atlantic to the Cape of Good Hope. The section on South Africa is the longest account of one visit in his book. Goncharov was intrigued by the society he found there, and describes it from the point of view of a reasonably unprejudiced foreigner. Both the British and the Afrikaners seem to have been racially conscious in a high degree, even in those days, and Goncharov was amused by one man, a doctor, who decided that he would make a study in the racial context of “the Russian type.” He gazes “with intense attention” at three of the ship’s officers, one of whom happened to be Dutch, another German, and the third a Balt, and pronounces them all racially typical. The real Russians guffaw at this. But they are also sensitive. They resent the fact that this doctor expects Russians to be like wild beasts; he was astonished to hear that one of their number was a geologist, “that we have many learned men, and we have a literature too.”

The Pallada wended on her laborious way across the Indian Ocean, finally reaching Singapore, and continued by way of the Ryukyus to Nagasaki and Japan. Considered simply as a travel writer Goncharov is refreshingly casual, impudently so by the standards of our present professionals in the business. Arriving in the Japanese islands he informs us that ” ‘shima’ means island, ‘saki’ cape, or perhaps the other way round; I don’t know.” On the other hand he seems to miss nothing, and his picture of the Japanese envoys of various kinds who came to visit the frigate, and in various and devious ways frustrated the Russians’ desire for landing and trading rights, has a singular freshness and literalness. Goncharov’s Japanese are not the already picturesque and conventional images of the older travel books—Goncharov was reading the account written in the early 1700s by Engelbert Kempfer, a Bavarian surgeon—and still less the figures who only twenty-five years later were to be popularized in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera The Mikado.

The Russians’ subliminal awareness of their own government’s secretiveness and authoritarianism must have given them a deep understanding of the nature of the Japanese methods. They understood them, but they could do nothing about them; and there is more than a little irony in the fact that while the Russians saw what the Japanese were about and why, the Americans and British took an attitude of outraged self-righteousness and incredulity. If the Japanese would not trade like rational people they must be compelled to do so, á coup de canon, as a rational Jesuit had already put it. Admiral Putyatin and his expedition may not, by instinct, have felt the same. Certainly Goncharov himself was chiefly impressed by a quietness and the sense of an inner order which he and his fellow Russians could make nothing of. There was, as he stresses, nothing in the least picturesque about it. Although “it is all like a picture, like an artistically composed scene,” he cannot grasp its inner principle:

I look with a strange feeling at these playfully constructed, smiling shores: it is uncomfortable to see this “dream,” the absence of any motion. Rarely do you see any human beings; animals not at all; only once did I hear a dog bark. No human busyness here; few signs of life. Besides watch boats, there are only little boats manned by two or three oarsmen, scurrying close to shore, and in them a snotty little boy or a near-sighted girl…. Where do the people hide? Why doesn’t one see work being done, carts, noise, shouts, shrieks, songs, in short: the boiling cauldron of life?

Goncharov’s flair for conveying the sense of “nonlife” a foreigner felt in secluded and unfamiliar Japan is highly original. As an observer he was the complete opposite of what Raymond Chandler referred to as “the schoolmarm at the snakedances.” In any case the admiral and his officers got nowhere, despite all their diplomatic efforts. The Pallada made for Shanghai, where the Russians gloomily observed the sensational results of the British opium trade, the boom in business it had engendered, the demoralization of the Chinese, and the lapse of the Celestial Empire into anarchy and civil war.* But for Goncharov all such matters take second place to a concentration on important matters such as food, drink, and the fact that places that should be hot turn out to be cold and miserable, and sometimes vice versa. Tea, in China, is unexpectedly but wholly disgusting, worse even than English tea. A drawback, too, is the new fad of canning, by which one can obtain “ready-to-eat, hermetically sealed provisions in tins, of every kind.”

A good idea, but what is it really? It turns out that some of these preserves really cannot be eaten; the dealers take advantage of the trust of the buyers; one cannot check what is inside. One cannot open each tin, tightly sealed with lead. Later on, at sea, it turns out that the beef tastes like veal, the veal like fish, the fish like eggs, and everything like God knows what. Often it looks and smells uniformly the same. It is said that the French make better preserves. We bought ours in England.

Goncharov is good at establishing, across the years, a sort of elephantine intimacy with the reader by means of comments like these. The contents of cans then and now are probably not so very different. Perhaps Goncharov regretted the stuff during the hardships of his snowy way back to Irkutsk, perhaps not. The reader, at any rate, after this lapse of time, can check what is inside his book and find it sound, substantial, and flavorsome.

This Issue

March 3, 1988