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by Ivan Goncharov, translated by Marian Schwartz.
Seven Stories, 553 pp., £15.99, January 2009, 978 1 58322 840 1
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This intimately funny and desperately sad novel opens with a parade of visitors to Ilya Ilich Oblomov’s Petersburg flat. Most of them are introduced, in this new translation, by the phrase ‘in walked’, which creates a wonderful sense of flatness, repetition and invasion. All but one of the visitors are busy in some way or other, full of talk of the world, parties, work, the latest literary news. They are going somewhere, they have a life, and one of them is eager to steal or cadge as much from Oblomov as he can. The very descriptions of these people make us tired, setting us up for a largely (although not entirely) disreputable identification with the book’s slothful hero. Other translations describe his favourite posture as lying down, but Marian Schwartz boldly goes for ‘recumbence’, with its suggestion of ornate Latin repose:

For Ilya Ilich, recumbence was neither a necessity, as it would be for an ill or sleepy man, nor an occasional occurrence, as for someone who was weary, nor a pleasure, as for a lazy man; it was his normal state.

Oblomov is lying down even when he is sitting up, ‘thinking in his comfortable chair’, for example, ‘in his lazily handsome pose’, and when the book’s great drama comes to an end, his one attempt at loving someone and caring for something other than his deep mental comfort, the young woman who had hoped to rescue him bitterly says, ‘How kind you are to yourself,’ and tells him to ‘rest easy’. ‘After all,’ she says, ‘that is where your happiness lies.’

Oblomov is not exactly a person, and this is only partly a psychological novel. It becomes psychological when he tries to love, and the misery of his failure is the misery of a person; but the story of his non-life and real death, his long kindness to himself, is really the story of a series of stances and occasions, human possibilities squandered and slept through. One of the novel’s polemical proposals is that squandering and sleeping are better, in many cases, than what we call work and achievement. In which cases? The novelist Mikhail Shishkin says in an afterword that this is ‘the Russian paradox: if you want to live a worthy life, you’d best not get off the sofa at all.’ Oblomov, Shishkin says, is a ‘vital, dear and unlucky man’ and morally much to be preferred, the implication is, to all those who preach at him, pass him by, and rip him off. Schwartz, similarly, in her translator’s note, speaks of Oblomov’s ‘shining soul’ and his ‘endearing foibles and rationalisations’. The spirit of these remarks catches something important. It is better to sleep than to work if the work is ignoble; better to be a genial pampered loafer than an ugly crook. But Oblomov is not vital or unlucky; his soul doesn’t shine, and he doesn’t have foibles. His life is dim and deeply fortunate. He has money to burn and devoted people to look after and love him. His soul is stagnant; and if clinical depression is compatible with living like a gourmet prince, he is depressed. This is where we need to remember, though, that he is not exactly a person.

There is a clue about how to read him in the evocation of the one visitor in the early part of the novel who is not active, a man without qualities or history. Even Oblomov is an incarnation of charm, privilege and sloth, but this man can’t get anyone to remember his name or anything about him. The writing here, which comes across in very similar fashion in the other translations I’ve looked at (those of Ann Dunnigan, David Magarshack and Natalie Duddington), offers a fine example of sly and compassionate satire, a very rare genre indeed:

In walked a man of indeterminate age and indeterminate physiognomy, at that time of life when it can be difficult to guess a man’s age. Neither handsome nor ugly, neither tall nor short, neither blond nor brunet. Nature had given him no distinctive, notable features whatsoever, either for ill or good. Many called him Ivan Ivanich; others, Ivan Vasilievich; still others, Ivan Mikhailich. His last name was also cited variously. Some said he was Ivanov; others called him Vasiliev or Andreyev; still others thought he was Alexeyev. A chance passer-by seeing him for the first time, if told his name, would immediately forget it, as he would his face, and would take no note of what he said. His presence would add nothing to society, just as his absence would subtract nothing . . .

Can such a man be likeable? Does he love, hate and suffer? He must – you would think – love and not love, and suffer, because no one is freed from that. But somehow he managed to love everyone. There are men like that . . . they are always kind. Although they say people like that are kind because they love everyone, in essence they love no one and are kind only because they are not mean.

There is a bite at the end of this passage, and an indication of what’s wrong with Oblomov as well as Ivanov/Vasiliev/Andreyev/Alexeyev. The apparent message of the book, that work is better than sloth (or if you prefer, that sloth is better than work), is only apparent. Doing nothing – the lifelong ambition of Beckett’s characters, for example – may well be better than doing something, and is often philosophically more interesting. But being nobody cannot be a consummation to be wished. And before the bite there is a fine comic pathos in the sight of this invisible and unretainable man, a picture of a condition many of us have felt is ours, at least some of the time, our life as seen by those who think we don’t have a life.

Both Oblomov and his many-named friend are instances of the ‘superfluous men’ who, in Shishkin’s words, ‘fan out through the pages of Russian novels’. But most of these figures do, surreptitiously or not, add a great deal to society, and Goncharov has taken away all the Byronic glamour, the touch of aristocratic nonchalance that comes with supposed superfluity in Pushkin, Lermontov and Turgenev. Oblomov is ‘the sole owner of 350 souls, which he had inherited in one of the more distant provinces, practically in Asia’, and he does nothing for or against these souls except spend the income they generate. It’s true that Goncharov understands the appeal of such abstinence, but his long portrait of the pleasures of idleness is as remorseless as kindly comedy can be. In a section called ‘Oblomov’s Dream’, effectively his idealised memory of his childhood, we see a world of enchanted, stationary time, where everything conspires to protect the self and the community against threats to calm and wellbeing. The very place is a trope aimed at the horrors of noisy Romanticism: ‘There is no sea, no tall mountains, cliffs or chasms, no slumberous forests – nothing grandiose, wild, and gloomy.’ ‘No poet or dreamer would be content with even the general view of this modest and unpretentious locale. They would not see there an evening in the Swiss or Scottish taste . . . ’ There isn’t going to be anything resembling ‘a gloomy ruin’ or ‘a mighty castle’, and Scott is explicitly named as purveying what we are not to find in the estate of Oblomovka. This is a place where ‘happy people lived thinking that life simply could not be otherwise’; where a busy day for the master is to watch the servants doing what they always do. Oblomov’s father was not ‘idle’, the narrator discreetly says: ‘All morning he sat by the window and gave his undivided attention to everything going on outside.’ Then something terrible happens: a letter arrives. Having scolded the unfortunate muzhik who accepted the missive from the post office in a local town, the family soon finds a solution. Who says they have to open it? ‘It’s not going anywhere,’ they say to themselves repeatedly. After four days they look at the letter. It’s from a former resident asking for a recipe. This is not too bad, but they can’t find the recipe, don’t want to make the huge effort of putting pen to paper, and are disinclined to pay the postage. They decide to send the recipe, if they find it, with someone who’s travelling in the right direction. The narrator comments, ‘no one knows whether Filipp Matveyevich ever saw the recipe.’

The very idea of the interruption vanishes, and this spectacular aversion to all idea of change is Oblomov’s inheritance just as much as the 350 souls and the land and crumbling buildings ‘practically in Asia’. His version of the letter, which drives the whole plot of the novel, is the double difficulty of needing to do something about the estate and to find a new flat in Petersburg. He confines the management of the estate to a rogue – a friend finally detects the roguery and puts things in order – and when he finds a new place to live he turns it into an urban Oblomovka. He dies there ‘without pain or suffering, like a clock someone had forgotten to wind’. There are worse deaths, certainly, but the image of the abandoned mechanism suggests a sort of mindless loneliness, and the rest of the death scene becomes a version of the whole novel in miniature. ‘No one observed his final minutes or heard his death rattle.’ His former landlady, now his wife, a woman whose sole ambition is to serve him rather than save him, finds him ‘resting gently on his deathbed, as if it were a bed of dreams, except that his head had slipped off the pillow and his hand was pressed convulsively to his heart, where his blood had evidently pooled and stopped’. Even a life dedicated to repose can end in agitation, and that agitation itself will end only in death.

Superfluous men were a social class as much as a romantic fiction, and this dimension of the novel still matters a great deal. A ruling class that doesn’t rule – just steals, say – will always be a great subject. But at the heart of Oblomov is an existential worry that certainly includes the political but spills out into almost any area of activity we can imagine. It’s a simple but perhaps unanswerable question: ‘When does one live?’ At the point where it first appears literally, Oblomov is wondering what to do with what he has learned from his reading. ‘When, ultimately, does one put to use that capital of knowledge, most of which will never be good for anything in life? Political economy, for instance, algebra, geometry – what am I going to do with these at Oblomovka?’ How can any of this help him sleep his life away, that is, and does he need any help? The mild kick in the question is that we may not be sure how such studies will help us even if we are not planning (or don’t have the opportunity) to live in an Oblomovka of our own.

Oblomov’s friend Stolz, however, the apostle of work and ceaseless activity, believes that ‘labour and life itself constitute life’s purpose’; and Olga, the young woman whom Oblomov fails to love enough, believes that rescuing him from his lack of purpose would itself be a good purpose for her. Stolz is engaging and friendly, and genuinely cares for Oblomov. He is intelligent enough to understand the moral poverty of easy optimism, and as the words in the quotation suggest, he knows that the question of the purpose of life may just end in tautology. This is what he says to Oblomov: ‘The purpose is to live.’ But in spite of, or because of, such knowledge, Stolz is an insufferable explainer, unable in the end to disbelieve in his own capacity to get the hang of everything. He condescends to his wife without knowing that’s what he is doing, and he will never see the curious residue of dignity in Oblomov’s final capitulation to the comfort he can’t pretend he doesn’t desire. Olga is generous and open, but there was always a missionary element in her love for Oblomov. And although she is right to let him go, there is a subtle rebuke to her pride in the abject devotion Agafia Matveyevna, Oblomov’s landlady/ wife, shows to her adored tenant/husband. This innocent woman doesn’t even know how much she adores him, but we are told that in her stolid way ‘she had begun to live fully’ through her love, and later are reminded that ‘she had loved so fully and so well.’ She is what Oblomov had, the personification of his immense good fortune; and in another sense she is what he never was, a person who knew when and how to live. Even here Goncharov is not going to let us off the hook, though. Her love was a life, but it was also a form of unremitting servility.

Oblomov himself is not sure he is a person. He thinks he may be a type, and that is what he is usually taken to be. Early in the novel he looks at his fabulously slovenly servant and thinks ‘Well, brother, you’re more of an Oblomov than I am’ – as if he had read the book and recognised himself. ‘Stolz is intellect, strength, and the ability to control himself, others, and his destiny . . . I’m Oblomov.’ By implication Oblomov is distraction, weakness and self-indulgence, the opposite of whatever involves ‘action, struggle and life’. He conjures up for Stolz a vast dream of a quiet rural Eden, all good food and rest and sunshine, with an occasional swim in the slow-flowing river, and a boat ride in which his loving wife does the rowing and steering. Stolz asks him if he would want to go on like that for ever, and Oblomov says: ‘Till we’re old and grey, to the grave. That’s the life.’ Stolz says it’s not the life, and when Oblomov asks him what it is, Stolz coins what has become one of literature’s most famous, if rather elusive words. ‘It’s . . . Oblomovshchina,’ Stolz says finally. Duddington and Dunnigan translate this as ‘Oblomovism’; Magarshack has ‘Oblomovitis’. I found myself wondering about ‘Oblomovishness’. Shishkin says the word’s closest equivalent in Russian is ‘eskapizm’, something rather different from its English twin, since ‘Russians are trying to escape not to avoid responsibility but to save the purity of the soul from life’s iniquity.’ Schwartz, who leaves the word in Russian, tells us the suffix ‘has exclusively negative implications’, and adds that it can’t therefore define Oblomov himself completely. He is its ideal instance, but it is not all he is.

The novel itself is the enactment of this difference. Oblomovshchina is what Oblomov longs for and finally gets, where he starts and where he ends, what hampers him in every attempt at an active engagement of the mind or the heart. It is a habit of daydreaming and an expression of his ‘trusting heart’, a fantasy of calm that is also a form of avoidance, a real condition in which all stirrings of energy and ambition can be cast off as disturbances. Its final figure is ‘the evening sun drowning quietly and peacefully in the sunset’s fire’, as Oblomov puts it to himself when he has got rid of the alternatives; when he has ‘quietly and gradually fit himself into the simple and wide coffin of the remainder of his existence’.

These images – the drowning sun, the lingering fire, the comfy coffin – invite us to stay with the sheer, painful complication of Oblomov’s fate, the delayed and never perfect conjoining of the person and the clinical diagnosis. In Stolz’s mouth the famous word is a judgment, but in Oblomov’s own it is something else, or rather it is both the starkest of judgments and a cry for more capacious understanding. When Olga finally leaves him she asks: ‘When did it all die? Who cursed you, Ilya? What did you do? You’re so good, and smart, and kind, and noble . . . and . . . you’re dying! What destroyed you? There is no name for this evil.’ Oblomov says: ‘Yes, there is.’ Olga waits, and Oblomov whispers: ‘Oblomovshchina’. His desolation, and his ability to say the word show how far he is from being defined by the condition he has come to define.

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