Michael Wood

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:

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