I chose to read Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov for the Classic Circuit without having any idea what the book was about. I had some vague recollection that I had read someone’s blog post about it once and it sounded good but beyond that I could not go. I could even get the book for free online and it was just shy of 200 pages. How could I go wrong? Except it turned out the online free version was abridged and when the book arrived from the library it was 445 pages! So much for short. But it turned out that it didn’t matter.
Illya Illyich Oblomov is landed gentry. He owns a large estate — Oblomovka — and three hundred peasants. When the story opens Oblomov is reclining on his divan in his apartment in St. Petersburg. For the next 150 pages or so he remains on his divan, in his dressing gown determined to deal with two problems — he is being forced to move from his apartment so the building can be renovated and he just got a letter from his estate bailiff explaining that things on the estate are rather dire. But Oblomov, so used to not doing and having others do for him, can’t sort either of the problems out. A “friend” who is really a moocher and a thief, arrives and after making sure Oblomov knows what a great imposition it all is, agrees to help Oblomov at least find a new apartment. As for his estate, the brother of his new landlady agrees to “help” him out with that.
Throughout the entire book Oblomov is either laying down or eating huge amounts of food or ineffectually worrying about things and then putting off their resolution until the next day or next week. Only in one section of the book does he ever show any kind of oomph and that is when he falls in love with the young and beautiful Olga. But even Olga can’t make him resist the grasp of oblomovshchina and the two separate. If it weren’t for Oblomov’s devoted and industrious friend, Stoltz, taking his affairs in hand and looking out for him, Oblomov would have ended his days as a beggar on the street.
There are so many different elements at work in this book I don’t know where to start and probably can’t begin to cover them all. First, you need to know this book is funny. It’s not in your face funny, it’s a subtle funny that plays with irony and the alternating affection and disgust that Oblomov inspires in his reader. Oblomov is pathetic but yet does not inspire pity. He is not stupid or lazy or incapable, his friend Stoltz makes sure we know that; the two were at university together and Oblomov studied law, read poetry and philosophy, and was an art and music connoisseur. Nor does Oblomov suffer from depression. He doesn’t suffer from anything.
Oblomov’s deep and all-pervavise inertia, his oblomovshchina, comes to represent a dying way of life. Through a dream Oblomov has early in the book we glimpse what life on the estate in Oblomovka was like and had always been like and what growing up there meant to Oblomov. The life and ways of Oblomovka are contrasted with social changes represented by Stoltz. Stoltz is not landed gentry. His father was German and his mother was Russian and he has made his way in the world through becoming educated and working hard. He is wealthy because he has earned it not because it was given to him.
Throughout the entire book we have a continual rubbing together of these two ways of life represented by Oblomov and Stoltz. Stoltz is always busy, always on the go, traveling throughout Europe for both work and pleasure. He takes pride and joy in his work and the things that he can do because of it. Oblomov reclines on his divan marveling at Stoltz’s busyness and is glad he doesn’t have to do that. He is always voicing aloud how sorry he is for people who have to be busy and work, always running here and there and for what purpose? Is that really life? Stoltz on the other hand wonders how Oblomov can think that just lying down all day is living. There is no doubt by the end of the book which way of life we are supposed to agree is the best.
I used to have a coworker who was from Russia and loved to read and I wish I still had contact with her because I would so love to be able to discuss this book with her. Oblomov is apparently one of those books that has seeped into the culture. Everyone in Russia, even if they have not read the book, knows what oblomovshchina is. It would be really interesting to talk with someone who is Russian about the book’s cultural meaning. Alas, none of my current coworkers are still in touch with our former coworker.
The translation I read was by Stephen Pearl. It is the most recent translation of the book and is well done. The only unfortunate thing about the book is that whoever did the copyediting was asleep on the job. The text is riddled with typos, paragraphing mistakes (several times a new paragraph begins in the middle of a sentence), and punctuation errors. This is not the fault of the translator, it is the fault of the publisher. The book and the translation are well worth your reading time.
Oblomov is part of the Classic Circuit’s Imperial Russia tour. Hop on over to the Classic Circuit website for the rest of the tour dates.