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Not worth getting out of bed for

07 June 2013

John Arnold enjoys Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov

I USED to ask my students which Russian novel had been a surprise to them. The answer was always the same: Oblomov. They had been amazed and delighted to discover Ivan Goncharov and his lovable, indolent anti-hero, in whom they never failed to find something of themselves.

This is strange, because Oblomov is representative of a specific class of superfluous noblemen, at a particular stage of Russian history before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. They lived luxurious and parasitical lives, with immense wealth, and limitless, undemanding sex with serf-girls; they sought (but did not find) relief from boredom in gambling and duelling; and they remained politically and personally immature, sheltered from the responsibilities and challenges of life and love. Oblomov (the name sounds like a big, fat blob of falling snow) takes the deadly sin of sloth to pathological extremes.

The story begins: "Ilya Ilyich Oblomov was lying in bed one morning . . ." and he stays there for the first 168 pages, until mid-afternoon, incidentally preserving, as in a play, the classical unities of space, time, and theme.

A fast reader could manage this part in real time, following Oblomov's agonies of procrastination, introspection, timidity, and self-delusion; meeting his ghastly, predatory visitors; getting to know his equally lazy and collusive manservant, Zahar; and dreaming the dream of his ancestral village, Oblomovka, where, every evening, "The peasants thanked God that nothing had happened that day and prayed that nothing would happen tomorrow, either."

Yet Goncharov makes him attractive, with the guileless charm of a chubby child, all wrapped up and cosy, open-hearted and endearing, trusting and affectionate. In contrast, one of his visitors is an investigative journalist, who describes his own work as consisting of "Burning malice, bitter denunciations of vice, contemptuous laughter at fallen humanity - that's everything!"

Oblomov's response is "Give me man, man. Love him!" He represents the broad humanity (chelovechnost') of the Russian (and Russian Orthodox) tradition at its best: its endless sympathy with sinners; its understanding of the injured and the insulted, the poor in spirit, the unsuccessful, and the losers in life.

He is, after all, one of them himself, and he helps us see that we are, too. Sloth or laziness is the one sin of which almost all penitents accuse themselves. Perhaps one of the reasons why we feel guilty is that we sense that sloth involves wasting time, time that is a uniquely valuable gift of God, indistinguishable from the gift of life itself.

Two friends actively try to save Oblomov from himself. One is half-German. His name, Stolz, means "proud" or "pride". The other is Olga, the idolised and idealised Russian woman who loves him, and whom he scarcely raises the energy to love in return.

Like Molière before him, Goncharov knows that the only power on earth that can penetrate the defences of a strong man, armed with his own neuroses, is the power of love. The personal tragedy in what is otherwise a social comedy is that Olga's self-sacrificial love is not enough. Oblomov sinks back into his dressing gown, and into the arms of his buxom landlady, Agafya, more mother than wife. Olga and Stolz marry each other, united by their love of their mutual friend.

The dressing gown is a prime example of an ordinary, everyday object, which becomes a symbol. It was the origin of a new word in the Russian language - khalatnost', the quality of life lived in a dressing gown. Other examples, among many, are the dirty windows, which make the outside world seem so uninviting, and Agafya's plump and dimpled elbows.

Goncharov combines clear-sighted introspection with acute observation. He excels in the transformation of the obvious into the significant; and it is this semi-sacramental understanding of the meaningfulness of the ordinary and everyday which keeps us turning the pages of a book in which very little happens.

He unites the personal and psychological with the social and political; he makes the individual universal; and, like the Dickens he loved, he knows how to interweave a tragic tale with uproarious, laugh-out-loud humour.

Goncharov himself led an uneventful life. He never married, he spent more than a decade on Oblomov, and he wrote practically nothing in the last 23 years of his life. Meanwhile, the notion of Oblomovshchina (another new word spawned by the book) played a part in political debates in which he took no part.

Still, he did sail round the world in the frigate Pallas, itself a symbol of the ambiguity of the concept of sloth. Is the circumnavigation of the globe an adventurous activity, or is it an excuse for prolonged inactivity? Oblomov would be the ideal book to take on a long cruise, while pondering this question, but not actually doing anything about it.

Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov is published in Everyman's Library Classics (among other editions) at £10.99; 978-1-85715-124-4.

Ivan Goncharov has been compared favourably to Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Would you agree that Oblomov is a classic of Russian literature?

How easy was the book to read?

Do you need to be conversant with Russian history to appreciate the novel, or is its story accessible to all?

What social problems lie in the background to Oblomov's life?

Why does Oblomov find it so hard to make decisions or rouse himself to action?

"He came to rack and ruin, though for no apparent reason." What name would you give to the "disease of Oblomovka"?

How would you compare Oblomov's and Stolz's approaches to life?

Was Oblomov's and Olga's relationship doomed from the start?

Why do you think Oblomov consented to marry Agafya? What did she offer that Olga did not?

Why was Zakhar so loyal to the memory of Oblomov?

Unlike Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but like Turgenev and Chekhov, Goncharov does not deal with specifically religious questions. Where is faith to be found in Oblomov?


IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 5 July, we will print extra information about the next book. This is A Walk across the Sun by Corban Addison. It is published by Quercus at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-0-85738-821-6).

Author notes

Corban Addison was born in 1979, and spent his childhood in Indiana and Southern California. His first degree was in engineering from the California Polytechnic State University, which he followed with a second at the University of Virginia, in law. He practised as a corporate lawyer before turning to writing full-time. His literary work began when he was 15; he would write reflections, essays, and travelogues for his own enjoyment. He now lives in Virginia with his wife and two daughters. His interests include international travel, and human-rights issues, including modern slavery. 

Book notes

Ahalya and Sita, teenage sisters, lose their family and home when a tsunami hits their Indian coastal village. They decide to seek shelter at the convent where they were educated, but are abducted as they make their way there, and sold to a Mumbai brothel-owner. Thomas Clarke is a lawyer from the United States taking a sabbatical after a family tragedy, who uses the break from work to accept a post with an anti-trafficking organisation. When he learns of the sisters and their fate, he decides to make their rescue a personal mission.

Books for the next two months:

August: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

September: Burying the Typewriter by Carmen Bugan

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