This 19th-century novel by Ivan Goncharov spends its first hundred and fifty pages establishing its main character, Oblomov. Who is this man, and why is he the way he is? It seemed to me at first an excruciatingly slow way to get going, and at first I thought there might be nothing more to this book at all — just a portrait. But instead, when things started moving, I was so invested in Oblomov that even tiny events filled me with hope or despair. Goncharov succeeds completely at creating Oblomov and his friends, so that even an ordinary man with an ordinary life is thoroughly fascinating.
Oblomov is the world’s laziest man. He went to school and didn’t like it, and he worked in the civil service for a couple of years and then just never went back. Now he lies on the couch in his parlor, wrapped in his fraying dressing-gown, and daydreams. He thinks of the improvements he wants to make on his estate, revises them, adds new ideas — but never goes to his estate or does anything about the improvements. He dreams of music, dancing, and brilliant witticisms, but when his friends invite him out, he refuses to go (it’s cold, it’s dull, it’s too late in the day.) He dreams of travel but wouldn’t venture abroad to save his life — and his doctor tells him that if he keeps sleeping after dinner, drinking, and eating heavily, travel might be the only thing that can save his life. He doesn’t read; the page of his book where he left off has turned dusty and yellowed. He simply lives in his mind, dreaming of his perfect childhood and of all the things he could do if he chose. In other words — in the words of his active, energetic friend Stoltz — he has Oblomovitis.
One day, Stoltz drags Oblomov out, by main force, to the home of some friends of his. There, Oblomov meets Olga, a sparkling, sardonic young woman. The shape of the love story that follows is wrenching, as Oblomov rises out of his torpor for love and then slowly finds that this new, beautiful life is too frightening. His love and then slow descent from love are at the center of the book. The insidious effects of Oblomovitis play themselves out right to the end.
Goncharov’s real masterpiece in this book, however, is not so much the plot as the characters. You’d think Oblomov would be boring or infuriating, but actually he jumps off the page. He is incredibly sympathetic. Even though he is supremely lazy and deeply flawed, I came to love him and be profoundly concerned about his welfare. The same is true of the other characters, especially Stoltz, Olga, and Oblomov’s housekeeper. Even Oblomov’s manservant Zakhar, who is mostly there for comic relief, has depths to him. The long descriptions of Oblomov’s childhood serve as a satire and as a window into what spoiled him for society. The humanity of this book is what makes it shine.
So far, I’ve read most of the “obvious” Russian novels that most people begin with (with the exception of Eugene Onegin) and am starting to branch out into books I haven’t heard of as often. I have the sense that there’s richness and depth to this literature that I will take a lot of time discovering. If Oblomov is any example, it’s going to be great. (Incidentally, I included the most hilarious cover image, not the one I read. I read the 1954 Penguin Classic edition, translated by David Magarshack.) Any suggestions about what Russian novel I should read next?