oblomovThis 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?

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15 Responses to Oblomov

  1. Jeanne says:

    Have you read Gogol’s The Nose in The Mantle and Other Stories? It was Walker’s favorite because it’s funny. I like the short stories better than the novels because I’m not an idealistic 20-year-old anymore and that’s the state of mind I associate with reading Russian novels.

    • Jenny says:

      No, I haven’t — I’ve read Dead Souls, but none of Gogol’s shorter work. I just read some Chekhov this year, which I loved, but mostly I’ve read novels rather than short stories. I am so curious why you associate Russian novels with youthful idealism!

  2. Izzy says:

    I think Jeanne means The Nose *and* The Mantle, not *in* The Mantle :-).
    I’ve discovered your blog recently and I like it very much (loved your review of The Little Stranger). Oblomov has been on my wishlist for some time because it seems to be the kind of story that lends itself to various interpretations. It could be read as an indictment of the 19th century landed Russian aristocracy, or as a psychological study (a neurologist once told me that laziness didn’t exist). As for recommendations, all I can say is that Nabokov, in his wonderful lectures on literature, absolutely spoilt Dostoievky for me ! So, perhaps Tolstoy’s short stories, to begin with.

    • Jenny says:

      Welcome, Izzy! Yes, Oblomov opens itself up to a number of different readings, which is one of its joys. As I said to Jeanne, I haven’t read almost any Russian short fiction (just some Chekhov) so Tolstoy’s short stories are a great recommendation.

  3. whatmeread says:

    If your index is up to date, it doesn’t look like you’ve read any Dostoevsky. Crime and Punishment is the famous one, but I like The Brothers Karamazov better. Anna Karenina is a little more accessible than War and Peace, which I see you’ve read. And for something completely different and a little more recent, Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.

    • Jenny says:

      The index is a little unreliable, because it only goes back to things we’ve reviewed, which starts in 2008. (And I am terrible at keeping it updated. Teresa is much better.) I’ve read Anna Karenina and the two books by Dostoevsky you mention, and The Master and Margarita, which I just loved and recommended all over the place. And of course I’m a major Nabokov fan. So you hit the mark with all your recommendations!

      • whatmeread says:

        Sounds like you are moving right along in your project. I’m trying to think of more recent Russian authors, but of course you start getting into socialist realism in the 20th century, which is not interesting.

      • whatmeread says:

        Have you read anything by Turgenev? Not my favorite, but another name that pops into mind.

      • Jenny says:

        Have you read Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman? There’s a novel that uses socialist realism to criticize rather than praise the Stalinist state. Absolutely fantastic novel, though (and?) one of the saddest I’ve ever read.

  4. In Russia, Oblomov is one of the obvious ones, a cultural landmark, quoted in ordinary conversation.

    Have you read Bely’s Petersburg or Olesha’s Envy? The former includes a 20-year-old idealist, although like you I do not have the slightest idea what that has to do with reading Russian literature or preferring short stories to novels.

    • Jenny says:

      Tom, I’m so glad you came by. I knew you would know some novels I’d never heard of, as I have not heard of either of the ones you recommend. I’ll put them on my list straightaway, along with the Turgenev that whatmeread mentioned.

      I’m not surprised that Oblomov is common currency in Russia. For one thing, he’s a deathless character.

    • Both novels have the official Nabokov Strong Opinions stamp of approval, for what that is worth, which is not so common for 20th century Russian novels.

      I’ve found – meaning I have now seen with my own eyes – that part of the greatness of the Russian greats – meaning Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov – is that they greatly reward extensive reading. They all wrote masterpieces, but the reader with any taste for, or maybe merely tolerance of, their voices will find their minor works, of which there are many, oh so many, what long, busy careers some of these writers had, of high interest.

  5. I’ve been wanting to read this for ages. Like you, I’ve read most of the other obvious Russian novels. Have you read anything by Tatyana Tolstaya? I especially enjoyed her short story collection On the Golden Porch.

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