Goncharov: Oblomov

June 18, 2012

Ivan Goncharov
(Penguin Classics, 2005) [1859]
Translated from the Russian by David Magarshack
499 p.

Oblomov is a man afflicted. His ambitions have soured, his friendships faded. He no longer engages with life in such a way as to find either pleasure or sorrow in it. He spends his days (and roughly the first 100 pages of this novel) in bed, sometimes sitting up to toy with his slippers, or to summon his servant, but mostly lounging, idle. To the extent that he dreams of or hopes for anything, it is for an untroubled life, a life of peace and rest (“Isn’t that what everyone is working hard to attain?” he asks.), each day like the one that preceded it, with no unforeseen contingencies and no surprises. The world is passing him by.

His affliction has a name: Oblomovitis!

What happened to him? Did he fail to understand the task life set before him, or did he, perhaps, understand it too well? He makes his case, and it has a certain persuasiveness. Speaking of his former friends and colleagues, he says:

They argue, they discuss everything from every possible point of view, but they are bored, they are not really interested in the whole thing: you can see they are fast asleep in spite of their shouts! The whole thing does not concern them; it is as if they walked about with borrowed hats. They have nothing to do, so they squander their energies all over the place without trying to aim at anything in particular. The universality of their interests merely conceals emptiness and a complete absence of sympathy with everything!

Oblomov too is bored, but he knows it. There is an echo of Ecclesiastes here: he sees lives preoccupied with vanity and searching after the wind, given to distractions and ephemeral concerns, and he rejects such a life. Surely there is wisdom in this. His disengagement from life is not obviously rooted in cynicism or a rejection of goodness. Perhaps he is merely guilty of allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good.

But the story is more complicated. Whatever limited value his moral case for his own manner of life may have, his Oblomovitis did not arise from an intentional decision, not entirely. It emerged from inside him, overtaking and consuming him. He explains:

My life began by flickering out. It may sound strange but it is so. From the very first moment I became conscious of myself, I felt that I was already flickering out. I began to flicker out over the writing of official papers at the office; I went on flickering out when I read truths in books which I did not know how to apply in life, when I sat with friends listening to rumours, gossip, jeering, spiteful, cold, and empty chatter, and watching friendships kept up by meetings that were without aim or affection; I was flickering out and wasting my energies with Minna on whom I spent more than half of my income, imagining that I loved her; I was flickering out when I walked idly and dejectedly along Nevsky Avenue among people in raccoon coats and beaver collars […] Either I have not understood this sort of life or it is utterly worthless; but I did not know a better one.

This adds a dash of poignancy to the mix. Yet life does not allow Oblomov to flicker out so easily. His comfortable world is disrupted by a great power: love. Olga is young and beautiful, and it gives her pleasure to see herself as the means by which Oblomov is resurrected and returned to the land of the living. He loves her from his heart, without vanity, and he rejoices. He does return to life, at least for a time: his world is flooded with light and beauty, and he feels a sense of purpose once again.

They plan to marry, but as the plans progress his old affliction begins to reassert itself. It is, at first, a sense that his love’s rose has lost its bloom:

He felt that the bright and cloudless festival of love had gone, that love was truly becoming a duty, that it was becoming intermingled with his whole life, forming an integral part of its ordinary functions and beginning to lose its rainbow colours. That morning, perhaps, he had caught sight of its last roseate ray, and in future it would no longer shine brightly, but warm his life invisibly; life would swallow it up, and it would be its powerful but hidden mainspring. And henceforth its manifestations would be so simple, so ordinary.

Again, there is wisdom in this, for every romance, if it is to endure, has to make a successful re-entry into ordinary life. But for Oblomov there is always the fear that life will simply swallow his love, and him with it, leaving nothing behind. And there is reason to fear: he is to make arrangements on his estate, for instance, for his bride’s arrival, but he puts them off, feeling overwhelmed by the details. He begins avoiding her to avoid being questioned. He feels himself falling back into old habits. Olga, for her part, sees it too, and her pleasure in her own powers of revivification fades. You can imagine the rest.

This book, it seems to me, is a fable in the form of a novel: a man suffers a peculiar, unsettlingly comic, affliction; he is rescued from it by love; but in the very effort to translate that love into practice, to make it endure, his sickness regains its power over him, and he is lost. It is like something out of The Brothers Grimm. Oblomovitis!

There is much to be said in favour of the book. Even when I thought it was overlong — and its modest 500 page length disguises the fact that the typeface is small and dense (those Russians!) — it gave me much to think about. I sympathized with Oblomov more than I thought I really ought to. Goncharov put his finger on a very particular temptation that can bring a life down to ruin, a temptation that I don’t remember having encountered in a serious literary work before. I will admit that while reading I was sometimes exhausted and impatient, but since I finished it — since I saw the overall shape — I’ve been thinking about it often. There is something emblematic or archetypal about Oblomov, something worth remembering.

He makes for an intriguing, if vexing, character study. His problem is not laziness, not ingratitude, not anger. His sin would seem to be acedia, spiritual sloth, which our tradition identifies as a kind of sadness in the face of the goodness of the world and an unwillingness to accept and engage it. But maybe not. Oblomov’s closest — and really only — friend gives this encomium:

He possesses something that is worth more than any amount of intelligence — an honest and faithful heart! It is the matchless treasure that he has carried through his life unharmed. People knocked him down, he grew indifferent and, at last, dropped asleep, crushed, disappointed, having lost the strength to live; but he has not lost his honesty and his faithfulness. His heart has never struck a single false note; there is no stain on his character. No well-dressed up lie has ever deceived him and nothing will lure him from the true path. […] His soul is translucent, clear as crystal. Such people are rare; there aren’t many of them; they are like pearls in a crowd!

True, this is but one man’s opinion, but he is the finest man in the novel, and I believe we are meant to take his words seriously. Is it possible that Oblomov is really too good for this world? Is he a kind of angel, like Dostoyevsky’s Idiot, whose purity of heart has rendered him unfit for affairs of the world? It is an intriguing idea. But too good for which world? It is one thing to float free of “raccoon coats and beaver collars”, and another to entirely divest oneself of love and responsibility. He sees through the things that are unworthy of him, but apparently he fails to see the things that should command his attention and devotion.

As years passed, he was less and less disturbed by remorse and agitation, and settled quietly and gradually into the plain and spacious coffin he had made for his remaining span of life, like old hermits who, turning away from life, dig their own graves in the desert.

The reference to desert hermits is arresting, for of course we have a tradition wherein hermits are not turning away from life at all, but rather rejecting one form of life — the trivial, ephemeral, and worldly — in order to embrace a higher. They are like Oblomov in some respects, but not in others. They withdraw in order to face life more directly, to wrestle with it and win a prize. Our religious tradition is full of such figures. I think of Augustine, for example, who wrote in Book VI of his Confessions:

I desired status, wealth, and marriage but you laughed at me. I suffered from the most bitter frustration of my ambitions but it was your kindness that let me find no sweetness in anything that was not you. Look into my heart, Lord, you who wanted me to recall this and confess to you. May my soul cling to you now, for you have pulled it away from the birdlime of death in which it was stuck fast. How unhappy was my soul! You probed my wound to the quick to make my soul abandon all ambition and turn to you — who are above all things and without whom all things would be nothing — so that, by turning to you, my wound should be healed.

A soul stuck fast, without ambition, finding no sweetness in worldly things: this is much like Oblomov. But what a difference! Perhaps what Goncharov has given us is a tale about what happens to a good and perceptive man in a world in which the world of spiritual possibility has been closed off. I do believe it could be read that way. If so, it is a tale for our times.

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