Way back in the Tzarist start of my Russian Reading project I gave possibly my most positive review ever to Goncharov’s ‘Oblomov‘ (sample quotations include ‘I can’t recommend it highly enough‘ and ‘if you only read one Russian novel ever – read this one‘). In the same post I also rashly drew a line in the sand when it came to ‘Oblomov’: ‘you really should read it in the Alma Classics edition because that will enable you to enjoy Stephen Pearl’s award winning translation. In fact, it was so good that I don’t really want to read any of Goncharov’s other words until I’m confident they’ll be translated as well as this.’
Clearly, someone was paying attention; imagine my delight when I realised that Alma Classics were publishing Stephen Pearl’s new Goncharov translation this autumn! ‘The Same Old Story’ was Goncharov’s first novel and reading it now has been a wonderful trip back in time, away from the chaos and misery of my current revolutionary reading.
It has been lovely to forget the violence, the politics and the dogma and move back into the golden age of Russian literature. There is a sentimental want-to-be poet hero, a devoted mother, a pragmatic practical uncle and a huge cast of sex-deprived women. Goncharov contrasts the empty life of St Petersburg with the indolence of the country-side when his protagonist, the young Alexander Aduev, goes to live in the city. He is in search of … well, something or other that will make his life complete. It will probably involve lots of overblown emotions, and long-lasting passions. He is the despair of his uncle who may or may not have had similar aspirations on moving to St Petersburg, but is now an accomplished member of society with a carefully thought out-philosophy to justify his cold existence.
In what sometimes feels like a re-working of Jane Austen’s classic, the two relatives each espouse a contradictory approach to life and employ vastly different means of judging an individual’s success. As befits an ambitious young man, Aduev travels around the city as he searches for his purpose. His uncle appears happy staying at home and at work, though this does not mean he escapes challenges to his well-established theories.
‘The Same Old Story’ is a more European novel than ‘Oblomov’, and so feels more gentle than the later work. While it contains references to the generation divide that was to form the basis of Turgenev’s incredibly influential ‘Fathers and Sons’, this is much less troubled in its take on the sentimental and the practical. Overall, the book feels as if it was written in a post-Werther world rather than a pre-revolutionary society, though Goncharov’s conclusions are nonetheless surprisingly fresh and biting.
If this sounds a bit mild, I should apologise. It’s just that my expectations were raised to impossible levels by my previous reading. There is so much to enjoy in this book, not least, the author’s incredible presentation of women as characters and the situation of women in general. I loved the female servant character in ‘Oblomov’, she may have played a minor role in the plot, but she exposed truly radical ideas about how women are treated by the men they intimidate. ‘The Same Old Story’ did not disappoint. One highlight is the wonderful insight into the life of a tolerated, but controlled, wife. Again, not the main character, but the sensitivity with which she is written shows her to be the literary mother of the later nineteenth century heroines, Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary.
I’m so pleased to increase my Goncharov collection by 100% and, as anticipated, in a lively translation that brings the whole narrative to life. While it may lack some of the punch and polish of ‘Oblomov’, ‘The Same Old Story’ is a delightful addition to any Russian reader’s bookshelf and I can’t wait to read more of the same (hint, hint).