Goncharov (1812-1891)

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One of the many things that I love about my Alma Classics edition of Oblomov is the choice of quotations on the back cover:

“I am in rapture over Oblomov and keep re-reading it” – Leo Tolstoy

“Goncharov is ten heads above me in talent” – Anton Chekhov

Both of the writers quoted have gone up in my estimation through their excellent taste.

Goncharov is shamefully unknown in the UK.  I think of myself as a Russian literature enthusiast, and even I am basing this whole page on the single book of his that I’ve read.  In my defense, that one book alone puts him at the top of great Russian writers; I can’t recommend it highly enough.  Incidentally, even besides the wonderful cover, 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.  I don’t want a watered-down or clunky version of his virtuosic writing.  Pearl won the ATSEEL prize for best translation from a Slavic language into English in 2008, and reading this book brought home to me the dis-service I may be doing Russian authors.  Unless the translation itself is an immersive literary experience, I’m only getting a very incomplete idea of each author.  Basically, I need to look out for highly recommended translations of Turgenev because the fact that I’ve found his books (frequently) underwhelming might not be anything to do with him.

Back to Goncharov.  Goncharov took the idea of the ‘superflous man’ explored intellectually by Lermontov, Dostoyevsky and Turgenev and then brought it home to real life.  Oblomov is not a parasitic waste of space because he’s nihilistic or overly romantic, but because he’s lazy.  My favourite part of the novel is the start, when it takes him dozens of pages to get out of bed.  He has good resolutions to be productive, but the bed is so comfortable, and there’s no reason to get dressed before having tea, and he can think as well in bed as out of it, and time passes so quickly …  I know exactly how he feels.  Goncharov is not a bad man, nor an unpleasant one, he’s just sublimely lazy and the writer knows exactly how to bring his habits alive.  At times, I was even reminded of Jane Austen’s underlying sarcasm, for example, when we’re told that Oblomov’s slippers ‘offered a target so large, long and soft, that even without his troubling to look, his feet were sure to find them every time he lowered them from the bed to the floor.‘  The emphasis is mine, but you get the idea.

It is a testament to the writer’s skill that a story about a man who essentially does nothing other than make plans to do something can be sustained for a whole novel.  Oblomov wants to sort out his estate and his finances and his home, but most of all he wants to live comfortably and not be bothered.  This means the action comes mostly from the supporting cast of friends and acquaintances, such as the half-German Stoltz.  Stoltz is great by the way, active, practical, intelligent and strong enough to succeed in a society which responds to immigration with the enlightened attitude that ‘My father was right when he warned me to watch out for those Germans.’  If you were wondering, the problem with Germans is that ‘His father leaves him 40,000 and the next thing you know he’s turned it into 300,000.  In his career he’s already risen to the rank of court counsellor, apart from being a scholar, not to mention travelling all over the place.  He’s in on absolutely everything!  Can you imagine an honest-to-God Russian doing anything like that?’

Nineteenth century novels that are so in tune with 21st century ideologies are few and far between.  I love Goncharov’s take on the nobility, immigration and that’s before I’ve even mentioned the presentation of women and servants.  I know I’m gushing, but there is a fantastic description of Oblomov’s almost equally lazy servant who finds his expertise challenged when he marriage a woman who is practical, intelligent and productive. ‘There are many husbands like Zakhar around.  A diplomat, for instance, will listen off-handedly to some advice from his wife, shrug his shoulders and then next thing you know he will be using it in his next report.  Or a high official will give a whistle and roll his eyes when he hears his wife prattling on about some important business of his, and the very next day will find him solemnly using that very same wifely prattle in his report to the minister.’  It’s not a major plot point, but the straightforward comparison of a servant and a diplomat or high official goes beyond anything I can recall reading in nineteenth century British novels.  It makes it all the sweeter that the comparison deals with their attempts to ‘keep women in their place’ in a the face of their wives’ superiority!

You may not have heard this before, but if you only read one Russian novel ever – read this one.  I read as much as I do in the hope of being surprised by a new voice or character or idea that extends what I thought could work within a novel.  ‘Oblomov’ delivers on all counts.  I feel slightly ashamed that I’d never even heard of it until very recently, but as you can tell, I’m now evangelical about it.  Find an Alma edition and read it.  You won’t be disappointed.

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