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Oblomovs and Goncharovs

May 19, 2017

Languagehat on Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov (Обломов, 1859):

Unfortunately, the first segment is by far the best, and it makes up only a quarter of the novel (the first of four parts). Oblomov and his lazy, incompetent, but loyal servant Zakhar (who’s looked after him since childhood, pulling off and putting on his boots and brushing his coat) are magnificent characters, straight out of Gogol […]

But alas, the main characters apart from Oblomov are his childhood friend Stolz (whose father was German and mother Russian) and his great love Olga, and they are both straight from the prop room. They are of the finest cardboard and lovingly decorated, but still, he is the active Role Model (to set against Oblomov’s passive Bad Example), and she is the Angelic Woman, and as soon as they enter the picture the novel goes dead as a work of art. […] There are wonderful moments and descriptions throughout, but basically the book turns into one of those sad realist works in which the characters illustrate life principles that it hopes to inculcate into the reader and society at large (Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done being the locus classicus). The last section should have been cut altogether, and the previous two should have been much shorter and funnier.

Tom agrees:

You may make it sound worse than it is, but everything you say is accurate. The Rousseau-like section, the pedagogical idyll, is brutal.

Alexei K. sees it differently:

Like most novels, Oblomov would benefit from a skilled editor’s scissors but cutting out part four – the story of the protagonist’s slide into a numb, drowsy, half-conscious happiness in Agafia’s soothing arms – would disfigure the novel, destroying the sombre symmetry between its beginning and ending. “Shorter” is almost always sound advice; “funnier,” not necessarily – Oblomov is one of the saddest books I’ve read.

laowai adds:

It would be odd if a novel whose primary theme is inertia didn’t involve repetition and longueurs.

Pisarev in 1861 thought Oblomov did anything but try to inculcate life principles into the reader:

Anyone who has read The Frigate Pallas or Oblomov will not find my opinion surprising. Ever tranquil, never carried away, our novelist brashly walks up to the convoluted problems of the public and private life of his heroes and heroines; without passion or prejudice he examines the situation, giving himself and the reader a most clear and detailed account of its minor idiosyncrasies, adopting the point of view of each of the characters in turn, without manifesting a strong sympathy for any of them, but understanding all of them in his way. He picks apart the situation and the qualities of his characters, but always refrains from pronouncing a final verdict.

Similarly, Dostoevskii called Goncharov a man who had

the soul of a petty official, not an idea in his head, and the eyes of a steamed fish, whom God, as if for a joke, has endowed with a brilliant talent.

In the 1860s the story of Oblomov and Ol’ga was so romantic it made women swoon like Pushkin, Turgenev, or Ostrovskii could:

Goncharov’s “Ol’ga,” before our eyes, made such an impression on one very lovely, intelligent, and young lady that she covered her eyes with her hand, began to shake her little head, and declared, “Oh, how I would like to meet Oblomov, fall in love with him, and make him love me.”

And by the 1880s some readers found Oblomov shockingly sexy:

“I know he’s a great artist, but so much the worse—you must admit there are arousing subjects in him.” Asked what she means, she whispers “elbows” and goes on to elaborate, “Don’t you remember… how that one… the hero at some point… admires the bare elbows of his… of some very simple lady?” (words in quotes translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky)

Goncharov thought Turgenev was stealing his ideas around the time Oblomov came out, and would eventually think Auerbach and Flaubert were also parasites on his genius.

Once I complained that I’d heard too much about Oblomov before reading it to find it interesting. I think I’m coming around to where I’ve heard enough that’s contradictory that it’s interesting again. Do read LH’s full post, including the comments.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 19, 2017 12:33 pm

    Oh, how tired I got of those elbows! (Talk about a weird fetish.) But I’ll be very curious to know what you make of it when you get around to it. I’m currently halfway through Горькая судьбина, which is a masterpiece — why isn’t Pisemsky more widely recognized and appreciated? I can’t even find a video of the play online!

  2. May 20, 2017 6:25 am

    These bare elbows are probably no more weird than Elsbeth Leverkühn’s stockinged ankles or the white, bare, fuzzy arms so familiar to Prufrock. Set against Dostoyevsky’s fetishes, they are positively innocent, or at least natural and healthy. Do you recall Godunov-Cherdyntsev talking to himself about the appalling hygiene of those garden trysts in Oblomov – crinolines, wet benches and all?

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