Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov

Oblomov Chris Lehmann on a true gem of a novel:

Long before Jerry Seinfeld and Samuel Beckett, there was Ivan Goncharov, a minor government official in czarist Russia, and his classic novel about an ordinary Russian aristocrat mired in his own extraordinary inertia. Originally published in 1859, Oblomov chronicles the misadventures of Ilya Ilich Oblomov, a protagonist who doesn’t leave his apartment, indeed scarcely shifts off his sofa, for the first 180-odd pages. Instead, like many Russian men of his era and station, Oblomov remains stolidly in place and worries ineffectually about the prospect of change—the planned uprooting of his Saint Petersburg household, distressing notices of declining fortune from his country estate, even casual invitations to dinner.

Which is not to say he is free of anxiety or preoccupation. Like all good aristocrats, he has a first-class liberal education and seized in his student years on “the pleasures of lofty thoughts.” But such intoxication faded almost as quickly as it descended: “Serious reading exhausted him. The great thinkers could stir no thirst in him for speculative truth.” Much the same convulsions of ardor and entropy mark Oblomov’s adult life—except entropy now has the upper hand. Absurdly, as his estate succumbs to neglect and declining income, he envisions grand, abstract reforms: “a brand-new plan that conformed to the demands of the era, a plan to organize his estate and administer his peasants.” But since these ideas involve forsaking his dust-filled apartment, Oblomov remains on-site, fretting, sleeping, eating, and sleeping some more.

Clearly, Oblomov is meant to serve as a social type, no less than the dissolute protagonists in the works of Chekhov, Lermontov, and scores of other writers decrying the decay of Russia’s feudal order. Yet as Mikhail Shishkin argues in the afterword to Marian Schwartz’s lively translation of a later version of the novel’s manuscript (which came to light in 1987), it would be a grave mistake to view Oblomov’s saga as a “satire on the fetters of serfdom.”