By Ivan Goncharov
Translated from the Russian by Stephen Pearl
Bunim & Bannigan. 443 pp. $45
Nineteenth-century Russian fiction is one of the undisputed glories of world literature. Crime and Punishment , War and Peace , Fathers and Sons -- who does not know, if only by name, these masterpieces of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Turgenev? Perhaps one might add Gogol's Dead Souls to this list or even Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time . Yet suppose one were to mention Tales of Belkin , Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District or The Golovlyov Family . How many people would recognize these similarly wonderful books by Pushkin, Leskov and Saltykov-Shchedrin?
In this same elite category of the too-little-known belongs Oblomov (1859), one of the most popular Russian novels and certainly the most winsome and delightful of all the works just mentioned. Its pages relate the story of a man who, deep down, never really wants to get out of bed, and who remains throughout his life as guileless and kindly as a Slavic version of Forrest Gump. In a preface to Stephen Pearl's fine new translation, Tatyana Tolstaya suggests that on the basis of this novel alone, its author, Ivan Goncharov (1812-1891), may be Russia's "true national writer." That may be exaggerated, but even Chekhov -- who really is Russian's national writer (to my mind, anyway) -- did claim that Goncharov stood "10 heads above me in talent."
Tolstaya argues that "there is something deeply Russian in the character of Oblomov, something that strikes a chord in every Russian heart. This something lies in the seductive appeal of laziness and of good-natured idleness, the golden conservation of a serene, untroubled childhood when everyone loves one another and when life with its anxieties and demands is still over the horizon. It is to be found in the tact and delicacy of 'live and let live,' in taking the path of least resistance, in unassertiveness, and an aversion to fuss and bother of any kind."
In essence, Ilya Ilyich Oblomov prefers daydreaming to actually doing anything. Such charming indolence is distinctly un-American, in sharp contrast to the get-up-and-go of Oblomov's close friend Andrei Stoltz. But then Stoltz is half-German, which obviously explains his practicality, efficiency and no-nonsense approach to everything, from business to romance. If Theodore Dreiser had been writing this book, Stoltz would have been the hero.
The novel opens with Oblomov -- around 30, somewhat plump and definitely out of shape -- lying on his divan wrapped in an old dressing gown. For the next 100 pages he pretty much remains just where he is, as a series of friends drop by to say hello, invite him out or try to cadge some money. Money is, in fact, a bit of a problem just now since our rentier-hero relies on his estate to pay his expenses in St. Petersburg. But the bailiff has written with lots of unpleasant news. Drought has ruined the harvest, peasants have started to run off, the old manse is falling down. This clearly makes for a serious crisis, and Oblomov finds himself "faced with the grim prospect of having to think of some way of doing something about it." Despite the sound advice of Stoltz, that something doesn't include actually going home to check up on matters himself. Far easier to forget about the letter for a while, and maybe everything will turn out OK.
Besides, there's far worse on the immediate horizon: Oblomov's landlord plans to renovate the apartment building and wants his feckless tenant to move out right away. Move! Who can face such an overwhelming prospect? At least not now, when it's time for a little nap.
"Oblomov's Dream" makes up the whole of chapter nine, and was, in fact, published by itself (in a magazine) long before the novel came out. Just on its own, this reminiscence of things past offers 37 of the most wonderful pages you will ever read. Oblomov's memories of the sleepy summer days and cozy winter nights of his childhood waft us into an Edenic paradise of "placid and unruffled calm," a world where nobody really does anything at all. After a heavy lunch, nearly every living thing falls into an afternoon slumber until teatime, as if a fairy had passed a wand over the estate. People doze away the decades. When feeling unusually energetic, Oblomov's mother might spend a busy three hours with a tailor discussing how to make her husband's quilted jacket into a coat for her little boy.
At Oblomovka, even a letter from an old friend, who wants the recipe for the family's home-made beer, demands way too much effort to answer. During long winter evenings, though, people will laugh and laugh as they recall -- it's really too funny -- how Luka Savich's sled fell to pieces as he was sliding down the hill. And what about the day the cows and goats broke through the fence and ate all the currant bushes? Oh, that was a time! By contrast with Oblomov's childhood home, the sleepy, sun-dappled Blandings Castle of P.G. Wodehouse is a veritable hive of industry. "The people of Oblomovka found it difficult to believe in painful emotions . . . . overpowering emotion was something they avoided like the plague."
Not surprisingly, the grown Oblomov has inherited this disposition to take it easy and go with the flow -- he calls it oblomovshchina -- when suddenly his entire manner of half-life is overturned: Stoltz forces him out into the world, and there, one evening, he meets Olga. Or rather Olga! Olga!! Love encourages our hero to buy some new clothes, read the newspapers, attend the theater and actually write that letter to his bailiff. Goncharov's (somewhat long) account of how love sneaks into the hearts of two innocents recreates the almost embarrassingly true-to-memory course of youthful infatuation. The long strolls in the garden, the little spats, the make-up kiss. Ah, first love!
One particular evening walk, however, sounds more than a tad suggestive. The summer heat is building toward a thunderstorm, and Olga feels stifled inside the house. Even outside, she can't breathe, her heart pounds, she trembles, her breast heaves, she sighs faster and faster for relief, speaks faintly, feels a kind of burning inside her breast, then shudders and squeezes Oblomov's hand convulsively before finally bursting into uncontrollable tears. Afterward she walks home unsteadily, feeling weak, with "a strange unconscious, dreamy smile on her face." How did this get past the Russian censors? But, more important, can any grand amour, no matter how grand, actually overwhelm the power of oblomovshchina ?
There are many surprises yet to come in Goncharov's quietly humorous, touching and thought-provoking book. How, for instance, should we finally judge Oblomov? Is he an aristocratic parasite, a holy fool or a kind of Buddhist saint? Academic readers will note the expert control of time in the way the novel slows down and speeds up. But anyone will admire how Goncharov brings the subsidiary characters to vivid life, especially Oblomov's sullen but fanatically loyal servant Zakhar, his bovine landlady Agafy Matveyevna (whose elbows fascinate her tenant) and his supposed friend, the shameless scoundrel Tarantyev. Little wonder that Tolstoy declared himself "in rapture over Oblomov " and kept going back to it again and again. The 19th-century critic Vissarion Belinsky once said that reading Goncharov's admired first work of fiction -- A Common Story -- was "like eating cool watermelon on a hot summer day." (That novel sounds like another job for Stephen Pearl.) Oblomov is even better, though you probably don't want to eat watermelon in bed, which is the obvious place to enjoy this altogether splendid book. ·
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is email@example.com. Each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com, he welcomes questions or comments about books and reading.