Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov (4/5)

First published: 1859
Original title:

Original language: Russian
Translation to English by: David Magarshack
Page count: 485

The back says: Ilya Ilyich Oblomov is a member of Russia's dying aristocracy a man so lazy that he has given up his job in the Civil Service, neglected his books, insulted his friends and found himself in debt. Too apathetic to do anything about his problems, he lives in a grubby, crumbling apartment, waited on by Zakhar, his equally idle servant. Terrified by the bustle and activity necessary to participate in the real world, Oblomov manages to avoid work, postpone change and finally risks losing the love of his life.
I say: Oh, how I wanted to love this far more than I did; mostly because I had been looking forward to reading it for the longest time, and it started out with such brilliance, only to fizzle out in the end. The reason I was so excited about this is because there was a period in my life when I did nothing but lie in bed all day – much to the regret of my family and friends – and so I wanted to read about someone who did the same. I should perhaps point out that the reason I was in bed was due to severe chronic depression and not mere idleness, like Oblomov.

But I digress...
We get about 100 pages in before Oblomov gets out of his bed and a few more to get him out of his dirty room. He does everything in there, including receiving his friends, who all try their best to get him to go outside, but he fends them off with excuses of being ill. Eventually his friend Stoltz manages to coerce him out of bed, but he quickly returns to it when Stoltz leaves.

Later on he is forced out of his town apartment and he rents a summerhouse while waiting for his new lodgings to be put in order. To be noted is that Oblomov has an estate that he’s been neglecting for years, constantly making – and breaking – plans to visit and sort it out. While at the summerhouse he falls in love with Olga, who tries (prompted by Stoltz) to get Oblomov to do something with his estate and life. 
To say anything further would be too spoilery, so I’ll pause there.

What I loved and hated in equal measures was Goncharov’s inclination to analyse his characters. I mostly loved it when he was in Oblomov’s head, but hated it when he was in Olga’s or Stoltz’s heads because they didn’t interest me. In fact, the episodes relating to them were so very tedious I had to restrain myself from skimming through them. The problem I have with an omniscient narrator is that I find their analysis of the characters annoying; and Goncharov went into such detail that at times I just wanted to cry. Especially when Oblomov fell in love with Olga and I had to be subjected to all the inane clichés and melodrama.

Thankfully, there was a lot of humour in here to alleviate the seriousness. Zakhar was an instant favourite with his sarcastic remarks, easily offended nature and downright uselessness. All of the characters were very well-crafted and convincing – even Oblomov, which in itself should be an impossibility. However, this is satire and stark criticism against the idle lives of the Russian nobility, which lends a seriousness to the work that almost makes me choke on the laughter. As much as I loved the character Oblomov, the fact that he can’t even dress himself and that Zakhar was an inherited serf that he abuses to no end, forces the reader to look beyond the literary context and onto the social and cultural one.
Now, this may be over 150 years old, and the Russia of Oblomov a distant memory, but that still doesn’t negate the fact that Oblomovism (which Wiki says refers to the “fatalistic slothfulness that Oblomov exhibits”) is an issue of this day. Without veering into a “kids today” type rant, I’ll end this longwinded review by saying that if there had been less Stoltz and Olga (and Oblomov in love) this would have been an instant favourite. As it is, 4/5 is all I can muster to give it.

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