Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Traveling with Ivan Goncharov

The Frigate Pallada (1858) is Ivan Goncharov’s enormous account of a Russian diplomatic expedition to Japan on which he was secretary to the commander of the warship in the book’s title.  The travelogue simply follows Goncharov’s route – the Baltic Sea, England, Madeira, Cape Town, and so on.  Goncharov’s activities are often described in minute detail; fortunately, he is a skilled writer with a strong sense of humor, curious about the world but deeply concerned about his own comforts.

Why, oh why is it impossible to get good tea in China?  Every kind of tea grows in this country; the problem is with the word “good”…  What the English call good tea or simply tea (it is all the same to them) is… a tea that stings the tongue and your palate like almost everything the English eat and drink.  They like their food to be a scrubbing brush that combs your throat.  And they require their tea to be like their Indian sauces and peppers, that is, some sort of poison. (352)

Goncharov looks forward to the day when the English learn to simmer their tea, not “boil [it] like cabbage, as they do now.”

Goncharov’s exact role as secretary is not clear to me, presumably because that sort of detail did not belong in a public book.  He seems to have written an entirely separate official journal.  Thus, some of the diplomatic details are hazy.

Nevertheless, I thought the book really came to life once the fleet arrived in Nagasaki harbor.  Perhaps I am just succumbing to the exoticism of Japan, Shanghai, and Manila.  Or perhaps my ignorance was key – I knew nothing about 1850s Manila, for example, so even the banal details were fascinating. 

More likely, though, is that once the Japanese diplomatic mission begins, the book finds a new narrative structure, the Russian attempts to deal with Japanese obstacles and deception, one more surprising and original than simple travel.  It helps that Goncharov finds the Japanese intransigence entirely reasonable and understandable.  It probably also helps me that the Russian perspective is itself unfamiliar.  Commodore Perry was in Edo bay at the exact same time, getting all of the credit for “opening” Japan.

Oblomov, the novel that made Goncharov famous, was published a year after The Frigate Pallada.  A side benefit of reading Pallada first is that I will not be tempted to confuse the slothful Oblomov with his creator, not after reading how Goncharov covers just part of his 8,000 mile return to Moscow across Siberia!

I omitted Goncharov’s first tome from my short list of Long Russian BooksThe Frigate Pallada seemed second tier, at least in English.  In Chapter 2 of Vladimir Nabokov’s The Defense, it is casually identified as Russian children’s reading, although the neurotic child in question finds it “boring,” preferring the “exact and relentlessly unfolding pattern” of Sherlock Holmes and Around the World in Eighty Days.

I read the 1987 St. Martin’s Press edition of The Frigate Pallada, the translation a work of love by Klaus Goetze.


  1. i love oblomov, this will make me read goncharov's other books. this travelaccount, it also reminded me vaguely of chekhov's travel to sakhalin....

  2. Oblomov's on my mental list to be read "sometime soon" (2012?), and I have to say I already identify with the slothful title character to a degree. Though not to the point where I assume my name is famous, of course. Loved Goncharov's tea criticism and anti-British aesthetic sniping here, but what moved you to read this particular travel journal before G's major work?

  3. 'Oblomov', the great Goncharov novel,a tragi-comic account of the relationship between nobility and serf, told from the perspective of a lazy but endearing character.

  4. * - Pallada is well worth reading - the Japanese section convinced me of that - but it's an investment. I think I was working on it for four months, maybe five, although it is also a book that is well-suited to be read in pieces and at intervals. I read it faster than Goncharov lived it.

    The expedition passed by and was deeply concerned with Sakhalin Island (longstanding source of Russo-Japanese conflict that it is). I wonder if Chekhov makes any reference to Goncharov.

    I do not know why I have not read Oblomov. I "should" have read it 20 years ago, when I read Crime and Punishment and War and Peace and so on. Well, even powerful enthusiasms fizzle. I hope to read it soon - yes, maybe next year.

    I read Pallada first because a big, fat piece of travel writing seemed like just the thing, a good supplement to or break from whatever else I have been reading. Anti-Ubu.