Tuesday, June 18, 2013

And the reading, the learning, the constant stimulation and stretching of the mind! - Goncharov's ideal

The worst thing in Oblomov today.  The boring part, I mean.  The novel is a comedy, a great one.  The long first single scene is the comic highlight, but there are plenty of later returns to form, and the wind-down to the ending is entirely satisfying.  This is all Oblomov’s story.

Yet two chapters (Part 4, Chapters 4 and 8) have no jokes at all, no humor.  They are serious, sincere, and lack Oblomov, instead finishing off the stories of two supporting characters, Oblomov’s “active” friend Stoltz and one-time fiancée Olga.  I did not believe that their stories required any but a summary resolution, yet Ivan Goncharov gives them 10% of the book.  This is the purpose of calculating the percentages, by the way, to emphasize myself that the author thought this part of the book was important.

As far as Oblomov, the character, is concerned, the contents of these chapters could have been compressed into a paragraph.  The characters meet in Paris, fall in love, and marry.  They then establish the ideal household, perfectly managed, and ideal marriage, energetic and loving, while Oblomov falls into, let us say, a different ideal.  But Goncharov wants his readers to understand the machinery of perfection.

Some sample sentences:

It was with joyous serenity that she contemplated the broad expanses of life, its vast green fields and hills. (374)

Like the perpetual beauty of nature that bathed its surroundings, the interior of the house was constantly abuzz with ideas and vibrated with the beauty of human activity.  (395)

Leaving aside the question of love and marriage as such and without bringing in such issues as money, connections or position, Stoltz did nonetheless ponder the problem of reconciling his outer and hitherto ceaseless activity with an inner family life, and his role as a traveler and businessman with that of a homebound family man.  (398)

The prose is that of a different writer, a different novel.  I suspect many readers, after that last example, will say a worse writer.  In an amusing paradox, this novel about sloth is full of comic energy, while the two chapters about activity are without spark.

And the reading, the learning, the constant stimulation and stretching of the mind!  (401)

He did not actually draw her diagrams or go over tables with her, but her talked to her about everything…  Like a philosopher or artist he tenderly molded her intellectual development and never in his life had he found himself so deeply absorbed…  there had been no task so challenging as that of nurturing the restless, volcanic intellect of his life’s companion.  (402)

There is the clue – these two chapters are modeled after the fiction of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  They update the idealized love affair of Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (1761) and the idealized pedagogy of Émile, ou de l'éducation  (1762), two of the strangest books I have ever read.  Émile is particularly insane.

The characters themselves use Oblomov as a foil, discussing how they can maintain their energy and interest in their marriage and lives and avoid falling into Oblomovism.  My guess is that Goncharov more or less means all of this, and that readers are meant to choose virtue over vice, but in the end even the noble couple acknowledges their love for Oblomov:

“’I’ve felt love for many people, but never such a strong and lasting love as for Oblomov.  To know him is to love him forever; right?’”  (413)

They love him for his sincerity and “gentleness,” while I love him because his parts of the novel are well-written, but we end up in the same place.


  1. If Oblomovism is something of a protest against existence and time, it makes senses to me that characters would observe the phenomena and try to choose a different path. Though I think that for many, it is less of a choice and more of a Seesaw.

  2. That's right, Oblomov is an extreme point on the philosophical continuum. His friend Stoltz, a fan of existence, is close to another extreme.

  3. 10% of this novel is a pretty good chunk of text. I hadn't realized until yesterday when I actually looked at a copy, but Oblomov is a pretty long book. (I've been apparently ignoring the page numbers in your excerpts.) I'm on page 501 of Finnegans Wake, with 126 pages to go, and I'm going to read nothing but short novels all summer after I finish this book, I swear by all that's holy.

    Also, happy birthday.

  4. I count Oblomov as one of those rare creations, the Long Russian Novel.

    I felt similarly after Fortunata and Jacinta - only short novels for the rest of my life! I guess that feeling wore off.

  5. Just in case it happens to be true, happy birthday!

  6. I have been meaning to say for the last couple of days that Oblomov reminds me, from your description and the excerpts, a lot of the dissolute lawyer, Eugene Wrayburn, in Our Mutual Friend. Though Wrayburn at least took on the occasional client.

    1. Interesting connection: I hadn't thought about it. You're right - Oblomov and Wrayburn are both idle because they see nothing in life as worth the effort.

  7. It is true - thanks to both of you.

    Wrayburn is a good English cousing, you are right. There is a point in OMF where he is sinking into something much like Oblomovism.

  8. From what I remember of Oblomov, it started off as a marvellously eccentric comedy about a man too goddam lazy to get his back side out of bed, but after the first part, became a more psychological novel about a man who can't see anything in life as sufficiently worthwhile to warrant any effort. It was a bit like starting a Gogol novel, and finding oneself unexpectedly in something by Turgenev. But it's been a long time, and my memory may be playing tricks on me.

    I do remember finding Stoltz very boring. He seemed to be there merely to provide a counterweight to Oblomov. Butthen again, I may be misremembering.

  9. The big difference between Oblomov and Wrayburn is that Oblomov's psychology is grounded in his childhood. There is nothing worth doing except being a child. And since he can't do that, he refuses to do anything.

    Stoltz is little more than a counterweight, and often boring, but he gets some good scenes, too, especially in the description of his childhood, which he does not want to preserve but escape. The scene where he parts from his father is first-rate, and more than a little bit Gogolian.

  10. At-Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien contains two Oblomovian characters: the harrator, a student who is writing the rest of the book, and Dermot Trellis, who is also writing a book. The plot is a bit more complicated, but both are bed-loving and inspired to effort only by their literary work.