Friday, June 14, 2013

It's not a dressing gown - notes on Oblomov

Plenty of guff and hot air has been generated about the “Russian soul,” for example by Tatyana Tolstaya in her foreword to the 2006 Stephen Pearl translation of Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov – “anyone who wants to understand the inscrutable Russian soul should start by reading Oblomov” (xi).  I might then guess that one aspect of the Russian culture is a predilection for self-puffery if that were not a universal human trait.  The title character of the 1859 Oblomov is a universal type; of course the fact that the type is set within a Russian context matters, as do the specific actions and thoughts of the character who within the novel is decidedly not a type but an individual, living a fiction life different from other real and fictional people like him, and so do the actions and thoughts of the supporting characters, Oblomov’s friends and servants, different than the friends and servants of other Russian and non-Russian Oblomov-like people, and also unique and perhaps even determining is the style of the author who tells his story in his own way, one that is not especially universal, although he is certainly not as distinct a stylist as Turgenev or Dostoevsky.

Tolstaya suggests that there are affinities between Oblomov and Buddhism, and quotes as her authority on Buddhist spirituality the Russian rock star Boris Grebenshikov (p. x);  at this point I realized that the whole thing was a put on of some sort.  So no more talk of Russianness or Russian souls as I write about Oblomov.

Ilya Ilyich Oblomov is so lazy, or perhaps depressed, or maybe something else – neither of the first two conditions describe Oblomov correctly – that he has trouble moving off of his couch, and something more than trouble doing anything else, for example changing out of his dressing gown (“’It’s not a dressing-gown – it’s more of a kimono,’ said Oblomov, wrapping the voluminous folds of the gown lovingly about  himself” (I.2).  Or such is the case in the first act of the play, the only part of the book I can remember anyone mentioning.

I mean first part of the novel, although what immediately struck me is how much of it might as well be a play.  It has a single set, takes place over a continuous eight or nine hours, the action consists of a series of visitors, and an amusing servant even has some physical bits, dropping trays and so on.  It is mostly dialogue and action, or really inaction.  The stage version, to really get the spirit right, should move in real time, including long stretches where the audience just watches Oblomov doze for a half hour.  Novels are magical – a half hour nap passes in no time, unless we are in the amazing Chapter 9, “Oblomov’s Dream,” to which I might return later.

The first part introduces Oblomov and his servant, both outstanding characters, and is often hilarious.  It is justly the best known part of the book.  It is also only 30% of the novel.  In the other 70 percent, Oblomov leaves, the couch, gets dressed, and falls in love.  Supporting characters are given their own stories.  It turns out there is more to the novel than lazing in a kimono.  Perhaps I will write about some of that; perhaps something else.


  1. Some time ago, looking around in my mother's old books, I discovered I have this novel at home. What a wonderful surprise, don't you think? I've been meaning to read it, but the books keep piling up...

  2. It's better than I am making it sound! But also perhaps worse. I believe I will do a post on the best part of the book, and another on the worst.

  3. I love the idea of an Oblomov play in real time. Either that or an 8-hour Bela Tarr film adaptation. Have decided to take a break from the romantic, middle part of the book, though, because it's just not as happening as that great first part where Oblomov never leaves his room. Go figure.

  4. Part 4 is a great improvement - the ending is quite good - except for the dull chapters I wrote about today.

    The core of what people know about Oblomov is all in Part 1.