Saturday, June 15, 2013

Oblomov and Oblomovism - some contrasting characters

I promised on Twitter that this piece would be more coherent than yesterday’s.  Likely an error.  But I will number my points for clarity.  The book at hand is Ivan Goncharov’s 1859 Oblomov.

1.  Oblomov was once a student, a civil servant, a man who attended the  theater and kept up with fashionable books, the usual stuff of his class, the landowner who leaves the estate for St. Petersburg.  But he gradually withdrew from all of that until he ended up where we find him at the beginning and throughout the first 30% of Oblomov, on his couch, in his dressing-gown,  living off the dwindling proceeds of the mismanaged estate he inherited.

Based on the behavior of the friends who appear throughout the opening part of the novel, Oblomov’s complete removal from society is fairly recent.  They assume he is still mobile, eccentric but not a recluse.

We know the truth soon enough, though, that Oblomov has settled into a “deep and all-pervasive inertia” as Stefanie at So Many Books calls it, a Russian Bartlebyism where Oblomov prefers not to, whether the act is painful or pleasurable, necessary or frivolous.  He does not always act, by which I mean do nothing, as he prefers.  But the tendency is clear enough, the desire for an existence that suspiciously resembles non-existence (thus the temptation to invoke Buddhism).

This is Oblomovism or oblomovshchina (Pearl explores but does not translate the word).  Torpor as ideology.

2.  The novel operates by a contrast of characters.

a.  The servant Zakhar is genuinely lazy.  He prefers ease.  After describing Oblomov on the first page of the novel, Goncharov turns to the filthy apartment – the “back of one couch had collapsed and the wood veneer had come unstuck in places,” “mirrors had ceased to reflect anything,” and the pages of the “two or three” open books “had yellowed, were covered in dust, and had clearly been discarded long ago” (2-3).  This is the result of Zakhar’s laziness, not Oblomov’s, who “would actually have liked to see everything clean, only he wanted it to somehow happen by itself, spontaneously and in a flash” (8).

This makes for good comedy.

b.  Oblomov’s friend Stoltz and his eventual fiancée Olga are active people.  They are convinced that they can overcome Oblomov’s inertia, and they are to some degree correct – the key is to apply constant goading, which is exhausting and likely not worth the effort.  But they both try.  Stoltz is half-German and is allowed some comedy of a satiric variety; Olga is taken all too seriously.

The progress of the love affair between Olga and Oblomov occupies the middle 47% of the novel.

c. Then there is Agafya Matveyevna, Oblomov’s landlady in the latter half of the book, who is an embodiment of domestic activity.  She unquestioningly supplies Oblomov with food, cleaning, care, and even sex – Oblomov does have a sex drive, but just barely.  Bartleby eventually rejects the basic elements of life, while Oblomov takes them for granted.  Someone always provides.

3.  Perhaps Oblomovism is a disease of the rich.  Goncharov performs a demonstration.  At one point, Oblomov loses all but a subsistence income.  His clothes fall apart, his luxuries disappear, but he barely seems to notice (Oblomovism is monstrously egotistical).  He eats his barley soup with the same gusto with which he used to eat oysters (see pp. 384-5).  He prefers luxury, but as with a clean room it is not worth sacrificing a single nap.  Oblomov is not above money, which is a common source of anxiety for him.  He is beyond money.

Goncharov is clear enough about why Oblomov is an Oblomovist, but I will save that for tomorrow.  It is the best thing in the novel.


  1. It sounds as if Oblomovism is a perfect description of malady that I sometimes become afflicted with!

  2. Oblomov has been on my TBR list for some time. We have it on the shelf at home, even. It looks like a real hoot, as the literary critics all say. I look forward to today's post.

    The more Russian novels I read, the more I want to read Russian novels. At some point I'll make a serious go of reading Soviet-era novels. That will prove interesting.

  3. I believe Oblomovism is a common condition, in my case most often caused by mowing the lawn or writing a post on Goncharov. But the new one is somehow finished and posted.

    I barely know the Soviet stuff at all. Four novels, I think. I'll get that Silver Age reading going sometime.

    Oblomov is hardly Anna Karenina in its aristyr or Karamazov in its - in whatever Dostoevsky does - and without a less great Oblomov character it might well have slipped away into literary history. But that character really is that good.

  4. Ma femme has shelves of Soviets. I've read two Solzhenitsyn, one Bulgakov and one post-Soviet Russian novel that was so bad I can't recall the writer's name. I am sure that I'm forgetting some stuff that's obviously forgettable, right?

  5. I am pretty sure my complete list is: Zamyatin, We; Olesha, Envy; Aitmatov, The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years; the Stragatsky brothers, Roadside Picnic. So half in the life of the blog.

    No Solzhenitsyn, no Bulgakov, no Babel. No Platonov, the hot new old thing. Embarrassing.

  6. You really should read Bulgakov's Master and Margarita. It is rewardingly kee-razy.

    I know we have the Zamyatin and Olesha on the shelf. And lots of Bulgakov, some Babel, something by Platonov. Some day I'll get to it. I worry that it will be dreadful, political heavy going. Ma femme has warned me away from Gladkov's Cement, for example.

  7. Cement, I would have to be pretty dedicated to a Soviet literature project to read that.

    More Dostoevsky, including the bog ones I missed (Idiot, Devils. Reread Tolstoy. Chekhov, Chekohv, Chekhov. Silver Age & contemporaries. Then Soviet. Not until then.

  8. Catching up, good to be here and see great stuff. I like the way this book and character and author--which I haven't read--managed not to slip away. It sounds like this is all very much Core Philosophy (wish I knew how to link here, very early post in my Zhiv Philosophy section, sort of holds up I guess) and Far Niente, the sweet nothingness of affluent ease.

    Kind of funny to compare 1859 Oblomovism (affluent immobility) to 1862 Bazarovism (science and nihilism), characters who become things/isms. Both in the wake of the giant, 1856 Bovaryism. The great thing is the way that Chekhov manages to put all of these things together.

    My Soviet cred is weak as well, but Day in the Life of I.D. was really great, an easy and fun starter text--great reading for high schoolers I would think, along with fading, flickering semi-intellects like myself. Remember loving Bulgakov a long time ago, really fun. The big one that I had never heard much about, and still haven't explored, is Isaak Babel.

  9. Yes, Oblomovism is quite close to Do Nothing.

    I have actually read quite a bit about Babel, which is part of why it is a shame I have not read him.