Wednesday, June 10, 2009


“Ilya Ilyich Oblomov was lying in bed one morning in his flat in Gorokhovaya Street in one of those large houses which have as many inhabitants as a country town."

A few years ago The Washington Post published a review of a new translation of Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov. This beautifully-crafted essay inspired me to read two translations of this 19th-century Russian comic classic. As it happens, I prefer David Magarshack’s vivid 1954 translation in the Penguin edition, which transports me enchanted into Oblomov's sleepy world. Pearl's new translation did not seem as smooth or graceful, though it's good enough. But any translation is better than none, and if you haven’t read Oblomov, you are missing out on a treat: the humorous adventures of a lethargic Russian Don Quixote, who lives to fantasize about the future and reminisce about the past, and emerges from his slumbers only when spurred on by concerned friends.

Oblomov, the most famous procrastinator in literature, makes efforts to get out of bed and live like "other people," but some of the most charming scenes are his stream-of-consciousness as he dreams away his days.

The novel begins with two business emergencies, about which Oblomov quarrels with his grumbling, devoted servant, Zakhar, a family retainer since childhood. Oblomov has lost a letter from his cheating bailiff, and Zakhar says he hasn't seen it and can't be expected to know where it is. When the letter finally flutters out of bed, there is, alas, no note paper nor ink with which to write a reply, so the two quarrel some more. Oblomov is also upset when Zakhar delivers the landlord's message that he plans to evict them so he can build a flat for his children. Oblomov unreasonably refuses to move from his dirty rooms because it would be too nerve-racking and noisy, and he is not "like other people," who race around, work, and move from place to place , so that they "never begin to live." The same morning, friends visit, and he asks their advice about his problems, but only the wily ne'er do well Tarantyev proffers an opinion, bullying Oblomov to agree to move into a flat in a friend's house in a remote part of Petersburg, where the old-fashioned landlady will cook and clean for him.

Finally, on the same day, 150 pages or so into the novel, Oblomov's energetic half-German friend, Stolz, arrives from abroad and bustles Oblomov out of bed. Before Oblomov knows where he is, he is living in a rented country house and in love with Olga, a beautiful young woman who wants to inspire Oblomov to action: humorously, she asks him to read and review books for her (Oblomov hasn't read in years) so she can decide what to read, takes him on walks, and has long serious conversations with him (Oblomov has to do a lot of research on current affairs). But when it comes to a question of marriage, his timidity and weariness set in.

This is so absorbing that you can read it even in the middle of a noisy park, during a clash between dueling buskers. I just reread it again, and as usual feel amused, affectionate, and sad about the fate of the loving and sweet Oblomov. It's a charming novel!

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