Monday, May 23, 2011

Oblomov, another Russian

Since my last post was about the fun and popular Great Gatsby, I am allowing myself to talk about an obscure Russian book again.  Please forgive me if this is starting to drive you crazy, but I do believe that some of you may find these books genuinely interesting and worth your time.  I really am not trying to sound pretentious and academic; I just happen to have acquired an affinity for Russian literature.  This time, I want to talk about Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov.  It's actually fairly difficult to find a good review of this book online, but maybe I can offer a decent one for you.

Although many native English-speakers are unfamiliar with this novel, it is quite embedded in Russian culture.  For example, it inspired the word "oblomovshchina," which means something along the lines of "lazy, lethargic, and listless."  It was a very popular book in Russia in its day, which was around the 1860s, a booming literary era in Russian history with extraordinary contemporaries like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.

In so many ways, I think that Oblomov embodies everything about the quintessential Russian style.  First of all, the story is written from the perspective of a narrator who does not exist in the story and yet nevertheless breaks in to offer his opinions now and then.  I love this style because the narrator can "objectively" retell the story, but his scattered commentary is humorous and adds to the content.  Similarly, much of the interaction between Oblomov and his servant Zakhar is funny and ironic.

If there were ever a character who displayed the potentially existential depression of listlessness, the "superfluous man" if you will, he is Ilya Ilyitch Oblomov.  His story, very simply, is that of a man who cannot seem to get off the couch.  It is not that he is physically restricted to the couch, but that he lacks the desire and motivation to get up and take action in his life.  From the very beginning, we learn that there is noticeably an "absence of any definite idea" as well as a "total lack of concentration" in his countenance.  Throughout the story, Oblomov frequently decides that he ought to get up, but somehow he never seems to be able to do it.

Despite the restriction to the couch, Goncharov is able to keep the story moving.  Part of this comes from a number of visitors who stop by and talk to Oblomov.  We also learn a lot about Oblomov's past, which helps us understand how he got in this situation.  An interesting dynamic of the novel is his relationship with the two prominent women in his life - Olga, his former flame, and Agafya, the landlady he marries.  They represent the two natures within him, as well as the one which conquers.

I don't want to talk about the plot much more because I think it is the language that makes the novel so wonderful.  It's not so much about what happens but about how the story is told.  There are a number of interesting themes to consider, to be sure, and anyone who is intrigued by the superfluous man would enjoy this character.  But I particularly love the book for the narration itself.

Because Oblomov reviews are somewhat hard to find, I want to include an excellent link that provides much more information about the book if you wish:


Amateur Reader said...

Some of your poor readers not only find this interesting, but are currently reading a different, excellent, even more obscure Goncharov book, The Frigate Pallada, a travel book about Goncharov's visit to Japan several years before he wrote Oblomov.

I'll read Oblomov soon, I hope. You make the semi-Gogolian narrator sound marvelous.

IngridLola said...

I LOVE Russians. I'm reading The Master and Margarita right now and I'm absolutely devouring it! The clever narration absolutely makes this book. Oblomov looks like something I'd love.

Amy said...

@Amateur Reader - I'm glad you are already familiar with Goncharov. If you do read Oblomov, I'd love to know what you think. And I have to say that "poor readers" is the last thing I would say about the book blogging community I've connected with, so please give yourself credit!

@Ingrid - Master and Margarita is awesome! I should do a post on that one soon. I'll be interested to hear your thoughts when you've finished it!