John L Holmes

Oblomov

August 30, 2021

John Holmes

What is Oblomov? Oblomov is a character in a book. I only found out about him in a radio play a few years ago and since then he’s stayed with me. In fact, to some extent, he’s always been with me, even before I’d heard the name. And has always been with many people, maybe you, and for some every day. So much so that oblomovism is a recognised psychological condition.

Oblomov was written by Ivan Goncharov in 1859. It took him ten years to write. It is 546 pages long; there’s a six and a half hour YouTube audio version I listened to extracts of. It’s a compelling story, even though so little happens. A celebration of inaction. The main character does essentially nothing. He knows he should, he even wants to, and yet he can’t. There are no physical constraints on him. He is not ill in any conventional sense. He just can’t do anything. He’s kind and people love him, but he disappoints.

You may see a glimpse of Ilya Ilyich Oblomov in yourself if you get that feeling of: ‘I know it’s important and I need to do it, and I will, but right now I just can’t be bothered with it.’ Who has not felt that on occasion? But Oblomov feels it all the time. It’s the basis of his life. He’s the archetypal idle aristocrat, which may make him sound unsympathetic, but he doesn’t want to be idle and in the radio play, starring Toby Jones, he’s an engaging character, simultaneously funny and sad. He resolves to do things but it is a torment and he always finds reasons not to do them. What hurts him is not the self-condemnation for things being left undone but this constant ‘torment of resolve’, always fruitless, to actually do them.

Being mid 19th century Russia it’s no surprise the story concerns a large family estate he’s inherited. He doesn’t live there or anywhere near it. He prefers St Petersburg, although he rarely goes out in it. He does, however, receive visitors. He has friends and at the start of the book three of them visit: a social butterfly, a civil servant, and a writer respectively. All are extremely busy in their own ways and Oblomov envies none, seeing their constant activity pointless. All invite him to various interesting-sounding events but he politely declines on grounds of ‘illness’.

Since he never visits his estate, he’s dependent on reports from the overseer, which may or not be accurate. For the last three years these epistles have been increasingly disturbing. In the latest, received only the day before the book starts, the overseer warns that because of drought all the crops are dying. Oblomov has long been concerned about the overseer’s troubling letters, so much so that three years prior he decided a radical new plan was called for. As yet, however, he has not finished it. Or indeed started it. He imagines the ideal estate but can’t think through the steps to achieve it. Everything remains resolutely not done.

To make matters worse, his valet draws attention to other problems: firstly, a host of overdue accounts (which Oblomov denies all knowledge of) so long unpaid the parties concerned threaten to never supply him again; secondly, an eviction notice from the landlord who wants to convert the building.

What makes Oblomov’s story more poignant is the fact that, despite his inertia and lack of willpower, he has a natural kindness and generosity and, apart from his constant ability to think up excuses for his inaction, an absence of guile. This leaves him prey to swindlers. His gentility and vulnerability also make him attractive to the delightful Olga Ilyinskaya.

This sweet-natured and spirited young woman (introduced by his best friend Andrey Schtoltz) falls in love with him. She tries to change him, successfully coaxing him out of his flat and to social engagements, and they become engaged. She lives in hope they will marry, but he can do no such thing, scared of all the ‘bother’ of it, and in the end his continual prevarication leads her to give up on him. This outcome is sad and yet what would her life have been with someone who, not only does nothing but increasingly accepts it as a justifiable response to the world and its business? Surely a miserable existence with a husband who’s charming but a literal layabout. Eventually she marries Schtoltz, half-German highly practical and dynamic who tries hard and with success to rescue Oblomov’s affairs and, with no success whatever, to persuade him to engage with them. Oblomov is devastated at losing Olga, but does at last commit and marries his widowed landlady, even fathering a child by her. Unlike his creator whose later life was marred by bitter loneliness, Oblomov finds happiness in the rest of his days thanks to his adoring wife’s cooking and pampering, and all the sleeping and dreaming he wants as he reverts to childhood.

There are literary predecessors, such as the dandy Eugene Onegin. He reminds me also of an English character, Mr Listless in Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey, who constantly says he’d like to do things but the effort would be altogether too much. But at least Mr Listless goes out and visits others. Oblomov is almost always indoors and, most of the time, in bed, surrounded by dust. He’s an example of the Superfluous Man, a staple of mid nineteenth century Russian literature – educated, bored, without a place in society’s norms, essentially passive.

So why so idle? For a start, he has long been a stranger to any kind of exercise and so is weak and soft and lacking in physical vigour. But not only does he lack the drive and application to do things, he does not know how to do them. He is incompetent, and the reason is that in childhood everything was done for him and he never learned any skills. He could no more address the practical issues surrounding the estate than he could fly to the moon. His lack of confidence in his own abilities is well-placed.

And yet there is more to Oblomov than meets the eye. His body may be redundant and the brain unable to grapple with the simplest of challenges, but his mind never rests. Instead, it engages in deep contemplation on the meaning of life. Moreover, through his childhood nurse’s telling him of all the great legends he has cultivated a vivid imagination. There is a section of the novel about his dreams in which he revisits the changeless family estate he grew up on. Pampered, his childhood may have left him unsuited for adult life but to him his early years were Utopian. A vignette concerning a letter received by his suspicious and parsimonious family is revealing. Only on the  fourth day of anxious thinking about it is the envelope’s seal even broken. It merely contains a request for a beer recipe. They argue about the expense of replying but the recipe is mislaid anyway, months go by, and eventually no-one can recall whether a response was ever sent. 

Goncharov’s prose is clear, sardonic and neither ponderous nor fussy. The book was hugely popular in its day, often referred to as a ‘masterpiece’. Tolstoy was ‘in raptures’ over it, his favourite book. It was one of three novels Goncharov published, another of which took him twenty years. He was the state’s censor but was also the publisher of Turgenev and Dostoevsky. Eventually his position as censor became untenable and he quit. He never attained the fame or status as a writer of the likes of Tolstoy or Chekhov. But he was well regarded. Chekhov considered him a better writer than him by a factor of ten. Turgenev revered him although ironically the pair ended up in dispute because Goncharov accused him of plagiarising his work.

The question: What is Oblomovism? has been asked since 1859, the year of its publication. Nikolai Dobrolyubov wrote an essay with that very title. ‘Very dangerous,’ replied contemporary Alexander Herzen. Dobrolyubov considered it a social disease: the ancient aristocracy paralysed by fear of modernity and reform and clinging to serfdom. Goncharov embraced this interpretation. Lenin in his writings made multiple references to Oblomov seeing him the archetype of the lazy, useless feudal landowner, the ultimate waster. But in 1922 addressing the current situation in the Soviet Republic he stated Oblomovs were amongst not only landowners, but peasants, intellectuals, workers and Communists and would be around a long time. Oblomovism was considered a specifically Russian malaise.

These days, the question of what it is draws additional responses. It’s regarded as a psychological syndrome – a fundamental lacking of willpower and courage, flat affect, emotional apathy. Also a refusal to become normally active after illness or during depression. Although often linked to depression it appears to be distinct.

The book Oblomov is not some obscure literary relic.  A new translation was published in 2015.

Easy to read, the book’s modern in its treatment of childhood and the strong female characters. In contemporary Russia Oblomov is a term for a lazy person.  An American satirist even likened Trump’s privileged family members to him. On social media people sometimes say they’ve encountered Oblomov for the first time and recognise him in themselves. And on the next occasion you find some important admin task you’re putting off once again due to ‘lack of time’ ask yourself if it’s really true, or is that the voice of Oblomov whispering in your ear?

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