Iwan Gontscharow, Oblomow
Published by Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 1980
The year is 1859. There is peace in Russia. Only four years ago, Alexander II rose to power. This tsar will carry out comprehensive reforms – and die from an assassin’s bomb. For in Russia, no one believes anymore that the tsar and the nobility can bring any political improvement. They are discredited, and novels such as “Oblomov”, published in 1859, have contributed to this.
You see, Oblomov is a virtual caricature of a Russian nobleman. Not forced by any need to earn his living, he abandons himself to idleness. What does idleness mean? Oblomov’s actions put a snail creeping in slow motion in mind. The book’s initial 50 pages deal with his way from the bed to the chair! The after-dinner ay nap is the main purpose in the life of the titular character. This does not even change when Oblomov almost loses his fortune. It is his friend Stolz, the incarnation of the modern doer, who travels for him to his estate, to order his affairs. And while he takes over administration, marries the bride of Oblomov and forges a life for himself, his friend Oblomov lies in bed, enjoys the good cooking of the landlady and completely falls into lethargy.
What we may consider a relatively boring story came as a bombshell in 1859, for the plot was coherent. The characters were incredibly aptly portrayed. No wonder, since the author knew people like Oblomov first-hand. His grandfather after all belonged to the hereditary nobility, and so Goncharov encountered the role models of his Oblomov during tea dances and soirees. He contrasted the bored layabout with his mother, who had taken over the family’s grain trade after the death of the father and earned everybody’s livelihood with her efficiency.
The book became famous through a political essay disguised as a book review. A Russian revolutionary interpreted Oblomov as a key novel for the political situation in Russia. Oblomov represented the ruling aristocracy whose lethargy drove Russia into ruin. A man of action, Stolz was the forward-thinking citizen, whose prudent actions would mend Russia. Russian society could not get rid of its Oblomovs quickly enough to finally make room for people like Stolz.
This widely read essay coined the term “Oblomovism”. It became an accusation – and a political slogan that vindicated any kind of revolution. For was it not in the interest of the members of the nobility to seize their possessions and force them into an active life? Who would want to live like an Oblomov?
Ivan Goncharov accepted this interpretation, even if he may not have thought of it when writing. He was also interested in portraying a special type of man, which he constantly encountered. After all, psychology still calls a chinless neurotic with an apathetic, lazy and parasitic lifestyle “Oblomov”.
Failure of an individual or signs of the times? Can Oblomov probably be considered as typical of his era, just as the burnout-ridden perfectionist is of today’s world? Nothing could be more alien to our thinking than Oblomov with his difficulty making decisions. And that is precisely what makes us reflect about our constant urge to over-accomplish our own targets.
Translated by Annika Backe