Long before Jerry Seinfeld and Samuel Beckett, there was Ivan Goncharov, a minor government official in czarist Russia, and his classic novel about an ordinary Russian aristocrat mired in his own extraordinary inertia. Originally published in 1859, Oblomov chronicles the misadventures of Ilya Ilich Oblomov, a protagonist who doesn’t leave his apartment, indeed scarcely shifts off his sofa, for the first 180-odd pages. Instead, like many Russian men of his era and station, Oblomov remains stolidly in place and worries ineffectually about the prospect of change—the planned uprooting of his Saint Petersburg household, distressing notices of declining fortune from his country estate, even casual invitations to dinner.
Which is not to say he is free of anxiety or preoccupation. Like all good aristocrats, he has a first-class liberal education and seized in his student years on “the pleasures of lofty thoughts.” But such intoxication faded almost as quickly as it descended: “Serious reading exhausted him. The great thinkers could stir no thirst in him for speculative truth.” Much the same convulsions of ardor and entropy mark Oblomov’s adult life—except entropy now has the upper hand. Absurdly, as his estate succumbs to neglect and declining income, he envisions grand, abstract reforms: “a brand-new plan that conformed to the demands of the era, a plan to organize his estate and administer his peasants.” But since these ideas involve forsaking his dust-filled apartment, Oblomov remains on-site, fretting, sleeping, eating, and sleeping some more.
Clearly, Oblomov is meant to serve as a social type, no less than the dissolute protagonists in the works of Chekhov, Lermontov, and scores of other writers decrying the decay of Russia’s feudal order. Yet as Mikhail Shishkin argues in the afterword to Marian Schwartz’s lively translation of a later version of the novel’s manuscript (which came to light in 1987), it would be a grave mistake to view Oblomov’s saga as a “satire on the fetters of serfdom.” For one thing, Oblomov is acutely conscious of his own awful torpor—and the kindred ennui leaching life from the surrounding social order. His best friend, Andrei Stolz, the half-German son of Oblomov’s former schoolmaster, tries to rally him into taking an interest in public life, drawing this jeremiad in reply:
You must be sending me into this society and public on purpose, Andrei, to drive out any desire I might have to be there. . . . Look for the center around which all this revolves. There isn’t one. There’s nothing profound that cuts you to the quick. They’re all corpses, sleepwalkers, worse than me, these members of society and the public!
But the other, far more compelling reason to refrain from treating the novel as a broad, topical satire is that it’s one of the more memorable, and beautifully wrought, love stories in Russian literature. Oblomov takes up with an orphaned young woman named Olga Ilinskaya. If the character of Stolz serves (rather didactically) as the antidote to Oblomov’s torpor, Olga becomes the vital middle term in the quarrel the protagonists have with each other about life’s proper direction. On the one hand, she serves up all the classic separate-sphere traits that mark female love interests in nineteenth-century fiction: shyness, “a meek and dear intelligence,” and a demeanor always “open to compassion and pity.” On the other, though, she has a “somewhat mocking” streak and shares Stolz’s penchant for all things active and curiosity quenching. She goads Oblomov into finishing the languidly scanned books lying open in his hovel—and, yet more miraculously, provides a reason for him to finally move, to a nearby dacha. This energetic outlook, combined with her native sympathy, works as a tonic on any stirring of Oblomov’s laziness: “She pursued the slightest shadow of sleepiness even on his face. . . . More powerful than reproaches at awakening his courage was when he noted that his weariness made her weary, indifferent, and cold. Then he felt a fever of life, his powers, and activity, and the shadow again disappeared.”
But the galvanized Oblomov shows no greater gift for romance than for any other pursuit. After much self-dramatizing vacillation, he persuades Olga to accept his marriage proposal—but reverts, slowly and heartbreakingly, to form, panicking over the notion of the servants in both households broadcasting the alliance. Before long, Olga summons the strength—amid, naturally, an echt-Victorian swoon into bedridden romantic melancholy—to break off the engagement.
To his credit, Goncharov doesn’t let Oblomov’s misalliance resolve into pat tragedy, any more than he lets the novel descend into pat social satire. Olga comes into a new elective affinity—but this one provides no surer solace. And while Oblomov slides back into inactivity, Goncharov won’t let him be a figure of fun. Here is how he archly sums up his protagonist’s fate: “He quietly and gradually fit himself into the simple and wide coffin of the remainder of his existence, a coffin made by his own hands, like the elders in the desert who, turning away from life, dig themselves a grave.”
Such chilling, clipped asides serve to remind readers that, far from being an amusing dandy manqué, Oblomov represents a tendency that can steal over anyone, perhaps most especially those condemned to ponder their own deepest weaknesses in the wake of failed love. Oblomov furnishes much genuine cause for laughter. But there is no lasting mirth in his saga. Ask not, dear reader, for whom the sofa tolls.
Chris Lehmann is an editor of Bookforum.