Before I even think of commenting on the book, I have to say that the Penguin Classics cover here is decidedly not one of my favorites. I think it was chosen to suggest the character Oblomov. In reality, it’s a portrait of Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin done by the famous painter Ilia Efimovich Repin. And I do not think that it suggests the character of Oblomov at all. I suppose the portrait is fine as it is, but I hate that Penguin used it as the cover image. This goes against all the images I conjured in my head regarding Oblomov.
Oblomov was published in 1859. The author, Ivan Goncharov, deserves a ranking beside Dostoyevsky and Pushkin. Having read a lot of Russian classics this year, I have to say that this novel was by far my favorite. I love this novel. Oddly, I feel this is the least known of the typical litany of Russian classics. Why this is, I have no idea.
Very few readers will be able to handle this novel. I say this for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s a very slow novel to read. When the main character takes a hundred pages to get up out of bed – you know it’s going to be a long novel. But there is also another reason why it is a slow novel to read – one cannot read it every day. Or, at least, I could not. Sometimes, life is too busy and kinetic to read this novel and if I tried to do so, I disliked my reading experience. This is all very ironic once you read the novel. A second reason that a reader may be put off of this novel is that contemporary society seems to have created minds thirsting for hyperactive, extreme, torrid emotional affairs that zoom past. Compared to the frantic-ness of everything nowadays, Oblomov might seem tedious. A third reason is that the time period that the novel takes place in is not one that most people can imagine, much less truly feel inside of them. Sure, facts and statistics and history books seem to explain this time period, but that is not the same as having sympathy and empathy for the time period.
This novel is about (and not limited to): love, philosophy of life, the gradual passing of the Russian upper-class, the difference between the European metropolitan and the rural Russian, loyalty, patience, and stubbornness. Also, there’s a bit of pseudo-autobiographical stuff running through the novel by the subtle and insightful Goncharov. The book is simply divided into four parts. The main cast of characters is relatively easy to remember and follow. There is symbolism and plenty of traditional Russian settings, artefacts, and sayings.
As I was reading, I was jotting down page numbers for quotes that I liked. By page 268, I had at least a dozen quotes. Someday, somewhere, I will probably re-read the quotes and smile and nod and make a sage-looking face. Goncharov is one of the wisest, most intuitive writers I’ve read.
Readers will probably find the first part of the novel amusing and comical. The second and third parts they may find tedious and here is where they might begin to misunderstand the character Oblomov. Finally, the last thirty pages or so present the tragedy, vindication, and uniqueness of the character. Whenever I think of misunderstood characters, I shall think of Oblomov. He’s not the typical tragic character – he, more or less, gets what he wants in life. But most people begrudge him this throughout his life. He has enemies, but somehow through Fate or Grace, he escapes their clutches. Once one is truly Oblomov’s friend, one cannot ever cease being his friend and being loyal even to the end, no matter what. The end of the novel is spectacular.
There are some minor things I am interested in: for example, Oblomov’s manservant Zakhar uses the word “pathetic” a bit. I wonder what the Russian word is and why the translators chose “pathetic.” I am sure that it is a good word choice – I am not being critical – but it’s not pathetic in the usual sense. It seems to include a hefty dose of pathos and melodrama to it. Such a minor thing, but something I am interested in.
None of this really shares why this is such an awesome book. Actually, most of what I wrote so far might be seen as complaint. It’s pre-emptive complaining – because I can imagine readers really disliking this book, and somehow, this book resonates so much with me, that I cannot bear the criticism. I want to defend Oblomov and Goncharov. Why? Because unlike so many mass-produced and trope-filled novels, this book handles the major problems of life with insight and wisdom. This one gets to the depth of life and makes the reader quit his haste and learn about another way to live that isn’t manipulating others, clawing at the stock market, or flitting to every social event. This novel is a magnificent tragedy and absolutely not a tragedy whatsoever. After reading it, I am curious to see if other readers will praise Oblomov, ridicule him, or mourn him. That’s the kind of novel this is. And every bit of it takes patience and a quiet room to read.
I will someday die a little bit happier – because I will know that I read the best novel. . . . .