Our book today is Ivan Goncharov’s irrepressible masterpiece, Oblomov, specifically the sparkling 2008 Yale University Press translation made by Marian Schwartz, which so serenely replaces all previous English translations that they must quietly fade from consideration, even though one of them is a … gulp … Penguin Classic.

It’s possible the story will be familiar, even though the book has never really enjoyed the wide-scale popularity of relatively contemporaneous works by Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: young aristocrat Ilya Ilich Oblomov moves – very slowly – from his day-couch to his bed and back, virtually never leaving his townhouse, virtually never entertaining or writing or doing much of anything. He’s looked after by his crusty servant Zakhar, who’s perpetually astounded at the vast resourcefulness of his master’s sloth:

Zakhar peeked through the crack [to Oblomov’s study, where his master had resolved to go and write]. What on earth? Ilya Ilich was lying on his sofa, his head resting in his palm, and before him lay his book. Zakhar opened the door.

“What, lying down again?” he asked.

“Don’t bother me. Can’t you see I’m reading!” Oblomov blurted out.

“It’s time to get washed and write,” said a tenacious Zakhar.

“Yes, indeed, it is time,” Ilya Ilich woke up. “You go for now. I’m going to think.”

“When was it he managed to lie down again?” grumbled Zakhar, jumping on the stove. “He’s quick!”

And he’s harangued regularly by his brisk friend Stolz:

“For God’s sake, Ilya!” said Stolz, casting an amazed look at Oblomov. “What do you do? You’re like a lump of dough rolled into a ball and lying there.”

“It’s true, Andrei, just like a lump,” responded Oblomov sadly.

“Do you think your awareness of the fact is any excuse?”

“No, it’s just an answer to what you said. I’m not trying to excuse myself,” noted Oblomov with a sigh.

“You have to pull yourself out of this daydreaming.”

“I tried before, but I failed, and now … why should I? Nothing excites me, my heart doesn’t long for anything, and my mind keeps sleeping peacefully!” he concluded with almost imperceptible sadness. “Enough about that. Why don’t you tell me where you’re coming from now?”

“Kiev. I’m going abroad in a couple of weeks. You should go, too.”

“Fine, if you like,” decided Oblomov.

“All right, sit down and write a request, and tomorrow you can hand it in.”

“It can wait until tomorrow!”

Stolz wonders at one point if his friend is simply “too lazy to live,” but he loves him all the same, as does Zakhar, and, in the novel’s wonderful turn, so does Olga, a spirited young woman who finally brings that longed-for excitement to Oblomov’s heart. For the span of a hundred breathless pages, she believes she can change our sedentary hero, and more tragically, he believes it too. Even in a literature as thickly populated with memorable, three-dimensional female characters (something that could hardly be said about American or even most English fiction during the same period), Olga is a magnificent creation – and all her fiery qualities are of course thrown into greater contrast every time she shares a scene with her phlegmatic beau. When he tells her he’s sorry, she snorts, “Children say they’re sorry, or people when they step on someone’s foot in a crowd. But ‘I’m sorry’ won’t help here,” and when she begins to realize how hopeless her intentions are, her arias become almost unbearably heartbreaking:

“Why is it impossible?” she asked. “You say I’m ‘mistaken, I’ll fall in love with someone else,’ and sometimes I think you will simply stop loving me. What then? How can I justify what I’m doing now? If not people or society, what will I tell myself? Sometimes I can’t sleep because of this, but I have not tormented you with my conjectures about the future because I believe in something better. For me, the happiness outweighs the fear. I’m worth something when your eyes sparkle because of me, when you search me out, scrambling up hills, when you forget your idleness and rush after me through the heat, to town for a bouquet or a book, when I see that I’m making you smile and desire life. I have been waiting and searching for one thing, happiness, and I believe I have found it. If I’m wrong, if it’s true that I’m going to mourn my mistake, at least here” – she put her hand over her heart – “I feel I’m not to blame; it means fate did not intend this, God did not grant it. But I’m not afraid of my future tears. I will mourn, but not in vain. I did buy something with them. I felt so good … before!”

Schwartz has chosen to translate the 1862 version of the novel, noting that Goncharov made substantial changes to the version that first appeared in installments in a Russian periodical in 1859. Such a choice can make a reader leery – authorial re-workings are so often ill-advised things, the ham-fisted tinkerings a writer does when he fails to realize that he’s become just another reader of his earlier work. But we’ve all seen examples of it working well (Peter Mathiessen’s Shadow Country springs to mind), and it’s impossible to argue with the results here.

Those results aren’t universally successful, of course – what translation can ever boast that? In the first quotation here, for instance, Scwartz can’t make excuses in her Introduction for something as awkward in her text as having a character jump on a stove, and in the second quotation, that ‘imperceptible’ clearly applies only to the audibility of what Oblomov says, not the strength with which he feels it. Likewise in the Introduction Schwartz says she struggled with how to translate the novel’s famous invention “Oblomovshchina,” a word Stolz invents to hint at everything that’s wrong with his friend. She rejects “Oblomovism” because “the English suffix “-ism” is neutral and encompasses all of Oblomov’s characteristics, good and bad alike, whereas the Russian suffix “-shchina” has exclusively negative implications.” She decides to surrender and just use “Oblomovshchina,” but English, too, has the kind of damning suffix she wants: “-itis.” “Oblomovitis” would work just fine the way she wants it to. But you know a translation is first-rate when the worst you can throw at it are such quibbles.

First-rate this rendition certainly is: for the first time, the full range of Goncharov’s talent is clear in English – not just his uncanny ability to evoke the maddening miasma of Oblomov’s existence but also his ability to save his main character from our ultimate dislike, indeed to make us love him just as much as those around him do. It’s been remarked that Oblomov is a perfect example of that rarest of rarities: an affectionate satire. That delicate balancing-act has never been done better than the job Schwartz has done here, but for the first time, everything else Goncharov does is equally visible, right down to his unapologetic instinct for low-key slapstick and very funny one-liners. Of all the half-dozen or so Oblomov‘s out there in English, this is the one to read.

It’s also the one to give to any Oblomov you happen to know, although nothing will come of it, alas.

  • http://johncotter.net/ JC

    Wonderful stuff, Steve — I still have the old red penguin you gave me years ago lying around someplace (I was, of course, too lazy to read it) but it sounds like I was right to wait.

    So where is the Stevereads Best & Worst of the year?? Surely it’s late enough!

  • Maureen

    The sentence about jumping on a stove did not strike me as at all odd. You just have to know about Russian stoves, particularly those employed in the countryside. They were massive things, with numbers of long, seat-like shelves, and it was quite common for peasant families to actually sleep on top of their stoves (at least mom and dad did, or grandpa — whoever had the greatest social standing in the family). To have Zakhar jump on the stove is no odder than to have him jump on a stool. What is odd is that the translator didn’t come across someone who could point this out to her — though I admit that the study of pre-Revolutionary Russian domestic appliances is not the commonest of disciplines.

    Here’s a bit more on Russian stoves:
    http://www.russia-ic.com/culture_art/traditions/658/

  • Steve Donoghue

    Well, OK, but my point was that for readers who DON’T know a lot about pre-Revolution Russian kitchen appliances and their sociological uses (the majority of readers, I’m just guessing), the reference would be decidedly odd, and that a translator should be watching out for such stuff.

    (also: DORK!!!)

  • Maureen

    Hmmm, the way I read your post, it seemed as though the translator had actually discussed the sentence about the stove in her introduction, and stated that she couldn’t account for it, dismissing it as some kind of wacky error on Goncharov’s part. You’re totally right that the stove merits a foot/endnote, assuming that the translator understood the reference.

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