Oblomov is the story of a very likeable but lazy Russian aristocrat who spends his days lounging at home in his dressing gown. No, not just when he’s nursing a stinking hangover which the usual cure of a salt ‘n’ vinegar crisp sandwich fails to remedy. EVERY DAY. The depth of Oblomov’s inertia spawned the term ‘Oblomovism’ as a derogative label for the sluggish procrastination apparently displayed by both the nineteenth-century Russian landed gentry and 1960s Soviet bureaucrats (plus ça change mes amis, plus ça change…).
However, this tale of Oblomov’s (slow) journey through life, set against a vivid portrait of pre-Revolutionary Russia, is more than a comedic swipe at lazy posh gits – although there is plenty of humour here, in the double-act between Oblomov and his bitter yet completely devoted servant Zakhar; Oblomov’s melodramatic exclamations at the swines who disturb his cloistered calm (‘Don’t come near! Don’t come near! You’ve just come in from the cold!’); and his endless excuses for his slothful behaviour (‘Why do you suppose I am so late in getting up? I’ve been lying here thinking how to extricate myself from my difficulties’).
Rather, it is a tale that debates the very meaning of life and the true source of human happiness, by asking us to determine the best approach to human existence – Oblomov’s simple (albeit lazy) way, or that of the rest of the world rushing madly around him. Moreover it questions how far we should judge and seek to change another person’s way of life, whether such change is even possible, and whether we can ever truly understand the motivations behind a person’s lifestyle choice.
Initially, Oblomov’s justifications of his manner of living reminded me of the themes explored in The Tao of Pooh and the Te of Piglet – I decided that his childhood friend Stolz and love interest Olga were essentially a couple of Bisy Backsons trying to turn a Taoist Oblomov, happily living by his own code, into one of their excessively-busy own:
They’re all dead, those members of the world and society, more sound asleep than I! They may not lie in bed, but they spend their days rushing to and fro like flies, and what’s the sense of it?
…Doesn’t everyone strive for the very things I dream of?…Isn’t that the purpose of all your rushing about, your passions, wars, politics, trade – to achieve peace, to attain this ideal of a lost paradise?
For a short, glorious time, I could re-imagine Oblomov as the 19th century Russian equivalent of 1990s Indie-king Mark Chadwick, belting out The Levellers’ rallying cry to follow one’s own individual way of life (see video below, with thanks to YouTube) whilst bedecked in his dressing gown ‘of Persian material, an authentic oriental robe with nothing European about it…so capacious that he could wrap it twice around himself’. But I slowly realized that Oblomov’s character, and the reasoning behind his dressing-gowned existence, were not so easily explained, and that’s where the genius of this book lies. For example, how far has Oblomov proactively chosen this life-path, when his cosseted aristocratic upbringing meant he
…lost (the) ability to do things while still a child at Oblomovka [his family estate], among your aunts and nurses. It began with not knowing how to put on your own stockings and ended with not knowing how to live.
Is he genuinely content in his lethargy, or actually navigating an anxious state:
Oblomov reverted to a kind of childish timidity, anticipating danger and harm in everything outside the sphere of his daily existence – a result of growing unaccustomed to the diversity of external events.
and depressively regretting the opportunities lost through his inertia:
…he went on planning and preparing to begin life, and making mental sketches of a design for his future; but with each fleeting year he was obliged to modify and discard something of the design.
Finally, how successful is his approach to life if it jeopardizes his relationship with his lover Olga, whilst exposing him to the dastardly Taranteyev’s financial exploitation? (#NoSpoilersAtBrontë’sPageTurners, but Tarantayev is essentially an extreme version of That Person, found in every group of friends up and down the land, who never buys a round. Next time That Person in your group of friends pulls their familiar trick, try saying ‘Oh X, you are SUCH a Taranteyev!’ Unless the pint-dodger has a working knowledge of Russian literature, this quip will enable you to expel that anger at un-bought rounds which only the British truly understand, whilst upholding the other great British tradition of never openly admitting that someone has peeved you. Just a little free tip from Brontë’s Page Turners, in time for the Easter bank holiday weekend where the sin of non-round buying is displayed in non-Christian abundance.)
The ending of Oblomov’s story doesn’t provide a tidy solution to these meaning-of-life questions, but no wonder – these are the perennial questions that we have faced since the days of the caves. Nevertheless, spending a week or so with Oblomov made me consider some Very Deep Questions whilst having a giggle and the occasional sob. I might even say that Oblomov has become my favourite Russian novel, but should caveat this by admitting that as a teenager I was scarred by various forays into Russian literature which led me to equate Russian novels with long-winded tracts on farming, so anything that doesn’t leave me dreaming of tractors is considered a boon. Yes, I have summarized an entire literary genre there, but I’m sticking with it.