Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Oblomov's Dream

An extract from one of my favourite books Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov. (The whole book is available here, though I recommend picking up a regular copy.)

"WE find ourselves transported to a land where neither sea nor mountains nor crags nor precipices nor lonely forests exist--where, in short, there exists nothing grand or wild or immense.

Of what advantage, indeed, is the grand, the immense? The ocean depresses the soul of man, and at the sight of its boundless expanse of billows--an expanse whereon the weary eye is allowed no resting-place from the uniformity of the picture--the heart of man grows troubled within him, and he derives no solace from the roaring and mad rolling of the waves. Ever since the world began, those waves have sung the same dim, enigmatical song. Ever since the world began, they have voiced but the querulous lament of a monster which, everlastingly doomed to torment, utters a chorus of shrill, malicious cries. On the shores of the sea no bird warbles; only the silent gulls, like lost spirits, flit wearily along its margin, or circle over its surface. In the presence of that turmoil of nature the roar even of the wildest beast sounds weak, and the voice of man becomes wholly overwhelmed. Yes, beside it man's form looks so small and fragile that it is swallowed up amid the myriad details of the gigantic picture. That alone may be why contemplation of the ocean depresses man's soul. During periods, also, of calm and immobility his spirit derives no comfort from the spectacle; for in the scarcely perceptible oscillation of the watery mass he sees ever the slumbering, incomprehensible force which, until recently, has been mocking his proud will and, as it were, submerging his boldest schemes, his most dearly cherished labours and endeavours.

In the same way, mountains and gorges were not created to afford man encouragement, inasmuch as, with their terrible, menacing aspect, they seem to him the fangs and talons of some gigantic wild beast--of a beast which is reaching forth in an effort to devour him. Too vividly they remind him of his own frail build; too painfully they cause him to go in fear for his life. And over the summits of those crags and precipices the heavens look so remote and unattainable that they seem to have become removed out of the ken of humanity.

Not so that peaceful corner of the earth upon which our hero, in his slumber, opened his eyes. There, on the contrary, the heavens seemed to hug the earth--not in order that they might the better aim their thunderbolts, but in order that they might the closer enfold it in a loving embrace. In fact, they hovered low in order that, like a sheltering, paternal roof, they might guard this chosen corner of the earth from every adversity. Meanwhile the sun shone warm and bright during half the year, and, withdrawing, did so so slowly and reluctantly that it seemed ever to be turning back for one more look at the beloved spot, as though wishing to give it one more bright, warm day before the approaching weather of autumn. Also the hills of that spot were no more than reduced models of the terrible mountains which, in other localities, rear themselves to aff right the imagination. Rather, they resembled the gentle slopes down which one may roll in sport, or where one may sit and gaze dreamily at the declining sun. Below them, toying and frisking, ran a stream. In one place it discharged itself into a broad pool, in another it hurried along in a narrow thread, in a third it slackened its pace to a sudden mood of reverie, and, barely gliding over the stones, threw out on either side small rivulets whereof the gentle burbling seemed to invite sleep. Everywhere the vicinity of this corner of the earth presented a series of landscape studies and cheerful, smiling vistas. The sandy, shelving bank of the stream, a small copse which descended from the summit of that bank to the water, a winding ravine of which the depths were penetrated by a rill, a plantation of birch-trees--all these things seemed purposely to be fitted into one another, and to have been drawn by the hand of a master. Both the troubled heart and the heart which has never known care might have yearned to hide themselves in this forgotten corner of the world, and to live its life of ineffable happiness. Everything promised a quiet existence which should last until the grey hairs were come, and thereafter a death so gradual as almost to resemble the approach of sleep. "


Kubla Khan said...

This is an exceptional work. The first section is brilliant, with Oblomov not moving out of his bed an inch. his servant Zakhar is one of my favourite literary characters. his attitude to his master and his asides, his quips are simply unforgettable.

what a novel book this is! the very idea of writing this novel about laziness and indolence is fascinating. the dream extract you quoted is so different from the first section. the first section has some of the best writing in all Russian literature.

alltogether, this novel is a must read. i am one of its fans.

Alok said...

haha... I love Zakhar too. Their mutual interaction is the best part of the book and also a wonderful portrait of relationship that goes beyond a simple master-servant one.

When I started reading it, I didn't get the satirical intent of the book, at least not in the beginning. Being someone prone to Oblomovitis myself, it felt painfully real to me but only later I realized that Goncharov doesn't see him only as an isolated character with a peculiar personality defect but rather he is a product of his milieu and his time and a specimen of his class and in that sense the book is also a social and political critique as much as it is psychological-philosophical one. This is also what distinguishes it from other books featuring the dithering, procrastinating hero, "the superfluous man" (modeled after Hamlet and also Byronic hero) which tend to romanticise their sufferings and torments. This book works both ways and thats what makes it so rich and affecting.

Kubla Khan said...

"From this figure derives the Russian term oblomovshchina, meaning backwardness, inertia. In modern Western literature, Oblomov is said to have inspired Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot".

the above from the internet somewhere. it is interesting that the relations between Goncharov and Turgenev were strained too with Goncharov accusing Turgenev of stealing his plots. Goncharov, it seems had a turn for paranoia. It transpires that Dostoevsky had a good opinion of Goncharov.

it is indeed amusing to find that all these great writers were squabbling with each other.....maybe the pressures of genius.

i agree with your comments. Zakhar is altogether a different entity. his attitude is the external manifestation of Oblomov's malaise which is the malaise of the feudal classes losing the "ground". i agree with you when you say that this novel is not only artistic but political and philosophical. what a pity that Goncharov did nor write another great novel.

A B said...

This is one of my favourite Russian novels. And because it captures a typical Russian character so precisely and vividly, it is almost indispensable for anyone studying Russian literature. How many Oblomovs and Zakhars I saw when living in Ukraine for over 20 years!

I read it twice - once when a 16 year old kid and second time a few months ago, at the age of 29. And this year my new copy of the novel became covered with pencil marks and comments on every page.

It's a shame that every westerner heard of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy but "Oblomov" remains a hidden gem for the inquisitive few. In Russia/Ukraine this novel is as widely known as the canonical "Crime and Punishment" and "Anna Karenina".