Ivan Goncharov: Oblomov

More translations of Russian novels? We’ve done our time with War and Peace, what more do you want? Indeed. In the case of Russian literature, the vaults are still being opened, classics are still being unearthed, and new Russian literary works are still making their way to our shores. Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov and Mikhail Bulgakov’s White Guard are a new and noteworthy pairing, and their translations are brought to us by Marian Schwartz, a prize-winning translator of Russian fiction, history, biography, and criticism.
Schwartz’s recently published translation of Oblomov is the first time Goncharov’s preferred 1862 edition has been made available in English. The combination of Goncharov’s edits and Schwartz’s translation left me thumbing back to the copyright page to confirm 1862, not 1962, as this translation sparkles with contemporary lyricism and humor.
White Guard, though available in Russian since 1966, makes a stirring English debut; it sweeps us into the turbulence of Kiev during the Bolshevik Revolution and, unlike in War and Peace, the reader does not hover safely above the action (or so deeply in the heads of its characters that we can’t feel the strike of a bullet). In White Guard, Bulgakov dives into the heat of the action, and his narrative crackles with sensory details that make the chaos of war personal.
A common complaint about novels translated from Russian is all those unpronounceable names. Though it would be wonderful if these books included links you could click to hear each Russian word in the text correctly pronounced (wouldn’t that be a great feature for an e-book?), each of these translated volumes includes notes from Schwartz and Russian literary scholars. In the case of Oblomov, for example, Schwartz’s notes include a few comments on the novel’s literary themes, an explanation of why she included a “Gastronomical Glossary,” and some words on how she chose to translate the characters’ names. In her final paragraph, she explains her choice to buck tradition and translate the novel’s famous neologism as “Oblomovshchina” rather than “Oblomovism”:
The English suffix –ism is neutral and encompasses all of Oblomov’s characteristics, good and bad alike, whereas the Russian suffix shchina has exclusive negative implications. Oblomovshchina, as Stolz [a character in the novel], who coins the word, explains very clearly in the text, constitutes all the negative qualities of Oblomov’s world view.
Here is why Schwartz makes such a fine translator: she brings the essence of the Russian text into English, letting us understand the narrative in its Russian context without drowning us in footnotes.
Publishers, translators, and scholars aside—is the 1862 edition the better edition? Does the text read more cleanly, more clearly, and less awkwardly? Here is an example from the opening section of “Oblomov’s Dream,” a passage meant to inform the reader of Oblomov’s pastoral roots. This is from the 1859 edition, translated by David Magarshack for Penguin Books in 1954:
It is true there is no sea there, no high mountains, cliffs or precipices, no virgin forests—nothing grand, gloomy, and wild. But what is the good of the grand and the wild? The sea, for instance? Let it stay where it is! It merely makes you melancholy: looking at it, you feel like crying. The heart quails at the sight of the boundless expanse of water, and the eyes grow tired of the endless monotony of the scene. The roaring and the wild pounding of the waves do not caress your feeble ears; they go on repeating their old, old song, gloomy and mysterious, the same since the world began; and the same old moaning is heard in it, the same complaints as though of a monster condemned to torture, and piercing, sinister voices. No birds twitter around; only silent sea-gulls like doomed creatures, mournfully fly to and fro near the coast and circle over the water.
And here is the same passage from the 1862 edition:
No, it’s true, there is no sea, no tall mountains, cliffs, or chasms, no slumberous forests— nothing grandiose, wild, and gloomy.
What is it for, the wild and grandiose? The sea, for example? Never mind about that! It brings man only sorrow; looking at it makes him feel like crying. The heart is flummoxed in the face of the boundless shroud of waters, and there is nothing upon which to rest one’s gaze, tormented as it is by the vast scene’s monotony.
The waves roar and maddened claps do not coddle the weak ear. They are constantly repeating their song, the same song since the beginning of the world, a song of somber and unresolved content. In it one hears the same moan and complaints, as if from some monster condemned to torment, and also piercing, sinister voices. The birds do not chirp around him only taciturn seagulls fly desultorily along the shore, like the damned, circling above the water.
Breaking up the paragraph intensifies the impact of each image; we see the sea as grandiose and wild, then pause, feel the monotony of its vastness, then pause, hear it roar against the silence of the “damned, circling” birds. The subtle shift in the focus, from you in the first version to man in the second underscores the novel’s theme of humanity’s nature. And finally, clichés are replaced with fresher phrases— “shroud of water” rather than “expanse of water,” “coddle the weak ear” instead of “caress feeble ears,” and “song of somber and unresolved content” instead “old, old song, gloomy and mysterious.” Based on this, and other such examples throughout the novel, I’ll stand with the Russian scholars: Goncharov’s editing improved the text.
From the beginning, Goncharov proves Schwartz’s claim that Oblomov’s dialogue is particularly rich in character revelations. Oblomov, “a man of thirty-two or thirty-three, of average height and pleasant appearance,” spends the first 186 pages of this novel in bed; his first line comes on pg 8: “‘What am I doing, in fact?’ he said aloud with vexation. ‘Shame on me. It’s time I got to work! The moment I indulge myself, I . . . Zakhar!’ he shouted.” Oblomov recognizes he should do something and calls for his servant, Zakhar, a man who is at his best when pocketing small change, avoiding work, and arguing with Oblomov. When Zakhar arrives, our sedate protagonist has forgotten why he called him and sends him away. Then Oblomov tries to rouse himself, and naturally calls for Zakhar again.
Zakhar stood there for a minute or two, with poor grace, looking a little sideways at his master, and finally headed for the doorway.
“Where are you going?” asked Oblomov abruptly.
“You aren’t saying anything, so why should I stand here for nothing?” rasped Zakhar.
What follows is a Dickensian cast of Russian characters traipsing through to rouse Oblomov. There’s Volkov, our dandy: “You’re still not up! What’s that robe you’re wearing? No one’s worn those for ages.” Then there’s our busy clerk, Sudbinsky: “I’ve been intending to visit for a long time,” Sudbinsky says. “You know yourself what a devilish service we have! There look, I’m carrying an entire suitcase for my report; and now, if anyone asks for anything, I’ve told the messenger to rush over here. I never have a moment to myself.” Then the intellectual, Penkin, whom Oblomov asks where he’s been: “The bookstall. I went to see whether the journals were out. Have you read my essay?” With each encounter, Oblomov tries to explain his troubles, and it is only the novel’s villain and hero who finally listen.
Our villain, the scurrilous Tarantiev, arrives and bullies Zakhar, helps himself to Oblomov’s snuff (then complains about it), and finally rails against a relative of a mutual friend.
Once I borrowed fifty rubles from him, it must be going on two years. Well, is fifty rubles such a large sum? Wouldn’t you think he could forget it? No he can’t. Every month, whenever I run into him, it’s “How’s about that little debt?” he says. I’m sick of it! Not only that, yesterday he came to our department, “All right,” he says, “you have your salary, now you can pay me back.” I gave him my salary and disgraced him so badly in front of everyone that he couldn’t find the door fast enough.
Tarantiev’s long-term plans revolve around conning Oblomov out of his last rubles, a scheme that Oblomov, of course, remains oblivious to.
Finally Oblomov’s one true friend, Stolz, arrives and, good German that he is, successfully rouses Oblomov from his bed and sets him onto the path of action: his love affair with the young Olga.
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