Tuesday, 17 November 2015

The Same Old Story by Ivan Goncharov

That’s a good title for a first novel, you might say, combining world-weary ennui with a touch of chutzpah; but actually it’s the translator’s own – Ivan Goncharov’s book is more often rendered into English as A Common Story. But the new title makes sense, with the phrase “the same old story” being uttered early on by Uncle Pyotr, one of literature’s more remarkable characters.

It isn’t translated into English very often, though. Indeed, Goncharov refused to have his novels translated in his lifetime. If he is known in the UK it is as the author of the 1859 novel Oblomov, the justly celebrated story of a Russian patriarch who simply can’t be bothered to get out of bed. Its success has eclipsed his other works, which is a pity, and also rather mystifying as he only wrote three novels, all of which, incidentally, begin in Russian with the syllable “ob”.

The Same Old Story begins in the middle of the 19th century in the provincial estate of 20-year-old Alexander Aduev, a spoiled only son being fussed over by his silly, widowed mother as he prepares to leave for St Petersburg. (We don’t get to see much of the mother, which is probably just as well, for she reminded me of Jennifer Aldridge in The Archers.) Alexander doesn’t exactly know what he’s going to do in St Petersburg, other than, you know, live – the kind of living that involves writing poetry and becoming famous on the back of it.

He is taken up, with some degree of reluctance, by the aforementioned Uncle Pyotr. When we first meet Pyotr he is reading a fawning, wheedling letter from someone who claims to have had a long friendship with his late parents. There is about a page of this before Pyotr “slowly tore the letter into four pieces, and threw them into the waste-paper basket under the desk”. When I read this I thought: I’m going to enjoy Uncle Pyotr’s company.

I was not proved wrong. His nephew is completely hopeless: a romantic idiot who believes in greatness of soul and the imperishability of true love. Uncle Pyotr’s job, as he sees it, is to drive all this rubbish from Alexander’s head, and from the start we are very much on his side.

Goncharov’s genius resides in the way he makes us root for Uncle Pyotr who, as a hard-headed factory owner concerned only with the bottom line, is the kind of character Dickens might have turned into a villain. Here we applaud him, especially when he lights his cigar with a sheet of paper that has one of Alexander’s recently composed poems on it. But Goncharov makes us root, too, for Alexander, even when we’ve read some of that poetry. There is a good deal of autobiography in Alexander; Goncharov also went to St Petersburg as a youth in pretty much the same spirit, writing in his spare time while employed on trade journals. When Alexander kisses the young woman he has fallen in love with, the scene is described in such a way as to bring a sigh to anyone who has been in love, aged 20, on a summer evening.

It all goes horribly wrong, of course: this is the same old story. What happens to Alexander is shocking. I won’t spoil it for you, but suffice to say that the brilliant comedy of the first half is subverted in a way that is almost painful. This mastery of tone is also a sign that the translator, Stephen Pearl, has done his job extremely well.

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