A few years ago I stopped keeping books by my bedside. I could no longer bear the constant reminder, last thing at night—a time when the mind is vulnerable to suggestion—that I was a failure; principally because of a then-inability to finish reading a book.
Every night was the same, with an unfortunate compulsivity attached to the process, not dissimilar to falling in (and out) of love. Night would fall and the time for reading seemed ripe. I’d carefully select a new book, caress its spine in readiness for a little under the covers fun, thinking yes, this is it, this is the book that will change everything, and then, after a few pages, the creeping disappointment would start. This isn’t the right story after all, and the book would take its place in the pile of discarded stories.
For eighteen months after I submitted my doctoral thesis I could not read a novel to its end. Eventually I gave up and removed the failed attempts from my bedside. The moment of decision came after reading a story written by a close friend about a woman who kept artfully arranged books by great writers by her bed, books she had never read, and which she had no intention of reading, but which she hoped would make her interesting to lovers. The tone of the story was not forgiving, and since my friend had seen my bedroom floor I did not know if he was writing about me. What I did know was that I did not want to tempt fate.
There were two significant events that broke the back of my reading malaise. The first, somewhat ironically, was being asked to co-host a book show (yes, we do read the books). The second was coming across Oblomov—a sly, artfully told novel published in 1859 by the nineteenth-century Russian writer Ivan Goncharov, which I am now delightedly re-reading. What’s emerging through this act of re-reading is the realisation that back in 2010 Oblomov was something of a homeopathic salve. There is a second irony at play: my reading inertia was resolved by a man who is lazy and sluggish to the core.
Oblomov is a book of magical delight that warrants reading and reading again. It does what Russians do best: it is near-ludicrous satire written with wit, compassion and heart. Hear Ilya Ilyich Oblomov when he says: ‘…I’m like a shabby, threadbare coat, worn out not because of exposure to the elements or hard work but because for twelve years a light has been burning inside me, unable to find an outlet and doing nothing but illuminating the walls of its own prison and, finding no opening to the outside world, has just been snuffed out for lack of oxygen.’
The problems of disinterest and indecision are key to the story, but so—to put it grandly—is the meaning of life. The first 100 pages, for example, are taken up with Oblomov’s variously aborted attempts to get out of bed. This first step is just too difficult for this man of independent means. There are too many distractions, too many irritations—bailiffs, landlords, cobwebs, dry inkwells, invitations and an irksome servant. None of this is, or should be, for Oblomov. Better to ignore it, to stay under the covers or, at a stretch, recline regretfully on the couch. The key problem for Oblomov is life itself. He cannot quite work out what to do with it so he spends his time contemplating if he should do anything at all.
When I first read Oblomov it was with the pleasure of the story in mind but this time I am taking a curated path. I am stopping to supplement the novel with various narrative asides. In 2010 I did not know, for example, that Ilya Ilyitch Oblomov is so deeply ingrained in Russian cultural history that his name has inspired a slur. In Russia, oblomovshchina has become a catch-cry for someone incorrigibly slothful and neglectful of duty and responsibility. In his excellent essay, ‘Being and Laziness’, Joseph Frank notes that Russian dictionaries define oblomovshchina as ‘carelessness, want of energy, laziness, negligence’. Its sphere of influence goes high. In 1922 Lenin is said to have made a speech that included the following remark: ‘Even after three Revolutions, the Oblomovs still remain (…) and they must be washed, cleaned, pulled out, and flogged for a long time before any kind of sense will emerge.’ Gorbachev also invoked oblomovism to characterise those in opposition to the perestroika policy.
The basis for this is Nikolai Dobrolyubov’s excellent 1859 essay, ‘What Is Oblomovshchina?’, which I am also reading. Published in Selected Philosophical Essays (Moscow, 1948), the essay tries to pin down a dominant character type in Russian literary heroes—Oblomovian men like Onegin, Pechorin and Rudin. However, in the mirrored fashion of art and reality, it also provides a critical flesh to Oblomov (and others) by tapping into the political scene at the time; namely, the arrival of the ‘new man’ in nineteenth-century Russia, the leisured man of means who need not work, who need not take part in political life, who can rest comfortably in his social apathy, ignoring the trials and challenges of those around him.
Then there’s Michael Wood’s 2009 essay, ‘Eskapizm’, published in the London Review of Books. Responding to a new translation of Oblomov by Marian Schwartz, Woods notes that there is something noble about Oblomov, and about the spiritual condition he represents—an idea that is also pursued by Frank when he says Oblomov’s ‘tirades from time to time also raise ultimate questions about the meaning of human activity and human life itself’. (I have still have many Oblomovian moments myself when a fort of blankets seems more preferable to ‘life’.)
Other companionable pieces to pursue include Digital Oblomov (a fan girl’s online guide to the book and its ‘spheres of influence’), Galya Diment’s edited collection of essays (Goncharov’s Oblomov: A Critical Companion) and Nikita Mikhalkov’s film (Oblomov). I’m also going to revisit Waiting for Godot, which is said to have been inspired by the Goncharov novel (Vladimir, anyone?). And it would be remiss not mention that the gossipy side of me is definitely interested in reading Goncharov’s memoir, An Uncommon Story, in which the author weaves an elaborate tale of literary betrayal involving Flaubert and Turgenev (to which Goncharov is the claimant victim). It just might be time to set up a reading stack once more.
Rachel Morley co-hosts the literary arts show, Shelf Life, with Milissa Deitz, which screens on TVS in Sydney and Channel 31 in Melbourne. She is a Lecturer in Writing and Communications at the University of Western Sydney. You can follow Shelf Life @ShelfLifeTV and Rachel @miss_lispector. Season 4 of Shelf Life airs in September. For more details see www.tvs.org.au/programs.