Are You a Russian Lit Geek? Rereading Goncharov’s “Oblomov” and Tolstoy’s “The Cossacks”

Are you a Russian lit geek?  I love Russian classics.  I even saved my adorable notes from a long-ago Russian Literature in Translation class.  And I  recently reread two 19th-century Russian novels, Ivan Goncharov’s comic masterpiece, Oblomov, and Tolstoy’s short novel, The Cossacks.

I have never read a funnier novel than  Oblomov. The enchantingly slothful hero, Ilya Ilyich Oblomov, prefers sleep to action.  He naps and lazes all day in his dusty apartment, where his servant Zakhar does as little as possible.  In the opening chapter, the two quarrel about the housekeeping.  Zakhar claims he can’t dust or sweep the cobwebs unless Oblomov goes out for a day.  The prospect horrifies Oblomov. “Good lord! what next?  Go out indeed!  You’d better go back to your room.”

Nothing can wake up Oblomov:  neither his bailiff’s cheating him of money,  nor  the landlord’s eviction notice.    But when his energetic half-German friend Stolz shows up, Oblomov reluctantly make the rounds of social visits. But he doesn’t truly wake up tills he falls in love with  Olga, a young woman determined to direct his life:  she  insists that he read books and  take long walks.  The romance  can’t last, of course.  Oblomov becomes sluggish in the fall.  And he  suffers from what he calls “Oblomovism.”

One of the most famous chapters is “Oblomov’s Dream,” the longest single scene in Russian literature, according to critic Richard Freeborn.  Oblomov dreams of his  idyllic childhood  and future with a wife and children on his beautiful country estate.  The power of Oblomov’s imagination radically changes our attitude toward his sleepy mode of living.  Critics in the 19th century interpreted “Oblomovism” as an illustration of the  Russian character flaw that prevented reform and revolution.  Stolz is successful only because he is half German.  But Goncharov also believed the artist must be a passive vehicle, “an artist of the eye” who relies on his subconscious. And Oblomov fits that description, I think on a third reading.  Yet such an interpretation is out of context.

I have read and loved David Magarshack’s translation of Oblomov (Penguin) and Natalie Duddington”s (Everyman’s Library).

Tolstoy wrote The Cossacks, a partly autobiographical novel, over 10 years.  He  traveled to the Caucasus in 1851 and in 1852 joined the army as a cadet.  Writing The Cossacks was Tolstoy’s attempt to deflate the romantic view of the Caucasus. It was published in 1863.

The Cossacks begins as the story of  Olenin, an upper-class young man who wonders “how to live.”  He leaves Moscow for the Caucasus, because he seeks a new kind of life.  In the Caucasus he is overwhelmed by the beauty of the mountains.  And he becomes infatuated with the simplicity and naturalness of the Cossacks.

The most interesting part of the book is a series of sketches of Cossack characters. The women farm and do the work; the men hunt, drink, and fight.   Tolstoy focuses on three characters:  Lukashka, a fearless Cossack soldier who does exactly what he wants, Maryanka, a gorgeous young woman who is understood to be engaged to Lukashka, and “Uncle” Yokashka, an old man who tells stories and drinks to excess.  Olenin falls in love with Maryanka. He wants to be a Cossack, but in the end realizes he will never fit in.

It is not my favorite Tolstoy, but he could not have written War and Peace if he had not written stories about the Caucasus and Crimea.

I have two good translations of this:  David McDuff’s (Penguin) and Aylmer and Louise Maude’s in Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy. As so often, I preferred the Maude.