Here is a novel of epic inertia. Long before there was such a thing as agoraphobia, the aristocrat Ilya Ilich Oblomov has plans for his estate, but there’s a problem: he can hardly get out of bed. As his estate crumbles from afar (he never goes there – not once during the course of the novel), one wonders what can shake some life into the Russian aristocracy. Published in 1859, Goncharov‘s novel seems to paint that society into a corner. Eleven years later, Vladimir Illyich Lenin was to be born, and the march toward revolution and the makeover of the feudal state would begin.
But Goncharov’s novel is also a love story – a doomed one, but a wrenching one for all that. Oblomov was “a fellow of a little over thirty, of medium height, and of pleasant exterior. Unfortunately, in his dark-grey eyes there was an absence of any definite idea.” His foil, friend and the man who does his best to prod him to engagement with life, with his own life, is Schtoltz. “Life passes too swiftly for it to be spent in slumber”, Schtoltz tells Oblomov. To no avail. Oblomov was ultimately to succumb to “the disease of Oblomovka”. The manifestations of the disease are the subject of this classic Russian novel.
Schtoltz, a dynamic and forward thinking, hard-working European is the man who introduces Oblomov to Olga. And the man to whom Olga ultimately pledges her heart, if not love. Both of them are loyal to Oblomov to the end. It’s the artful and non-judgemental style of Goncharov, that allows us to develop a sort of (undeserved) affection for his anti-hero.