Excerpt: 'Oblomov' by Ivan Goncharov
Peter Harrison Asleep, John Singer Sargent, 1905
From Chapter 2:
There entered a young fellow of about twenty-five. Beaming with health and irreproachably dressed to a degree which dazzled the eye with its immaculateness of linen and gorgeousness of jewellery, he was a figure calculated to excite envy.
“Good morning, Volkov!”cried Oblomov. “And good morning to you,” returned the radiant gentleman, approaching the bed and looking about him for a spot whereon to deposit a hat. However, perceiving only dust, he retained his headgear in his hand. Next he drew aside the skirts of his coat (preparatory to sitting down), but a hasty inspection of the nearest chair convinced him that he had far better remain standing.
“So you are not yet up?” he went on. “And why on earth are you wearing a nightshirt? They have quite gone out of fashion.”
“‘Tis not a nightshirt, it is a dressing-gown,” said Oblomov, nestling lovingly into the ample folds of the garment. “Where are you from?”
“From the tailor’s. Do you think this frock-coat a nice one?” And he turned himself round and round for Oblomov’s inspection.
“Splendid! Made with excellent taste!” was the verdict. “Only why is it so broad behind?”
“The better to ride in it. It is a riding-coat. I ordered it for to-day for the reason that this is the first of May and I am to go to the Ekaterinhov with Gorunov. He has just got his promotion, and we intend to cut a dash on the strength of it. He has a roan horse–all the horses in his regiment are roans–and I a black. How are you going–in a carriage or on foot?”
“By neither method,” replied Oblomov.
“What? To-day is the first of May, and you are not going to the Ekaterinhov? Why, every one will be there!”
“Not quite every one,” Oblomov lazily remarked.
“You must go, though. Sophia Nikolaevna and Lydia will be occupying two of the seats in our carriage, but the seat facing them will be vacant. Come with us, I tell you.”
“No, I do not intend to occupy the vacant seat. What sort of a figure should I cut on it?”
“Then, if you like, Mischa Gorunov shall lend you a horse.”
“Of what is the fellow thinking?” said Oblomov as though to himself. “How come you and the Gorunov family to be so friendly with one another?”
“Give me your word of honour not to repeat what I may tell you, and I will explain.”
“Herewith I give it.”
“Very well. I am in love with Lydia.”
“Splendid! Have you been in love with her long? She seems a charming girl.”
“I have been in love with her for three weeks,” said Volkov, with a sigh. “And Mischa, for his part, is in love with Dashenka.”
“Who is Dashenka?”
“What! You do not know Dashenka? Why, the whole town is raving over her dancing. To-night I am going to the Opera with Mischa, and he is to throw her a bouquet. Well, I must be off to buy the necessary camelias for it.”
“Come back, then, and take lunch with me. I should like to have a talk with you, for I have just experienced two misfortunes.”
“Impossible, I fear, for I am lunching with Prince Tiumenev. All the Gorunovs–yes, and Lydia, too–are to be there. What a cheerful house it is! And so is Tiumenev’s country place. I have heard that it is to be the scene of numberless dances and tableaux this summer. Are you likely to be one of the guests?”
“No–I think not.”
“What hospitality the Prince dispenses! This winter his guests averaged fifty, and sometimes a hundred.”
“How wearisome the whole thing must have been!”
“What! Wearisome? Why, the more the merrier. Lydia, too, used to be there–though in those days I never so much as noticed her. In fact, never once did I do so until one day I found myself vainly trying to forget her, vainly pitting reason in the lists with love.'” Volkov hummed the concluding words, and seated himself carelessly upon a chair. Almost instantly he leaped to his feet again, and brushed the dust from his trousers.
“What quantities of dirt you keep everywhere!” he remarked.
“‘Tis Zakhar’s fault, not mine,” replied Oblomov.
“Well, now I must be off, as it is absolutely necessary that I should buy those camelias for Mischa’s bouquet. Au revoir!”
“Come and have tea after the opera, and tell me all about it.”
No, that is impossible, for I am promised to supper at the Musinskis’. It is their reception day, you know. However, meet me there, and I’ll present you.”
“What is toward at the Musinskis’?”
“What, indeed? Why, entertainment in a house where you hear all the news.”
“Like everything else, it would bore me.”
“Then go and call upon the Mezdrovs, where the talk centres upon one topic, and one topic alone–the arts. Of nothing else will you hear but the Venetian School, Beethoven, Bach, Leonardo da Vinci, and so forth.”
“All of them boring subjects!” said Oblomov with a yawn. “What a lot of pedants the Mezdrovs must be! Do you never get tired of running about from house to house?”
“Tired? Why should I? Every morning I like to go out and learn the news (thank God, my official duties never require my actual presence, save twice a week, when they consist of lunching with and doing the civil to the General). After that I proceed to call upon any people upon whom I have not called for a long while. Next there will be some new actress–whether at the Russian theatre or at the French. Besides, always there is the Opera, to which I am a subscriber. Furthermore, I am in love, and Mischa is about to enjoy a month’s leave from his regiment, and the summer is on the point of beginning, and Mischa and I intend to retire to his country house for a change of air. We shall have plenty of sport there, since he possesses excellent neighbours and they give bals champêtres. Also I shall be able to escort Lydia for walks through the woods, and to row her about in a boat, and to pluck flowers for her benefit. At the present moment I must leave you. Good-bye!”
Rising, he endeavoured to look at himself in a dust-coated mirror; after which he departed–though returning once more to show his friend the newest thing in Parisian gloves and an Easter card which Prince Tiumenev had recently sent him.
“What a life!” thought Oblomov, with a shrug of his shoulders. “What good can a man get out of it? It is merely a squandering and a wasting of his all. Of course, an occasional look into a theatre is not a bad thing, nor is being in love–for Lydia is a delightful girl, and pursuits like plucking flowers with her and rowing her about in a boat even I should enjoy; but to have to be in ten different places every day, as Volkov has–!”
He turned over on his back and congratulated himself that he at least cherished no vain social aspirations. ‘Twas better to lie where he was and to preserve both his nerves and his human dignity. . . .
Another ring at the doorbell interrupted his reflections. This time the visitor turned out to be a gentleman in a dark frock-coat with crested buttons whose most prominent features were a clean-shaven chin, a pair of black whiskers around a haggard (but quiet and sensible) face, and a thoughtful smile.
“Good day, Sudbinski!” cried Oblomov cheerfully.
“Good day to you,” replied the gentleman. “‘Tis a long time since I last saw you, but you know what this devilish Civil Service means. Look at that bagful of reports which I have brought with me! And not only that, but I have had to leave word at the office that a messenger will find me here should I be wanted. Never do I get a single moment to myself.”
“So you were on the way to your office? How come you to be going so late? Your usual hour used to be nine.”
“Yes, it used to be nine, but now I go at twelve.”
“Ah, I see: you have recently been made the head of a department. Since when?”
“Since Easter,” replied Sudbinski, with a meaning nod. “But what a lot of work! It is terrible! From eight to twelve in the morning I am slaving at home; from twelve to five at the Chancellory; and all the evening at home again. I have quite lost touch with my acquaintances.”
“Come and lunch with me to-day, and we will drink to your promotion,” said Oblomov.
“No, to-day I am lunching with the Vice-Director, as well as have a report to prepare by Thursday. You see, one cannot rely upon provincial advices, but must verify every return personally. Are you going to the Ekaterinhov to-day?”
“No, for I am not very well,” replied Oblomov, knitting his brows. “Moreover, like yourself, I have some work to do.”
“I am very sorry,” said Sudbinski; “for it is a fine day, and the only day on which I myself can hope for a little rest.”
“And what news have you?” asked Oblomov.
“Oh, a good deal–of a sort. We are required no longer to write at the end of our official letters ‘Your humble servant,’ but merely ‘Accept the assurance of my profound respect.’ Also we have been told that we are to cease to make out formal documents in duplicate. Likewise, our office has just been allotted three new tables and a couple of confidential clerks. Lastly, the Commission has now concluded its sittings.There’s a budget of news for you!”
“And what of our old comrades?”
“Nothing at present, except that Svinkin has lost his case.”
“And to think that you work from eight to twelve, and from twelve to five, and again in the evening! Dear, dear!”
“Well, what should I do if I were not in the Service?” asked Sudbinski.
“You would just read and write on your own account.”
“But it is not given to every one to be a littérateur. For example, you yourself write nothing.”
“No, for I have some property on my hands,” said Oblomov with a sigh. “But I am working out a new system for it; I am going to introduce reforms of various kinds. The affair worries me terribly.”
“Well, for my part, I must work, in order to make a little money. Besides, I am to be married this coming autumn.”
“Indeed! And to whom?”
“To Mademoiselle Murashina. Do you remember their country villa, next to mine? I think you came to tea with me and met her there?”
“No, I have no recollection of it. Is she pretty?
“Yes, charming. Suppose, one day, we go to lunch with her?”
Oblomov hesitated. “Very well,” he said after a pause; “only–”
“What about next week?”
“Certainly. Next week let it be. But at the moment I have no suitable clothes. . . . Is your fiancée a financial catch?”
“Yes, for her father is a State councillor, and intends to give her ten thousand roubles, as well as to let us have half his official house (a house of twelve rooms–the whole being furnished, heated, and lighted at the public expense); so we ought to do very well. Herewith I invite you to be my best man at the wedding.”
Once more the doorbell rang.
“Good-bye,” said Sudbinski. “I am annoyed that, as I surmise, I should be wanted at the office.”
“Then stay where you are,” urged Oblomov. “I desire your advice, for two misfortunes have just befallen me.”
“No, no; I had better come and see you another day.” And Sudbinski took his leave.
“Plunged up to the ears in work, good friend!” thought Oblomov as he watched him depart. “Yes, and blind and deaf and dumb to everything else in the world! Yet by going into society and, at the same time, busying yourself about your affairs you will yet win distinction and promotion. Such is what they call ‘a career’! Yet of how little use is a man like that! His intellect, his will, his feelings–what do they avail him? So many luxuries is what they are–nothing more. Such an individual lives out his little span without achieving a single thing worth mentioning; and meanwhile he works in an office from morning till night–yes, from morning till night, poor wretch!”
Certainly a modicum of quiet satisfaction was to be derived from the thought that from nine o’clock until three, and from eight o’clock until nine on the following day, he, Oblomov, could remain lying prone on a sofa instead of having to trot about with reports and to inscribe multitudes of documents. Yes, he preferred, rather, leisure for the indulgence of his feelings and imagination. Plunged in a philosophical reverie, he overlooked the fact that by his bedside there was standing a man whose lean, dark face was almost covered with a pair of whiskers, a moustache, and an imperial. Also the new-comer’s dress was studied in its negligence.
“Good morning, Oblomov,” he said.
“Good morning, Penkin,” was the response. “I should like to show you a letter which I have just received from my starosta. Whence have you sprung?”
“From the newsagent’s, near by. I went to see if the papers are yet out. Have you read my latest article?”
“Then you ought to do so.”
“What is it about?” Oblomov asked with a faint yawn.
“About trade, about the emancipation of women, about the beautiful April days with which we have been favoured, and about the newly formed fire-brigade. How come you not to have read that article? In it you will see portrayed the whole of our daily life. Over and above anything else, you will read therein an argument in favour of the present realistic tendency in literature.”
“And have you no other work on hand?” inquired Oblomov.
“Yes, a good deal. I write two newspaper articles a week, besides reviewing a number of books. In addition, I have just finished a tale of my own.”
“What is it about?”
“It tells how, in a certain town, the governor used to beat the citizens with his own hand.”
“The realistic tendency, right enough!” commented Oblomov.
“Quite so,” said the delighted litteérateur. “In my tale (which is novel and daring in its idea) a traveller witnesses a beating of this kind, seeks an interview with the governor of the province, and lays before him a complaint. At once the said governor of the province orders an official who happens to be proceeding to that town for the purpose of conducting another investigation to inquire also into the truth of the complaint just laid, and likewise to collect evidence as to the character and behaviour of the local administrator. The official in question calls together the local citizens, on the pretext of a trade conference, and incidentally sounds them concerning the other matter. And what do you suppose they do? They merely smile, present their compliments, and load the governor of the town with praises! Thereafter the official makes extraneous inquiries, and is informed that the said citizens are rogues who trade in rotten merchandise, give underweight, cheat the Treasury, and indulge in wholesale immorality; wherefore the beatings have been a just retribution.”
“Then you intend the assaults committed by the governor to figure in the story as the fatum of the old tragedians?”
“Quite so,” said Penkin. “You have great quickness of apprehension, and ought yourself to tackle the writing of stories. Yes, it has always been my idea to expose the arbitrariness of our local governors, the decline of morality among the masses, the faulty organization existing among our subordinate officials, and the necessity of drastic, but legal, measures to counterbalance these evils. ‘Tis a novel idea for a story, is it not?”
“Certainly; and to me who read so little a peculiarly novel one.”
“True, I have never once seen you with a book in your hand. Nevertheless, I beseech you to read a poem which, I may say, is shortly to appear. It is called ‘The Love of a Blackmailer for a Fallen Woman.’ The identity of the author I am not at liberty to disclose–at all events yet.”
“Pray give me an idea of this poem.”
“It exposes, as you will see, the whole mechanism of the social movement–but a mechanism that is painted only in poetic colours. Each spring of that engine is touched upon, and each degree of the social scale held up to the light. We see summoned to the bar, as it were, a weak, but vicious, lord, with a swarm of blackmailers who are engaged in cheating him. Also various categories of fallen women are dissected–French women, German women, and others; the whole being done with vivid and striking verisimilitude. Certain extracts from the poem have come to my ears, and I may say that the author is a great man–one hears in him the notes both of Dante and of Shakespeare.”
“And whence has he originated?” asked Oblomov, leaning forward in astonishment; but Penkin, perceiving that he had now said too much, merely repeated that Oblomov must read the poem, and judge for himself. This Oblomov declined to do.
“Why?” asked Penkin. “The thing will make a great stir and be much talked about.”
“Very well: let people talk. ‘Tis all some folks have to do. ‘Tis their métier.”
“Nevertheless, read it yourself, for curiosity’s sake.”
“What have I not seen in books!” commented the other. “Surely folk must write such things merely to amuse themselves?”
“Yes; even as I do. At the same time, what truth, what verisimilitude, do you not find in books! How powerfully some of them move one through the vivid portraiture which they contain! Whomsoever these authors take–a tchinovnik, an officer, or a blackmailer–they paint them as living creatures.”
“But what have those authors to worry about, seeing that if, as you say, one chooses to take a given model for amusement’s sake, the picture is sure to succeed? Yet no: real life is not to be described like that. In a system of that kind there is no understanding or sympathy, nor a particle of what we call humanity. ‘Tis all self-conceit–no more. Folk describe thieves and fallen women as though they were apprehending them in the streets and taking them to prison. Never in the tales of such writers is the note of ‘hidden tears’ to be detected–only that of gross, manifest malice and love of ridicule.”
“And what more would you have? You yourself have said (and very aptly so) that seething venom, a taste for bilious incitement to vice, and a sneering contempt for the fallen are the only ingredients needed.”
“No, not the only ones,” said Oblomov, firing up. “Picture a thief or a fallen woman or a cheated fool, if you like, but do not forget the rest of mankind. What about humanity, pray? Writers like yourself try to write only with the head. What? Do you suppose the intellect can work separately from the heart? Why, the intellect needs love to fertilize it. Rather, stretch out your hand to the fallen and raise him, weep over him if he is lost beyond recall, but in no case make sport of him, for he is one to whom there should be extended only compassion. See in him yourself, and act accordingly. That done, I will read you, and bow my head before you. But in the writings of the school of which I have spoken, what art, what poetical colouring, are you able to discover? Should you elect to paint debauchery and the mire, at least do so without making any claim to poetry.”
“What? You bid me depict nature–roses, nightingales, a winter’s morning, and all that sort of thing–when things like these are seething and whirling around us? Nay, we need, rather, the bare physiology of society. No longer are love songs required.”
“Give me man, and man alone,” said Oblomov. “And, having given me him, do you try to love him.”
“What? To love the usurer, the hypocrite, the peculating and stupid official? Why should I do that? ‘Tis evident you have had little experience of literature! Such fellows want punishing–want turning out of the civic circle and the community.”
“Out of ‘the civic circle and the community,’ you say?” ejaculated Oblomov with a gasp as he rose and stood before Penkin. “That is tantamount to saying that once in that faulty vessel there dwelt the supreme element–that, ruined though the man may be, he is still a human being, as even are you and I. Turn him out, indeed! How are you going to turn him out of the circle of humanity, out of the bosom of Nature, out of the mercy of God?” Oblomov came near to shouting as he said this, and his eyes were blazing.
“How excited you have grown!” said Penkin in astonishment; whereupon even Oblomov realized that he had gone too far. He pulled himself up, yawned slightly, and stretched himself out sluggishly upon the sofa. For a while silence reigned.
“What kind of books do you mostly read?” inquired Penkin.
“Books of travel,” replied Oblomov.
Again there was a silence.
“And will you read the poem when it has come out?” continued Penkin. “If so, I will bring you a copy of it.”
Oblomov shook his head.
“Nor my story?”
Oblomov signified assent.
“Very well, then. Now I must be off to press,” continued Penkin. “Do you know why I came to see you to-day? I came because I wanted to propose to you a visit to the Ekaterinhov. I have a conveyance of my own, and, inasmuch as, to-morrow, I must write an article on current events, I thought we might jointly look over my notes on the subject, and you might advise me as to any point omitted. We should enjoy the expedition, I think. Let us go.”
“No, I am not well,” said Oblomov with a frown, covering himself with the bed-clothes. “But you might come and lunch with me to-day, and then talk. I have just experienced a couple of misfortunes.”
“Ah! The whole of our staff is to lunch at St. George’s, I fear, and then to go on to the festival. Also, at night I have my article to write, and the printer must receive the manuscript by daylight at the latest. Good-bye!”
“At night I have my article to write,” mused Oblomov after his friend’s departure. “Then when does he sleep? However, he is making some five thousand roubles a year, so his work is so much bread and butter to him. Yet to think of being continually engaged in writing, in wasting one’s intellect upon trifles, in changing one’s opinions, in offering one’s brain and one’s imagination for sale, in doing violence to one’s own nature, in giving way to ebullitions of enthusiasm–and the whole without a single moment’s rest, or the calling of a single halt! Yes, to think of being forced to go on writing, writing, like the wheel of a machine–writing to-morrow, writing the day after, writing though the summer is approaching and holidays keep passing one by! Does he never stop to draw breath, the poor wretch?” Oblomov glanced at the table, where everything lay undisturbed, and the ink had become dried up, and not a pen was to be seen; and as he looked he rejoiced to think that he was lying there as careless as a newborn baby–not worrying at all, nor seeking to offer anything for sale.
“But what of the starosta’s letter and the notice to quit?” Yes, suddenly he had remembered these things; and once more he became absorbed in thought.
Again the doorbell rang.
“Why is every one seeking me out to-day?” he wondered as he waited to see who next should enter. This time the new-comer proved to be a man of uncertain age–of the age when it is difficult to guess the exact number of years. Also, he was neither handsome nor ugly, neither tall nor short, neither fair nor dark. In short, he was a man whom Nature had dowered with no sharp-cut, distinguishing features, whether good or bad, mental or physical.
“Ha!” said Oblomov as he greeted him. “So it is you, Alexiev? Whence are you come?”
“To tell the truth, I had not thought to call upon you to-day,” replied the visitor, “but by chance I met Ovchinin, and he carried me off to his quarters, whither I, in my turn, have now come to convey you.”
“To convey me to, to–?”
“To Ovchinin’s. Already Alianov, Pchailo, and Kolimiagin are there.”
“But why have they collected together? And what do they want with me?”
“Ovchinin desires you to lunch with him, and then to accompany him and the rest of us to the Ekaterinhov. Likewise he has instructed me to warn you to hire a conveyance. Come, get up! ‘Tis fully time you were dressed.”
“How am I to dress? I have not yet washed myself.”
“Then do so at once.”
With that Alexiev fell to pacing the room. Presently he halted before a picture which he had seen a thousand times before; then he glanced once or twice out of the window, took from a whatnot an article of some sort, turned it over in his hands, looked at it from every point of view, and replaced the same. That done, he resumed his pacing and whistling–the whole being designed to avoid hindering Oblomov from rising and performing his ablutions. Ten minutes passed.
“What is the matter with you?” asked Alexiev suddenly.
“What is the matter with me?”
“I mean, why are you still in bed?”
I cannot tell you. Is it really necessary that I should get up?”
“Of course it is necessary, for they are waiting for us. Besides, you said that you would like to go.”
“To go where? I have no such desire.”
“Only this moment you said we would go and lunch at Ovchinin’s, and then proceed to the Ekaterinhov!”
“No, I cannot. It would mean my going out into the damp. Besides, rain is coming on. The courtyard looks quite dark.”
“As a matter of fact, not a single cloud is in the sky, and the courtyard looks dark only because you never have your windows washed.”
“Well, well!” said Oblomov. ” By the way, have I yet told you of my misfortunes–of the letter from my starosta, and of the notice given me to quit this flat?”
“No,” answered Alexiev. “What about the letter?
The document not being immediately forthcoming, Zakhar was summoned to search for it; and after it had been discovered beneath the counterpane Oblomov read it to his friend–though passing over certain greetings, added to inquiries as to the recipient’s health. The gist of the epistle was that the bulk of the crops on Oblomov’s estate were likely to fail for want of rain.
“Never mind,” said Alexiev. “One must never give way to despair.”
“And what would you do in my place?”
“I should first of all consider matters. Never ought one to come to a hasty decision.”
Crumpling the letter in his hands, Oblomov leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, and remained in that posture for a considerable time–his brain flooded with disturbing reflections.
“I wish Schtoltz would come!” at length he remarked. “He has written that he is about to do so, but God knows what has happened to him! He could solve the situation.”
Suddenly the doorbell rang with such vehemence that both men started, and Zakhar came hurrying out of his pantry.
Excerpted from Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov, first published in 1859.