Monday, 21 January 2013

Book of the month: Oblomov

After dozens of young adult dystopias of dubious quality my mind craved something slow and peaceful, so I rummaged through my bookshelves and took out Goncharov's Oblomov. Some people say that it is the best Russian nineteenth-century novel, and after I have re-read it again, I think I agree. It's not half as famous as Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy or even Turgenev, but it has qualities none of these have.

We had to read it in school, when I was fifteen, and even though there was plenty of love the rest was boring, almost as boring as the war bits in War and Peace. From my vantage point it's almost criminal to make or even encourage kids to read books they cannot appreciate. I read War and Peace when I was thirteen - what did I understand? With Oblomov, we learned in school that he was an example of degraded Russian upper class that oppressed peasants and was doomed to die out.

Many years later, in Sweden, I was asked to teach a course in classic Russian literature in my department, Comparative Literature, not for Slavic students. As I was selecting required reading I decided to give Oblomov a chance, because all sources mentioned it as a great novel. And yes, it was great. And my students liked it, all 600 pages of it. And we had great discussions.

Then I wrote about it in my postdoc comparative-semiotic project on Swedish and Russian literature. I compared Oblomov with Gösta Berling. Both are good-for-nothing, and both are in passing described in their respective novels as poets, although neither has written a line of poetry.They are themselves embodied poetry.

This was a very long time ago, and when I re-read the book now, I read it very slowly, savouring every word of this magnificent prose. I had of course forgotten most of it, including the fact that Oblomov has a child. No man or woman can be said to have lived in vain if they have a child. I was also reading, although I tried very hard not to, through my new professional eyeglasses, through empathy and cognitive engagement. Yet twenty years ago I already asked myself: if Oblomov is so depraved, why do we like him? Why does Olga love him? Why does Stolz love him? Why does his servant love him? Why does his landlady love him? Why is this good-for-nothing so immensely lovable? Why do I feel real pain reading about him? (Ok, cogntitive poetics can describe it all by mirror neurons, but that's not the point).

And then I noticed a detail that I had missed on all previous readings. I have always been curious about sexual life of classic novel males. There are secondary characters who have mistresses, go to prostitutes or have fun with maids. But the romantic hero is immaculate. This has always felt implausible. Oblomov is thirty two in the beginning of the novel. Virgin? Rich, upper-class male? No way. But of course nineteenth-century authors would not provide any information about their heroes' sexual experience. So I thought. But just because I read very, very slowly, I caught a phrase in the middle of one of Oblomov's many self-flagellating monologues. He says that he has wasted his life, neglected his property, spent half of his income on Mina... wait a minute... who is Mina? She is never mentioned again, but obviously she used to be important enough to spend half an income on. Mina is not a Russian name so the lady in question was a foreigner. An actress? A governess? An expensive cocotte? This little clause throws a whole new light on Oblomov. Was he as obsessed about Mina as Swann about Odette? What happened? It is beyond the page, and fictional characters have no life beyond the page, but for some reason the author decided that this detail was important.

I am sure Slavic scholars have published articles on the mysterious Mina, and there are a couple of PhD theses written about her. But I have just discovered her. She does not feature in Oblomov's dreams or memories. But somewhere deep inside she is omnipresent.

When I make discoveries like this, I wonder how much else I miss in my reading.


Peter said...

I just finished Oblomov this week, and must admit that in the midst of all his rambling I didn't notice Nina, so thanks for bringing that up. It is indeed pretty essential. Fortunately there's google books, giving me a second chance:

Peter said...

That should be Mina, not Nina, of course