Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Top ten overlooked novels

John Sutherland is Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London. He has written many books and articles on a variety of subjects - but mostly concentrating on Victorian fiction, the history of publishing, and twentieth-century fiction.

For the Guardian he named a top ten list of overlooked novels, including:
Oblomov, Ivan Goncharov, 1859

For my money (six shillings, when I first bought the Penguin Classic in 1957) the most enjoyable, and saddest, novel ever written. In the late 1940s – a peculiarly frantic period of British life – the critic VS Pritchett wrote a witty piece revolving around the paradox of what he called "the Russian day". It must have been longer than our 24 GMT hours, Pritchett speculated. Russian upper classes seemed – if Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Turgenev were to be believed – to have so much burdensome time on their hands. Clocks moved slower; weeks dragged; months crawled under the vast Russian skies and across the endless steppes. Life, for the Sashas, Pierres and Myshkins, seemed permanently on hold.

Goncharov's novel is set in the period shortly before the emancipation of the serfs – a period in which, as in the antebellum American south ("Peel me a grape, Beulah"), serfdom has rotted all willpower in the serf-owning class. Goncharov eponymously calls the Russian disease "Oblomovitis". Oblomov is "a gentleman by birth and a collegiate secretary by rank" who could more accurately be called an upper-class layabout. Lying about is, in fact, his main occupation in life. He can barely be bothered to get out of bed (where he's discovered as the story opens), unless it's to lumber across to his sofa and pass the day there, dressing-gowned, doing nothing other than wait for bedtime to roll round. He lives on the revenue of an estate, a thousand miles away from St Petersburg. The estate is worm-holed by parasites more energetic than he can be bothered to be. Oblomov does not care. No landlord is more absentee.

The novel describes, at extraordinary length, the Oblomovian day. He eats voraciously and unmercifully nags his luckless serf, Zakhar, who has "boundless loyalty" to the master whom nonetheless (like everyone else) he cheats whenever he can. Friends call. Oblomov never calls back.

This "sublime sluggard", as Pritchett calls him, is contemptible but lovable, and even – in a perverse way – admirable. He embodies "the poetry of procrastination". In the climax (so to miscall it) of Goncharov's narrative – after nothing happening apart from gorging, loafing, bickering, not working and not marrying (his friend gets the girl, Olga) – Oblomov is found, years on, now living in reduced circumstances in the country, still loafing, still scoffing, still serenely at peace with his world. He is stuffed, nowadays, on homelier fare than in St Petersburg, by his housekeeper, Agafya, who treats him rather as French peasants might do a particularly valued Strasbourg goose. Oblomov has a stroke and is paralysed (had he ever been anything else?) and five slow years later dies, well short of the statutory three-score-and-10; although doubtless his lifespan felt positively Methuselean to him. Boredom makes life longer.

Oblomov's departure happens off-stage. One cannot call it an "event". In a sense it can barely be said to happen. So torpid is his life in his final years that it is indistinguishable from rigor mortis. He drifts out of life as he drifted into it, and through it, leaving nothing behind him but a word, "Oblomovitis". His monument.

The novel can be read as a parable of Russia in terminal pre-revolutionary decay. Or it can be read as high comedy (which is how Spike Milligan travestied it in his long-running 1960s stage version). Or one can read Oblomov as a profound allegory of the human condition. "Oblomov? C'est moi."

Keynote line: VS Pritchett catches the charm of this novel, and of the long-day fiction of Goncharov and his ilk. It can stand as the novel's keynote line: "In all those Russian novels we seem to hear a voice saying: 'The meaning of life? One day all that will be revealed to us – probably on a Thursday.'"
Read about the other entries on the list. 

Oblomov is among Alexandra Silverman's eight top examples of sloth in literature, Francine du Plessix Gray's five favorite fictional portraits of idleness and lassitude and Emrys Westacott's five best books on bad habits.

The Page 69 Test: Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov.

--Marshal Zeringue