August 5, 2009
This intimately funny and desperately sad novel opens with a parade of visitors to Ilya Ilich Oblomov’s Petersburg flat. Most of them are introduced, in this new translation, by the phrase “in walked”, which creates a wonderful sense of flatness, repetition and invasion. All but one of the visitors are busy in some way or other, full of talk of the world, parties, work, the latest literary news. . . The very descriptions of these people make us tired, setting us up for a largely (although not entirely) disreputable identification with the book’s slothful hero. Other translations describe his favourite posture as lying down, but Marian Schwartz boldly goes for “recumbence”, with its suggestion of ornate Latin repose:
For Ilya Ilich, recumbence was neither a necessity, as it would be for an ill or sleepy man, nor an occasional occurrence, as for someone who was weary, nor a pleasure, as for a lazy man; it was his normal state.
. . . Oblomov is not exactly a person, and this is only partly a psychological novel. . . the story of his non-life and real death, his long kindness to himself, is really the story of a series of stances and occasions, human possibilities squandered and slept through. . . The writing here. . . offers a fine example of sly and compassionate satire, a very rare genre indeed.
To get your own taste of “Oblomovshchina”, pick up a copy of Oblomov in hardcover from Seven Stories Press — and for those who find the idea of lifting a hardcover book far too stressful, try the paperback edition of Marian Schwartz’s authoritative translation, available next year from Yale University Press.