In 1971, as he was about to leave the country, my American literature teacher, David Walker, hosted me at his inner city Christchurch flat for an evening of talking books and drinking wine. He’d just returned from a staff farewell and invited me round to say goodbye – or rather, I’d invited myself. I’d loved his poetry course, quoting Whitman, Dickinson, and Allen Ginsberg’s America, complete with the F-bomb, or atom bomb, take your pick. That a lecturer would even say “fuck” in a classroom, let alone call that language literature, poetry, was a revelation back then.
After he left the country, I pursued him by letter, someone who had read my prentice poems when badgered, was a poet himself, and was prepared to stay in touch, which we did, on and off until his early death in 2008, aged sixty-six. Among the many things he taught me, and shared, was an early list of recommended readings in poetry and prose; these to be considered, if I wanted to learn something of what it takes to write and write well.
That’s how I came across Goncharov’s Oblomov; amongst the many tips he gave me, it was the one I have been slowest to take up. I read many others, and did try once back then to get into this novel, but was too green, too immature I guess, to be needful of the Russian’s gift. I never forgot his recommendations, and years later, in Cambridge, wandering the university city, I found a secondhand bookshop and bought the 1954 Penguin Classic edition, translated by none other than the wonderful David Magarshack, the brilliant Jewish linguist who had emigrated to the UK in the 1920 from Riga, in what was then, Russia.
I was already in this translator’s debt, having read his renderings of Gogol and Dostoevsky years earlier; his move to England ensured that he would escape an almost certain fate at the hands of the Nazi invaders in 1941, and their very willing anti-Semitic Latvian collaborators. So here was a brand plucked from the fire indeed, and now I had my Goncharov.
For whatever reason, in June of 1992 and onward, Oblomov – fittingly – slumbered unread, comfortable in our London bookshelves, hidden deep with hundreds of other volumes that were packed into deep cartons and shipped back to New Zealand five years later. There he remained until liberated to more comfortable sleeping quarters on bookshelves in two more houses, for thirty years more, until yesterday. Truly, a book has seldom matched it contents with its travels and domicile.
This sleeping giant has now been rescued for me by the work of another Jewish man of letters – the Viennese polymath Egon Friedell – whose Cultural History of the Modern Age: the Crisis of the European Soul (Volume 111) has also been liberated from a shorter, but equally deep slumber, wherein I recognised the name “Oblomov”, as I was scanning the sub-headings of Chapter III. This amazing man, sadly, did not escape the Nazis and accelerated what was undoubtedly his fate, by leaping from his upper story window in Vienna in March, 1938, as the SA knocked on his door downstairs.
Friedell’s discussion of Goncharov’s creation centres on his assertion that the aim of the novel is “the revelation of Oblomovstchina, Oblomovism” wherein Goncharov has presented Russia, “an entire nation with a national hero embodied in a poetic symbol. Oblomov is more than an immortal human being, he is the diagram of the race. He is, and the burden of this fact so weighs on him that it does not permit him to arrive at action” (165). Oblomov is frozen into inaction and immobility, yet his “blank slate” allows all the other visitors to his bedside where he hides, to reveal their their inner worlds of vanity, ambition, and greed.
Oblomov is no saint, but his apparent sloth allows Goncharov to mirror and reveal the soul of Russia, page by page. I see this only now, that I have – at last, like a sleeping giant myself, in my seventy fourth year unto heaven – begun to read the book. Not that I have gone far enough – at page thirty seven – to venture much more than some tentative observations, but even one of the early exchanges between our sleeper and the visiting writer, Penkin tells us that we are – in Goncharov – in the presence of genius.
Penkin is a cruel, self-satisfied satirist of those beneath him, and in his critique of such “realism” (mirroring Goncharov’s views, I’m sure), Oblomov skewers those such as his visitor, who have no “true understanding (of life), no true sympathy, nothing of what one can call real humanity”. Penkin enjoys putting the boot into “thieves and fallen women”, and Oblomov is merciless. “What you feel in their stories is not ‘invisible tears’, but visible, coarse laughter and spitefulness” (35).
The charge sheet drawn up by the bed-ridden Oblomov is all to do with a lack of humanity,”you want to write with your head only” (he) almost hissed. “Love him”, he chides Penkin, “he is a man like you”. Such writers, says Oblomov “forget the human being, or are incapable of describing him”. To such descriptions of vice and filth as Penkin revels in, his increasingly exasperated friend lashes out: “please don’t pretend that your exposures have anything to do with poetry”.
Then comes what I consider at this early stage in my reading journey what may well be Goncharov’s credo, uttered in frustration by his powerful creation: “Give me man – man!” Oblomov said. “Love him!” Penkin can’t understand this at all, and persists in demanding punishment to be visited upon his own unfortunate creations, these fallen people who should be treated as outcasts in society.
This is way too much for Oblomov, so much so, he jumps to his feet and confronts the other man. “Cast him out! And how do you propose to cast him out from human society, from nature, from the mercy of God!”, he almost shouted, his eyes blazing (36). Penkin tells him he’s going a bit too far and Oblomov, seeing this, comes to himself, his more usual type; he yawns, lies back on the couch and both men lapse into silence. Order is restored, but everything between them is changed.
I have read this passage several times since this morning, copied and printed it off, underlining in yellow marker some of what is quoted above. What happened today is that fifty years after David Walker pointed me towards this Russian genius, I’ve finally taken the hint – and not a moment to soon. We may be weak and dilatory beings in our lifetime of wanderings around the room, the house, the street, the city and the world, but great literature always remains and if we are fortunate – not clever, not wise, but fortunate – we may find it before its too late.