Digital Oblomov

A digital companion to Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov

To A.A. Kraevsky

Andrey Aleksandrovich Kraevsky (1810-1889) was at the time the publisher and editor of National annals, to which Oblomov was “promised” and which would publish it ten years later.

Simbirsk, 25 September 1849

My dear Andrey Aleksandrovic,

You have probably been thinking until now that I had disappeared without a trace, so I am sending you my latest news- but, unfortunately, no novel. I am aware that I have a lot to answer for, and furthermore that the excuses I can offer in my own defense will probably seem inadequate to anyone except myself. Who needs to know that I cannot just dash something off when I happened to have a day or hour free, that things get worked out in my head slowly and painfully, finally that, as the years go by, I am struck less and less with the desire to write- and that without this I will never write anything? I came here thinking that the quiet and free time would allow me to continue the work I had begun, and with which you are already familiar [i.e., Oblomov]. That might have been the case, had the work itself allowed me to continue it. On carefully rereading what was already written, however, I realized that it was all trite in the extreme, that I had taken the wrong approach to my subject, that one thing needed to be edited, another omitted entirely- in short, that my work was practically worthless….

So this is the sad state I now find myself in. I would have written you about it a long time ago, but I continued to hope that I would manage to get something done. I locked myself in my room every morning to work, but despite painful effort everything would turn out wordy and unpolished, like so much raw materials. The day kept passing, and now suddenly I am leaving for Petersburg the day after tomorrow with nothing but a dubious hope for future productivity- dubious because in Petersburg once again I won’t be free during the mornings, and, finally, because I fear that with age I may have actually lost the ability to writer.

Anyway, in order to assuage my guilt a little, I am prepared if you wish to surrender the beginning of my novel- as bad as it is- by the first of the year. In this case, however, I would work on it no further, since any continuation would demand a new beginning, as well….

To E.V. Tolstaya

Elizaveta Vasil’evna Tolstaya (1829-1877) was a friend of the Maikovs and a subject of Goncharov’s strong attachment in the mid-1850s on his return from the Frigate Pallas voyage. She married Alexander Musin-Pushkin in 1857.

Petersburg, 31 December 1855

…You ask about my novel-ah, you’re not the only one! My editors are even worse than you with their questions, and there are three of them at once, so that even if I were to finish it and manage to satisfy one, I still don’t know how I would be rid of the other two. Anyway, there is still no sign of a novel. An expedition report, a travel log, yes – but not a novel:  this demands auspicious, even fortuitous, conditions. The imagination, whose involvement is as essential to writing a novel as it is to a poem, is like a flower that blooms sweetly in the sun’s rays- it needs the ray of … good fortune to blossom. But where can I find them? Mine have faded, old age is covering my eyes like a hat pulled down too far. Melancholy has been gnawing at me to the point of physical illness- and meanwhile I am bound for hectic, intense work. How to get out of it I don’t know- I’d like to run away from both responsibilities and people, but I can’t. The matter of my position [i.e., as a censor] should be decided next month- there will probably be a vacancy…

To I.U. D. Efremova

Iunya Dmitrievna Efremova was niece of Ekaterina Maikova and, together, with her aunt and Sofya Nikitenko, among the closest of Goncharov’s female friends.

Marienbad, 29 July 1857

… Well then, listen to this: I arrived here on June 21 by the Russian calendar. Now it’s July 29 and I have finished the first and second parts of Oblomov, and have written a good bit for the third- so I can see the end in the distance through the trees. It must seem strange- even impossible- that almost a whole novel could be written in a month. But you must remember that, in the first place, it had been ripening in my mind for many years- practically all that was left for me to do was write it down; second, it’s not done yet; third, it will require considerable editing; and, finally, fourth, perhaps I have written a heap of rubbish good only for immolation. Then again, perhaps- God willing- it will be good for something besides that, so I won’t throw it into the fire yet. I would gladly stay here another month, because I know that after I leave I will no longer be able to devote myself exclusively to writing. However, I am not staying because, even despite my other work, it won’t be difficult to complete the unfinished portion of the novel in Petersburg. The main thing, the part that called for peaceful solitude and excitement- to wit, the woman whom it was my main goal to depict, the heart and soul of the novel- is written; Oblomov’s love story is finished. Whether it is good or bad is not for me to decide…. For my part, I did the best I could. Now that this is all over, thought, I will never write anything again. And don’t you dare say that I will –shame on you! I’m worn out enough as it is.

To I.I. Lkhovsky

Ivan Ivanovich Lkhovsky (1829-1867) also worked for the Ministry of Finances and was one of Goncharov’s closest friends. Goncharov served in many ways as the mentor for Lkhovsky who had writing ambitions for his own. In 1859 he even followed in Goncharov’s footsteps and took a round-the-world voyage.

Marienbad, 2 August 1857

… around the 25th or 26th I inadvertently opened Oblomov and caught fire: by the 31st this hand had written forty-seven pages! I have edited and finished the first part, written the second, and made quite a dent in the third….            

I do not know if I have recovered fully, only that I have around three weeks of intense work left before I finish Oblomov. I’ve had my nose to the grindstone a long time already. The courtly love poem is all done- it took up a lot of time and space. I must seem odd: how could someone suddenly finish in one month something he was unable to finish for years? To this I response that if it hadn’t been for those years nothing would have been written in that month. The fact is that the novel, down to its smallest scenes and details, burst forth all at once-all that was left was to write it down. I wrote as though taking dictation. Really – a lot of it simply appeared, unconsciously: someone invisible sat next to me and told me what to write. For example, in my plan for the novel I had envisioned a passionate woman, but my pencil completely altered this central attribute and filled in the rest accordingly. Thus a different figure emerged…. I worry sometimes that I don’t have a single real-life type in the novel, only ideal people. Is that all right? At the same time, I do not need real types to express my main idea- indeed they would deflect me from my purpose. Or rather I need a huge talent like Gogol’s to rein in both the real and the ideal. My fears that my style is too simple, that I cannot write a la Turgenev, subsided when the whole picture of Oblomov began to come into focus: I realized that the point isn’t my style but the integrity of the whole construction. It was as though a large city came into my view; the reader is placed where he can observe this city in its entirety, and he looks for its edges and center, tries to see how its outskirts relate to the city as a whole, where its towers and parks are located – but does not bother with whether the buildings are of stone or brick, whether the roofing material is smooth, what shape the windows are, etc., etc. This grand fairly tale should make an impression, I think, but what kind and how deep- I cannot yet tell. Perhaps the protagonist is incomplete- one or another side of him not sufficiently developed, a good deal left unsaid- but I am already comfortable even with this. What is the reader for, anyway? Is he really such a moron that he cannot fill in the rest based on the author’s main idea? … The author’s task is to suggest the character’s prevailing disposition; the rest is up to the reader….

I am not flapping my wings about like some rooster, though, crowing about my brilliant success when I do not know on what dunghill I will land …. I’ll probably be so ashamed of it that I’ll have to keep it [the novel] under wraps. Take, for example, the woman Oblomov is in love with, Olga Sergeyevna Illyinskaya: she may be such a hideous outcome of a listless, spent imagination that she ought to be changed completely or gotten rid of altogether. I don’t know myself what to do with her. At first she seemed an icon of simplicity and virtue- but later, it would appear, that image rupture and disintegrated. I don’t know –perhaps that is all very silly. I am at a loss; sometimes I just want to leave right away for Lausanne, or Bern, or Vevey, lock myself up for another month there, then return and tell everyone, “I’ve finished, understand? Finished!” I can already hear your diffident words, can imagine you treating me to delicious, tender praise one teaspoon at a time, Turgenev’s bear hugs, and the tacit, suppressed irritation of those people who hate to see others succeed. But I view this happy scene as a dream unlikely to come true…. And it is terrifying to think how much is left to edit; the only comfort is that editing is not real work but pleasure. How on earth did this happen? How did I- an exhausted, hardened man indifferent to everything, even his own success- suddenly resume a project I had given up on? I could hardly contain my excitement: my head was pounding, Louisa [his maid] would find me in tears, I would pace the floor like a madman, couldn’t feel my legs under me as I ran through the hills and woods. Even when I was young, nothing like this ever happened to me. Alas, however, there is a simple explanation. Marienbad water is terrifically stimulating; this is why they give it to people suffering from high blood pressure only with great discretion and in very small amounts. Others drink six glasses as day, but my doctor has ordered me to take only three. Not long ago I read in Frankel’s book that the water here, among its properties, “disposes one toward intellectual and spiritual activity.” So that’s the secret. Add to that the wonderful air, exercise until five each day, a stable diet, and not a trace of wine or vodka, and you’ll understand how something that didn’t get written in eight years wrote itself in one month ….

To S.A. Nikitenko

Sofya Aleksandrovna Nikitenko (1840-1901), a daughter of Alexander Nikitenko, a professor of literature at Petersburg University and Goncharov’s fellow censor. Sofya Nikitendo was a professional translator and often helped Goncharov with his manuscripts.

Marienbad, 15 August 1857

… I stayed on in Marienbad ten days after my treatment ended in order to finish all of Oblomov- and I did it! This was also a treatment of sorts, and I don’t know which results will be better- perhaps neither one. But I have done everything humanly possible. In less than two months I’ve written sixty-two pages, and still have to finish the last two scenes- the final farewell of Oblomov and his friend, and a short conclusion where I’ll tell what becomes of all the main characters in the novel. The scenes are already in draft form and could be finished in three or four sittings. But a couple of days ago the intensity of my writing made me ill…[so] I packed up the manuscript in my suitcase until Paris or Petersburg. There’s still a mountain of work: first, I have to refine certain characters and scenes- even though many of them simply poured out of me and won’t require much effort, and others I’ve managed to work on here. Then I have to decide if  all this is any good, and if so, how good. I cannot make this determination on my own, and need my friends; advice- yours, of course, more than anyone else’s. I am afraid of one thing: what if, say, you resent the thought of being my tutor and refuse….

I’ve been so immersed in my work that I’ve written more in the last two months than any other man would have in two lifetimes. Now I am craving some peace and quiet…

To I.U. D. Efremova

Dresden, 11 September 1857

… The reason I didn’t go to Switzerland is simple: laziness… I’d rather just lie on my couch. I’m tired of unpacking, packing, rushing, and haven’t the slightest curiosity about anything: id don’t care at this point whether I see another sight or not. Your hopes that a trip abroad would revive  me, that I would snap out of my melancholy and write the whole time (since you say writing is my calling and all that)- these hopes were in vain. Just because I’ve written a novel that had been in my head for a long time doesn’t mean that I can write anything else. I’d been living with that novel for ten years, ever since I was a young man- I couldn’t possibly have thought up everything there all at once. Besides, I can say honestly and without the slightest affectation that the novel is not nearly as good as could have been expected from me judging by my previous work. It’s cold, listless, and strongly smacks of an assigned project. Perhaps if I had six months to work on refining it I might have improved it somewhat, but as it is I’ll just have to lump it together somehow. My melancholy follows me everywhere, and now it’s no longer even melancholy but old age. What do you want from me: rejuvenation and blossoming? You are not suggesting I should marry, are you? Melancholy and peevishness are the only natural consequences of one’s life experience and advanced years…

To L.N. Tolstoy

Petersburg, 4 December 1858

Most gracious and esteemed Lev Nikolaevich,

I arrived at Maikov’s as he was finishing this letter, and requested a bit of space in which to recall myself to you and remind you of your promise that you would come to Petersburg and bring a little something new with you. We are all expecting you- and from you- very much…. As always, you are sorely missed here, your name uttered at every gathering as if part of the roll call. We’re expecting many changes in literary censorship, but I am not going to describe them- the sooner, perhaps, you will be moved to come here…. Oh, Lev Nikolaevich, how we need the addition of your voice to current literature!… The year 1859 promises a kind of renewed refinement in taste; may God grant it be a happy one not for the peasants alone….I have [a] request for you:… Do not read the first part of Oblomov, if you have time, however, please do read the second and third, which were written much later. Part I, on the other hand, was written in 1849 and is no good.

To I.I. Lkhovsky

Petersburg, 5 November 1858

I recently read a highly favorable review of The Frigate Pallas in Athenaeum, where the author shows how foolish to invent literature especially for children when it already exists and is readily available in literature written for adults- and cites as examples Aksakov’s Childhood Years of Bagrov Grandson, Turgenev’s Bezhin Meadow, “Oblomov’s Dream,” The Frigate Pallas, and something of Grigorovich’s….

Now I am enjoying my last month of freedom: in December they’ll begin copyediting… the first part of Oblomov. Recently I sat down to reread the latter and was horrified. In the last ten years I haven’t read anything worse, weaker or paler than the first half of part I: it’s awful! I spent the next several days in a row shoveling out the muck, and there’s still a good deal of it left! Reading the final scene between Oblomov and his servant, I was struck by the same thought you were; oh, if only other would understand it this way!

To I.I. Lkhovsky

Petersburg, 17 September 1858

… Thank you again for your suggestions for the novel. Many of them were invaluable and I followed them to the letter- all, that is, except for the major ones, for which I have no energy. Also, I rewrote the “Stolz and Olga in Paris” chapter, which seemed as awkward to my listeners as it did to you…

To P.V. Annenkov

Pavel Vasil’evich Annenkov (1813-1887) was a critic, a biographer of Pushkin, and a close friend of Turgenev.

Petersburg, 20 May 1859

… Are you getting any journals? Please have a look at Dobrolyubov’s article on Oblomov. It seems to me that after this there’s nothing left to say on the topic of what “Oblomvitis” is. No doubt he foresaw this and rushed to get his article into print before anyone else. He amazed me with two of his observations: he has a keen awareness of the artist’s creative process. How could he possibly know this, not being an artist himself? … I did not expect such sympathy, such a sensitive reading from him- I had judged him to be much dryer. But perhaps I’m biased in his favor now, since the article as a whole is very good for me.

In spite of all this, I’d still like to see your review of the novel…- you have a uniquely subtle approach, and, what is more, your articles do not have a formal, journalistic air…. It is not as though I would count on your resounding approval, since you gave the novel the coldest reception of anyone to whom I read it.  I would like your critique because you always manage to notice something that evades others. Besides, I have been listening eagerly to all the responses to my novel, good or bad, useful or useless, because I myself still do not have a clear sense of what I have written.