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Ivan (Aleksandrovich) Goncharov (1812-1891)


Russian writer, who is best-known for his humorous novel Oblomov (1859), a leading work in Russian Realism. Oblomov is a young, generous nobleman, who is incapable of action or decision making and rarely leaves his room or his bed. Goncharov's book was considered a satirical portrait of the Russian aristocracy, who no longer had a useful role in society. Goncharov published only three novels. During the later period of his career, he was criticized as "reactionary".

"All his anxiety resolved itself into a sigh and dissolved into apathy and drowsiness." (from Oblomov)

Ivan Goncharov (also written Gontsharov) was born in Simbirsk (now Ulyanovsk), the son of a wealthy grain merchant. Later the poet Lermontov said, that in the sleepy town even the Volga rolled slower and smoother. Goncharov's father died in 1819 and young Ivan was raised by his godfather, Nikolai Tregubov, a liberal-minded aristocrat. He studied at a commercial school (1822-30), and at the University of Moscow. Known for his retiring personality and too skeptical and materialistic, Goncharov did not join the student circles, with their faith to ideals of German Romantic philosophy.

After graduating in 1834, Goncharov served nearly 30 years as a government official. While working at the foreign trade office in St. Petersburg, he met the poet Apollon Maikov and his brother Valerian, who encouraged Goncharov in his writing aspirations. Goncharov's first novel, A Common Story (1847), about the clash between the decaying Russian nobility and the new merchant classes, appeared in the highly influential periodical The Contemporary. Eventually the protagonist, a young idealist, adopts his uncle's disillusioned view of the world. This novel was followed in 1848 by Ivan Savvich Podzhabrin, a psychological sketch in the naturalist manner. The Contemporary had been founded by Pushkin, and after Nikolay Nekrasov, and Ivan Panayev bought the periodical, they started to publish in it radical fiction. After censorship started to tighten its grip, the paper was closed in 1866.

Goncharov began his second novel, Oblomov, in the late 1840s, but the work was interrupted. According to Count Uspensky at that time "one could not move, one could not even dream; it was dangerous to give any sign of thought..." Between the years 1852 and 1855 Goncharov made a voyage to England, Africa, Japan, and back to Russia via Siberia as the secretary of Admiral Putyatin. After returning to St. Petersburg, Goncharov accepted a position in the censorship - a decision which other writers found difficult to swallow. Though he had been sympathetic to the progressive ideas of Belinsky in his youth, he was basically a "liberal conservative," more interested in people as they are and less trying to change them. In the essay 'A Million Torments' (1872) Goncharov praised Aleksandr Sergeevich Griboedov's comedy Wit Works Woe for its vitality and characters, especially the characterization of Chatsky, while Pushkin's Onegin and Lermontov's Pechorin  have become history and grown "petrified in immobility like statues on tombs."  

Goncharov's travel book from the journey, The Frigate Pallada, came out  in 1858. Like Oblomov, the author expresses his distrust to changes, doesn't want to explore new ports, and expresses prejudicial views about other nations. However, Goncharov had early learned French, German, and English, and in A Common Story he had mocked provincialism. The hero's mother warns, "be careful, now that you are setting forth for a foreign country...", but the son answers "mother, what foreign country? I am going to Petersburg!"

Oblomov appeared first in the journal Fatherland Notes in 1859. A section of the book, 'Oblomov's Dream,' was published separately in 1849. The novel was hailed as a masterpiece, and among others Fyodor Dostoyevsky considered Goncharov as a noteworthy rival in literature. Leo Tolstoy wrote: "I remember how Goncharov, the author, a very sensible and educated man but a thorough townsman and an aesthete, said to me that, after Turgenev, there was nothing left to write about in the life of the lower classes. It was all used up. The life of our wealthy people, with their amorousness and dissatisfaction with their lives, seemed to him full of inexhaustible subject-matter." Contemporary writers saw the indecisive Oblomov as a Russian Hamlet, who answered "no" to the question "to be or not to be".

Goncharov portrayed his famous character sympathetically, although Oblomov became the personification of the idle nobility or more widely, the national psyche. Il'ia Il'ich Oblomov spends his time in bed, comfortably in his dressing gown of Persian cloth - "a real oriental dressing-gown, without the slightest hint of Europe" - argues wearily with his morose, drinking manservant, Zakhar, who thinks that fleas, lices, and other vermin are a natural part of life. Incapable of occupying himself with practical matters, Oblomov is cheated by his financial adviser and his country estate slides into ruin. Shtolts, his friend, half-German by birth, is a completely different character - determined, learned, successful businessman. Oblomov's great love is Olga, but he puts off weddings too many times and finally loses her to his more pragmatic friend. Eventually Oblomov marries Agafia Pshenitsina, a widow. They have a son, and when Oblomov dies, Shtolts adopts him. Oblomov is a daydreamer, he has great visions, but he has lost his ability for doing things - Shtolts calls him a poet. "The trouble is that no devasting or redeeming fires have ever burnt in my life," he confesses to Shtolts. "My life began by flickering out." In the novel Oblomov is trying to get out of the bed, but in 50 pages he barely manages to move from bed to a chair. From this figure derives the Russian term oblomovshchina, meaning backwardness, inertia. In modern Western literature, Oblomov is said to have inspired Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot.

In his teens Goncharov had shown some signs of mental instability. His tendency to paranoia culminated in the accusation, that Turgenev stole the plots of his novels from the conversations the two had held. Even Flaubert was accused of getting the idea for Sentimental Education from Turgenev, who had heard it from Goncharov. Still in 1856 Goncharov and Turgenev had sat solemnly together for a photograph, with a number of other Contemporary contributors, including Leo Tolstoy.

Goncharov retired from his post as a censor in 1867 and published his last novel, The Precipice, in 1869. The work, which failed to attract readers, related the rivalry between three men, a nihilist, an idealist, and a commonsensicial neighbour, for the love of a mysterious woman. Goncharov also wrote short stories, critics, essays and memoirs Neobyknovennaya istoriya (1919). After the negative critic of his novel, he spent the rest of his days travelling and in lonely and bitter recriminations. In the essay 'Better Later Than Never' Goncharov explained that the purpose of his novels was to present the eternal struggle between East and West. Goncharov never married. He died in St. Petersburg on September 15, 1891.

For further reading: Goncharov by Janko Lavrin (1954); Goncharov by Janko Lavrin (1969); Ivan Goncharov by Alexandra Lyngstad and Sverre Lyngstad (1971); Ivan Goncharov: His Life and His Works by Vsevolod Setchkarev (1974); Russian Literary Criticism: A Short History by Robert H. Stacy (1974); Oblomov and His Creator: The Life and Art of Ivan Goncharov by Milton Ehre (1974); Ivan Goncharov by Sverre Lyngstad & Alexandra Lyngstad (1984); Oblomov. A Jungian Approach by Natalie Baratoff (1990); Oblomov: A Critical Examination of Goncharov's Novel by Richard Peace (1991); The Autobiographical Novel of Co-Consciousness: Goncharov, Woolf, and Joyce by Galya Diment (1994); Goncharov's Oblomov: A Critical Companion, ed. by Galya Diment (1998)

Selected works:

  • Obyknovennaya istoriya, 1847
    - A Common Story (translated by Constance Garnett, 1894) / The Same Old Story (translated by Ivy Litvinova, 1957) / An Ordinary Story (with Viktor Rovoz, edited and translated by Marjorie L. Hoover, 1993)
    - Tavallinen juttu: kaksi-osainen romaani (suom. Olga A., 1889)
  • Russkie v Yaponii v kontse 1853 i v nachale 1854 godov, 1855 (rev. ed., Fregat Pallada, 2 vols., 1858)
  • Oblomov, 1859
    - Oblomov (translators: C.J. Hogarth, 1915; Natalie Duddington, 1929; David Magarshack, 1959; Ann Dunnigan, 1963; Stephen Pearl, 2006; Marian Schwartz, 2008)
    - Oblomovin unelma: kuvaus wenäläisistä oloista (suom. A.F.H., 1894) / Herra Oblómov: romaani maaorjuuden ajoilta (suom. Ilmari Calamnius-Kianto, 1908) / Oblomov (suom. Juhani Konkka, 1961; J.A. Hollo, 1969)
    - films: Herra Oblomov, TV film 1963, dir. Mauno Hyvönen, starring Sasu Haapanen, Helge Herala and Mauri Jaakkola; Oblomows Liebe, 1976, dir.  Claus Peter Witt, starring Wolfgang Reichmann, Herbert Bötticher and Johanna Elbauer; Neskolko dney iz zhizni I.I. Oblomova, 1979, dir. Nikita Mikhalkov, starring Oleg Tabakov, Yuri Bogatyryov, Andrei Popov, Yelena Solovey
  • Fregat Pallada, 1858
    - The Voyage of the Frigate Pallada (edited and translated by N.W. Wilson, 1965) / The Frigate Pallada (translated by Klaus Goetze, 1987 )
  • Obryv, 1869
    - The Precipice (translated by M. Bryant, 1916; Laury Magnus, Boris Jakim, 1993)
    - films: Obryv, 1913, dir. Pyotr Chardynin; Obryv, 1983, dir. Vladimir Vengerov, starring Georgi Antonov, Yelena Finogeyeva and Nikolai Kochegarov, Rimma Markova, Marina Yakovleva 
  • Mil'on terzanij, 1872 [A Million Torments]
  • Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 1884 (8 vols.)
  • Neobyknovennaya istoriya, 1919
  • Povesti i ocherki, 1937 (edited by B.M. Engelgardt)
  • Literaturno-kriticheskie stat'i i pis'ma, 1938 (edited by A.P. Rybasova)
  • Sobranie sochinenii, 1952-55 (8 vols., edited by A.P. Rybasov)
  • 'Ivan Turgenev', 1971 (in The Complection of Russian Literature, by Andrew Field)
  • Sobranie sochinenii, 1977-80 (8 vols., edited by S.I. Mashinskii)
  • I.A. Goncharov-kritik, 1981 (edited by V.I. Korobov)
  • Ocherki, stat'i, pis'ma, 1986
  • Izbrannye sochineniia, 1990 (edited by G.I. Belen'kii)
  • Sobranie sochinenii, 1996 (5 vols. edited by V.A. Nedzvetskogo)
  • Polnoe sobranie sochinenii  i pisem v dvadtsati tomakh, 1997- (20 vols., edited by V.A. Kotel'nikov, et al.)
  • I.A. Goncharov v krugu sovremennikov, 1997 (edited by E.K. Demikhovskoi and O.A. Demikhovskoi)

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