Worth Getting Out of Bed For: Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov

With a storied literary career behind him, the former editor in chief of The New Yorker and Knopf—and author of the new memoir Avid Reader—has been pulling long-forgotten books off the shelf. Among his favorite rediscoveries is a comic masterpiece about a beautiful, bedridden soul.

One of the advantages of getting old—and, believe it or not, there are others—is that you get to reread (and sometimes re-reread) books that you first knew 60 or more years earlier. Some writers are always with us—Jane Austen, for instance, for people like me; some books we may go back to every decade or two: War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Idiot—an admired new translation may spur us on; Middlemarch, Moby Dick, Proust. But other remarkable works drop out of sight, if not out of mind.

Very recently, after playing with the idea for half a dozen years, I went back to one of the most famous of all Russian novels, Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov, a book that all too many Western readers, if they know about it at all, think of as the novel about a man who never gets out of bed. They’re right in one sense: It’s the central figure, Ilya Ilyich Oblomov, who for more than 150 years has supplied Russia with a word for an apparently fundamental quality of the Russian identity: oblomovshchina. Which is the state of being like Oblomov—a man, a member of the landed gentry, who is so without strength of will or purpose that he simply does nothing.

Though he does get out of bed—sort of. His serf-servant, Zakhar, one of the major comic characters of literature, helps him put on his stockings and boots and attends to his basic needs, but he’s as lazy as his master. Yet Zakhar is shrewd in his peasant way, whereas Oblomov is the opposite of shrewd: He’s a sublime innocent, completely without guile and without protection from the predatory people who surround him. He’s far from stupid, he’s educated, his looks are appealing, his estate (which he never visits) provides him with enough to live on, although he’s being robbed blind. He just lacks all energy, and his placid good nature protects him from suspicions, resentments, and ambitions. In other words, he’s a hopeless case—and a beautiful soul.

His great friend Stoltz is his exact opposite—dynamic, tireless, indefatigable. (Well, of course: He’s half German.) While Oblomov hardly ever strays from his bed, his sofa, and his dressing gown, Stoltz is rushing around the country, around Europe, in a whirlwind of productive activity, every once in a while coming home to St. Petersburg to prod and poke his friend into doing...something. Anything. Go to your estate and fix it up; come to Europe with me; get back into society. Oblomov would obey if he only could, but he can’t: Yes, of course you’re right, Stoltz—but not now.

I must be Russian. There’s a side of me that could happily never get out of bed, given a stack of books and a good reading lamp: I’m Oblomov. But then there’s the side that can’t bear to be without a job to do, without something to accomplish: I’m Stoltz. How did Goncharov, back in 1859, know me so well?

From the start, Oblomov was recognized as a masterpiece. “Goncharov is ten heads above me in talent,” said Chekhov. “I am in rapture over Oblomov and keep rereading it,” said Tolstoy. And Dostoevsky came to rank it alongside Dead Souls and War and Peace. Who are we to disagree?

Avid Reader is out September 13 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $28, us.macmillan.com.