Oblomov, p.16Ivan Goncharov
Listening to his nurse’s stories of our Golden Fleece – the Fire Bird – of the obstacles and secret passages in the enchanted castle, the little boy plucked up courage, imagining himself the hero of some great exploit – and a shiver ran down his back, or he grieved over the misfortunes of the brave hero of the tale. One story followed another. The nurse told her stories picturesquely, with fervour and enthusiasm, sometimes with inspiration, because she half-believed them herself. Her eyes sparkled, her head shook with excitement, her voice rose to unaccustomed notes. Overcome by a mysterious terror, the boy clung to her with tears in his eyes. Whether she spoke of dead men rising from their graves at midnight, or of the victims of some monster, pining away in captivity, or of the bear with the wooden leg walking through large and small villages in search of the leg that had been cut off – the boy’s hair stood on end with horror; his childish imagination was paralysed and then worked feverishly; he was going through an agonizing, sweet, and painful experience; his nerves were taut like chords. When his nurse repeated the bear’s words grimly: ‘Creak, creak, limewood leg; I’ve walked through large villages, I’ve walked though a small village, all the women are fast asleep, but one woman does not sleep, she is sitting on my skin, she is cooking my flesh, she is spinning my own fur,’ and so on, when the bear entered the cottage and was about to seize the woman who had robbed him of his leg, the little boy could stand it no longer: he flung himself shrieking into his nurse’s arms, trembling all over; he cried with fright and laughed with joy because he was not in the wild beast’s claws, but on the stove beside his nurse. The little boy’s imagination was peopled with strange phantoms; fear and anguish struck root in his soul for years, perhaps for ever. He looked sadly about him, and seeing only evil and misfortune everywhere in life, dreamt constantly of that magic country where there were no evils, troubles, or sorrows, where Militrissa Kirbityevna lived, where such excellent food and such fine clothes could be had for nothing.…
Fairy-tales held sway not only over the children in Oblomovka, but also over the grown-ups to the end of their lives. Everyone in the house and the village, from the master and mistress down to the burly blacksmith Taras, was afraid of something on a dark night: every tree was transformed into a giant and every bush into a den of brigands. The rattling of a shutter and the howling of the wind in the chimney made men, women and children turn pale. At Epiphany no one went out of the gate by himself at ten o’clock at night; on Easter night no one ventured into the stables, afraid of meeting the house-demon there. They believed in everything at Oblomovka: in ghosts and werewolves. If they were told that a stack of hay walked about the field, they believed it implicitly; if someone spread a rumour that a certain ram was not really a ram but something else, or that a certain Marfa or Stepanida was a witch, they were afraid of both the ram and Marfa; it never occurred to them to ask why the ram was not a ram or why Marfa had become a witch, and, indeed, they would attack anyone who dared to doubt it – so strong was their belief in the miraculous at Oblomovka!
Oblomov realized afterwards that the world was a very simple affair, that dead men did not rise from their graves, that as soon as there were any giants about, they were put in a sideshow, and robbers were clapped into jail; but if his belief in phantoms disappeared, there remained a sort of sediment of fear and a vague feeling of anguish. Oblomov discovered that no misfortunes were caused by monsters, and he scarcely knew what misfortunes there were, and yet he expected something dreadful to happen any moment and he could not help being afraid. Even now, if he were left in a dark room or if he saw a corpse, he would still be frightened because of the sinister feeling of anguish sown in his mind as a child; laughing at his fears in the morning, he could not help turning pale again in the evening.
Then Oblomov saw himself as a boy of thirteen or fourteen. He was going to school at Verkhlyovo, about three miles from Oblomovka. The steward of the estate, a German by the name of Stolz, had started a small boarding-school for the children of the local gentry. He had a son, Andrey, who was almost of the same age as Oblomov, and there was another boy, who hardly ever worked at all. He was scrofulous and spent all his childhood with his eyes or ears in bandages, and was always weeping surreptitiously because he lived with wicked strangers and not with his grandmother and had no one to fondle him and make him his favourite pasty. So far there were no other children at the school.
There was nothing for it: Oblomov’s father and mother decided to send their darling child to school. The boy protested violently at first, shrieking, crying, and being as unreasonable about it as he possibly could, but in the end he was sent off to Verkhlyovo. The German was a strict and business-like man like most Germans. Oblomov might have learnt something from him had Oblomovka been 300 miles from Verkhlyovo. But in the circumstances, how could he have learnt anything? The fascination of the Oblomovka atmosphere, way of life, and habits extended to Verkhlyovo, which had also once belonged to the Oblomovs; except for Stolz’s house, everything there was imbued with the same primitive laziness, simplicity of customs, peace, and inertia. The child’s heart and mind had been filled with the scenes, pictures, and habits of that life long before he set eyes on his first book. And who can tell when the development of a child’s intellect begins? How can one trace the birth of the first ideas and impressions in a child’s mind? Perhaps when a child begins to talk, or even before it can talk or walk, but only gazes at everything with that dumb, intent look that seems blank to grown-ups, it already catches and perceives the meaning and the connexions of the events of his life, but is not able to tell it to himself or to others. Perhaps Oblomov had observed and understood long ago what was being said and done in his presence: that his father, dressed in velveteen trousers and a brown quilted cotton coat, did nothing but walk up and down the room all day with his hands behind his back, take snuff, and blow his nose, while his mother passed on from coffee to tea, from tea to dinner; that it never entered his father’s head to check how many stacks of hay or corn had been mown or reaped, and call to account those who were guilty of neglecting their duties, but if his handkerchief was not handed to him soon enough, he would make a scene and turn the whole house upside down. Perhaps his childish mind had decided long ago that the only way to live was how the grown-ups round him lived. What other decision could he possibly have reached? And how did the grown-ups live at Oblomovka? Did they ever ask themselves why life had been given them? Goodness only knows. And how did they answer it? Most probably they did not answer it at all: everything seemed so clear and simple to them. They had never heard of the so-called hard life, of people who were constantly worried, who rushed about from place to place, or who devoted their lives to everlasting, never-ending work. They did not really believe in mental worries, either; they did not think that life existed so that man should constantly strive for some barely apprehended aims; they were terribly afraid of strong passions, and just as with other people bodies might be consumed by the volcanic action of inner, spiritual fire, so their souls wallowed peacefully and undisturbed in their soft bodies. Life did not mark them, as it did other people, with premature wrinkles, devastating moral blows and diseases. The good people conceived life merely as an ideal of peace and inactivity, disturbed from time to time by all sorts of unpleasant accidents, such as illness, loss of money, quarrels, and, incidentally, work. They suffered work as a punishment imposed upon our forefathers, but they could not love it and avoided it wherever and whenever they could, believing it both right and necessary to do so. They never troubled themselves about any vague moral and intellectual problems, and that was why they were always so well and happy and lived so long. Men of forty looked like boys; old men did not struggle with a hard, painful death, but, having lived to an unbelievably old age, died as if by stealth, quietly growing cold and imperceptibly breathing their last. This is why it is said that in the old days people were stronger. Yes, indeed they were: in those days they were in no hurry to explain to a boy the meaning of life and prepare him
What, then, had they to worry or get excited about, or to learn? What aims had they to pursue? They wanted nothing: life, like a quiet river, flowed past them, and all that remained for them was to sit on the bank of that river and watch the inevitable events which presented themselves uncalled for to every one of them in turn. And so, too, like living pictures, there unrolled themselves in turn before the imagination of Oblomov in his sleep the three main events of life, as they happened in his family and among his relations and friends: births, marriages, and funerals. Then there followed a motley procession of their gay and mournful sub-divisions: christenings, name-days, family celebrations, fast and feast days, noisy dinner-parties, assemblies of relatives, greetings, congratulations, conventional tears and smiles. Everything was done with the utmost precision, gravity, and solemnity. He even saw the familiar faces and their expression on these different occasions, their preoccupied looks and the fuss they made. Present them with any ticklish problem of match-making, any solemn wedding or name-day you like, and they would arrange it according to all the accepted rules and without the least omission. No one in Oblomovka made the slightest mistake about the right place for a guest at the table, what dishes were to be served, who were to drive together on a ceremonial occasion, what observances were to be kept. Did they not know how to rear a child? Why, you had only to look at the rosy and well-fed darlings that their mothers carried or led by the hand! It was their ambition that their children should be plump, white-skinned, and healthy. They would do without spring altogether rather than fail to bake a cake in the shape of a lark at its beginning. They did not belong to those who did not know how important that was and did not do it. All their life and learning, all their joys and sorrows were in these things, and that was the main reason why they banished all other griefs and worries and knew no other joys. Their life was full of these fundamental and inevitable events which provided endless food for their hearts and minds. They waited with beating hearts for some ceremony, rite, or feast, and then, having christened, married, or buried a man, they forgot him completely and sank into their usual apathy, from which some similar event – a name-day, a wedding, etc. – roused them once again. As soon as a baby was born, the first concern of his parents was to carry out as precisely as possible and without any omissions all the customary rites that decorum demanded, that is to say, to have a feast after the christening; then the careful rearing of the baby began. Its mother set herself and the nurse the task of rearing a healthy child, guarding it from colds, the evil eye, and other hostile influences. They took great care that the child should always be happy and eat a lot. As soon as the boy was firmly on his feet – that is to say, when he no longer needed a nurse – the mother was already secretly cherishing the desire to find him a mate – also as rosy and as healthy as possible. Again the time came for rites, feasts, and, at last, weddings: that was all they lived for. Then came the repetitions: the birth of children, rites, and feasts, until a funeral brought about a change of scenery, but not for long: one set of people made way for another, the children grew up into young men and in due course married and had children of their own – and so life, according to this programme, went on in an uninterrupted and monotonous sequence of events, breaking off imperceptibly at the very edge of the grave.
Sometimes, it is true, other cares were thrust upon them, but the inhabitants of Oblomovka met them for the most part with stoic impassivity, and after circling over their heads, the troubles flew past them like birds which, coming to a smooth wall and finding no shelter there, flutter their wings in vain near the hard stones and fly away. Thus, for instance, a part of the gallery round the house suddenly collapsed one day, burying under its ruins a hen with its chicks; Aksinya, Antip’s wife, who had sat down under the gallery with her spinning, would have been badly injured had she not gone to fetch some more flax. There was a great commotion in the house: everyone, big and small, rushed to the spot and expressed dismay at the thought that instead of the hen and chicks the mistress herself might have been walking under the gallery with Oblomov. They all gasped with horror and began reproaching one another that it had never occurred to them before to remind each other to order someone to repair the gallery. They were all astonished that it should have collapsed, although only the day before they were surprised at its having stood so long! They began discussing how to repair the damage; they expressed regret about the hen and her chicks and then slowly dispersed to where they had come from, having first been strictly forbidden to take Oblomov anywhere near the gallery. Three weeks later, orders were given to Andrushka, Petrushka, and Vaska to take the fallen planks and banisters out of the way and put them near the barn, where they remained till the spring. Every time Oblomov’s father caught sight of them out of the window, he would think of having the gallery repaired: he would call for the carpenter and consult him as to whether it would be better to build a new gallery or break down what remained of the old, then he would let him go home, saying, ‘You can go now and I’ll think it over.’ That went on till Vaska or Motka told his master that, having climbed on to what remained of the gallery that morning, he noticed that the corners had broken away from the walls and might collapse any moment. Then the carpenter was called for a final consultation, as a result of which it was decided to prop up the part of the gallery that was still standing with the fragments of the old, which was actually done at the end of the month.
‘Why,’ said Oblomov’s father to his wife, ‘the gallery is as good as new. Look how beautifully Fyodor has fixed the planks, just like the pillars of the Marshal’s house! It’s perfectly all right now: it will last for years!’
Someone reminded him that it would be a good opportunity for repairing the gate and the front steps, for the holes between them were so big that pigs, let alone cats, got through them into the cellar.
‘Yes, yes, to be sure,’ Oblomov’s father replied, looking worried, and went at once to inspect the front steps.
‘Yes, indeed, look how rickety they are,’ he said, rocking the steps with his foot like a cradle.
‘But it rocked like that when it was made,’ someone observed.
‘Well, what about it?’ Oblomov’s father replied. ‘They haven’t fallen down, though they have stood there for sixteen years without any repairs. Luka made a good job of it. He was a real carpenter, Luka was! He’s dead, may his soul rest in peace. They’ve got spoilt now – no carpenter could do such a job now!’
He turned his eyes away and, they say, the steps still rock but have not fallen to pieces yet. Luka, it would seem, was indeed an excellent carpenter!
One must do the Oblomovs justice, though: sometimes when things went wrong, they would take a great deal of trouble and even flew into a temper and grew angry. How could one thing or another have been neglected for so long? Something must be done about it at once! And they went on talking interminably about repairing the little bridge across the ditch or fencing off part of the garden to prevent the cattle from spoiling the trees because the wattle fence had collapsed in one place.
One day, while taking a walk in the garden, Oblomov’s father had even gone so far as to lift, groaning and moaning, the fence off the ground with his own hands and told the gardener to prop it up at once with two poles; thanks to his promptness, the fence remained standing like that all through the summer, and it was only in winter that the snow brought it down again. At last even the bridge had three new planks laid across it afte
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