Oblomov, p.18Ivan Goncharov
Only once was the monotony of their existence broken by a really unexpected event. Having rested after a heavy dinner, they had all gathered round the tea-table, when an Oblomov peasant, who had just returned from town, came suddenly into the room and after a great deal of trouble pulled out from the inside of his coat a crumpled letter addressed to Oblomov’s father. They all looked dumbfounded; Mrs Oblomov even turned slightly pale; they all craned their necks towards the letter and fixed their eyes upon it.
‘How extraordinary! Who could it be from?’ Mrs Oblomov said at last, having recovered from her surprise.
Mr Oblomov took the letter and turned it about in bewilderment, not knowing what to do with it.
‘Where did you get it?’ he asked the peasant. ‘Who gave it you?’
‘Why, sir, at the inn where I stopped in town,’ replied the peasant. ‘A soldier came twice from the post office, sir, to ask if there was any peasant there from Oblomovka. He’d got a letter for the master, it seems.’
‘Well, sir, at first I hid myself, so the soldier, sir, he went away with this here letter. But the sexton from Verkhlyovo had seen me and he told them. So he comes a second time, the soldier, sir. And as he comes the second time, he starts swearing at me and gives me the letter. Charged me five copecks for it, he did. I asks him what I was to do with the letter, and he told me to give it to you, sir.’
‘You shouldn’t have taken it,’ Mrs Oblomov observed vexedly.
‘I didn’t take it, ma’am. I said to him, I said, “What do we want your letter for – we don’t want no letters,” I said. “I wasn’t told to take letters and I durstn’t,” I said. “Take your letter and go away,” I said. But he started cursing me something awful, he did, threatening to go to the police, so I took it.’
‘Fool!’ said Mrs Oblomov.
‘Who could it be from?’ Mr Oblomov said wonderingly, examining the address. ‘The writing seems familiar!’
He passed the letter round and they all began discussing who it could be from and what it was about. They were all completely at a loss. Mr Oblomov asked for his glasses and they spent an hour and a half looking for them. He put them on and was already about to open the letter when his wife stopped him.
‘Don’t open it,’ she said apprehensively. ‘Who knows, it might be something dreadful – some awful trouble. You know what people are nowadays. There’s plenty of time: you can open it to-morrow or the day after: it won’t run away.’
The letter was locked up in a drawer with the glasses. They all sat down to tea, and the letter might have lain in the drawer for years had they not all been so greatly excited by the extraordinary event. At tea and all next day they talked of nothing but the letter. At last they could not stand it any longer, and on the fourth day, having all gathered in a crowd, they opened it nervously. Mr Oblomov glanced at the signature.
‘Radishchev,’ he read. ‘Why, that’s Filip Matveich.’
‘Oh, so that’s who it is from!’ they cried from all sides. ‘Is he still alive? Good Lord, fancy he’s not dead! Well, thank God! What does he say?’
Mr Oblomov began reading the letter aloud. It seemed that Radishchev was asking for a recipe of beer that was brewed particularly well at Oblomovka.
‘Send it him! Send it him!’ they all shouted. ‘You must write him a letter!’
A fortnight passed.
‘Yes, I must write to him,’ Mr Oblomov kept saying to his wife. ‘Where’s the recipe?’
‘Where is it?’ his wife replied. ‘I must try and find it. But why all this hurry? Wait till the holy-days; the fast will be over, and then you can write to him. There’s plenty of time.…’
‘Yes, indeed, I’d better write during the holy-days,’ said Mr Oblomov.
The question of the letter was raised again during the holy-days. Mr Oblomov made up his mind to write the letter. He withdrew to his study, put on his glasses, and sat down at the table. Dead silence reigned in the house; the servants were told not to stamp their feet or make a noise. ‘The master’s writing,’ everyone said, speaking in a timid and respectful voice as though someone was lying dead in the house. He had just time to write, ‘Dear Sir,’ in a trembling hand, slowly, crookedly, and as carefully as though performing some dangerous operation, when his wife came into the room.
‘I’m very sorry,’ she said, ‘but I can’t find the recipe. I must have a look in the bedroom cupboard. It may be there. But how are you going to send the letter?’
‘By post, I suppose,’ replied Mr Oblomov.
‘And what will the postage be?’
Mr Oblomov produced an old calendar.
‘Forty copecks,’ he said.
‘Waste forty copecks on such nonsense!’ she observed. ‘Let’s rather wait till we can send it by someone. Tell the peasants to find out.’
‘Yes,’ said Mr Oblomov, ‘it would certainly be better to send it by hand.’ And tapping the pen on the table a few times, he put it back in the inkstand and took off his glasses.
‘Yes, indeed,’ he concluded. ‘It won’t run away; there’s plenty of time.’
It is doubtful whether Filip Matveich ever received the recipe.
Sometimes Oblomov’s father picked up a book. It made no difference to him what book it was. He did not feel any need for reading, but regarded it as a luxury, as something that one could easily do without, just as one could do without a picture on the wall or without taking a walk. That was why he did not mind what book he picked up: he looked upon it as something that was meant as an entertainment, something that would help to distract him when he was bored or had nothing better to do.
‘I haven’t read a book for ages,’ he would say, or sometimes he would change the phrase to, ‘Now, then, let’s read a book.’ Or he would simply happen to see the small pile of books that was left him by his brother and pick one up at random. Whether it happened to be Golikov, or the latest Dream Book, or Kheraskov’s Rossiade, or Sumarokov’s tragedies, or the Moscow News of two years ago, he read it all with equal pleasure, remarking at times: ‘Whatever will he think of next! What a rascal! Damn the fellow!’ These exclamations referred to the authors, for whose calling he had no respect whatever; he had even adopted the attitude of semi-indulgent contempt for a writer which is so characteristic of old-fashioned people. He, like many other people of his day, thought that an author must be a jovial fellow, a rake, a drunkard, and a mountebank, something like a clown. Sometimes he read the two-year-old papers aloud for the edification of everybody or just told them a piece of news from them. ‘They write from The Hague,’ he would say, ‘that his Majesty the King has safely returned to his palace after a short journey,’ and as he spoke he glanced at his listeners over his glasses. Or: ‘The ambassador of such and such a country has presented his credentials in Vienna. And here they write,’ he went on, ‘that the works of Madame Genlis have been translated into Russian.’
‘I suppose,’ remarked one of his listeners, a small landowner, ‘they do all these translations to extract some money from us gentry.’
Meanwhile poor Oblomov had still to go for his lessons to Stolz. As soon as he woke up on Monday morning, he felt terribly depressed. He heard Vaska’s raucous voice shouting from the front steps:
‘Antip, harness the piebald one to take the young master to the German!’
His heart sank. Sadly he went to his mother. She knew what was the matter with him and began gilding the pill, secretly sighing herself at the thought of parting with him for a whole week.
Nothing was good enough for him to eat that morning. They baked rolls of different shapes for him, loaded him with pickles, biscuits, jams, all sorts of sweetmeats, cooked and uncooked dainties, and even provisions. He was given it all on the supposition that he did not get enough to eat at the German’s house.
‘You won’t get anything decent to eat there,’ they said at Oblomovka. ‘For dinner they’ll give you nothing but soup, roast meat, and potatoes, and bread and butter
Oblomov, however, dreamt mostly of Mondays on which he did not hear Vaska’s voice shouting for the piebald to be harnessed, but his mother greeting him at breakfast with a smile and pleasant news.
‘You’re not going to-day, dear; Thursday is a great holy-day, and it isn’t worth travelling there and back for three days.’
Or sometimes she would announce to him suddenly:
‘To-day is commemoration week – it’s no time for lessons: we shall be baking pancakes.’
Or his mother would look at him intently on a Monday morning and say:
‘Your eyes look tired this morning, darling. Are you well?’ and shake her head.
The sly little boy was perfectly well, but he said nothing.
‘You’d better stay at home this week,’ she said, ‘and we shall see how you feel.’
And they were all convinced in the house that lessons and Commemoration Saturday must never be allowed to interfere with each other and that a holy-day on a Thursday was an insurmountable obstacle to lessons during the whole of the week. Only from time to time would a servant or a maid, who had been punished because of the young master, grumble:
‘Oh, you spoilt little brat! When will you clear out to your German?’
At other times Antip would suddenly turn up at the German’s on the familiar piebald in the middle or at the beginning of the week to fetch Oblomov.
‘Maria Savishna or Natalya Faddeyevna or the Kuzovkovs with all their children have come on a visit and you’re wanted back home!’
And Oblomov stayed at home for three weeks, and then Holy Week was not far off, followed by Easter; or someone in the house decided that for some reason or other one did not study in the week after Easter; there would be only a fortnight left till summer, and it was not worth going back to school, for the German himself had a rest in summer, so that it was best to put the lessons off till the autumn. Oblomov spent a most enjoyable six months. How tall he grew during that time! And how fat he grew! How soundly he slept! They could not admire him enough at home, nor could they help observing that when the dear child returned home from the German on Saturdays, he looked pale and thin.
‘He can easily come to harm,’ his mother would remark. ‘He’ll have plenty of time to study, but you cannot buy health for money: health is the most precious thing in life. The poor boy comes back from school as from a hospital: all his fat is gone, he looks so thin – and such a naughty boy, too: always running about!’
‘Yes,’ his father observed, ‘learning is no joke: it will take it out of anyone!’
And the fond parents went on finding excuses for keeping their son at home. There was no difficulty in finding excuses besides holy-days. In winter they thought it was too cold, in summer it was too hot to drive to the next village, and sometimes it rained; in the autumn the roads were too muddy. Sometimes Antip aroused their doubts: he did not seem to be drunk, but he had a sort of wild look in his eyes – there might be trouble, he might get stuck in the mud or fall into a ditch. The Oblomovs, however, tried to make their excuses as legitimate as possible in their own eyes, and particularly in the eyes of Stolz, who did not spare Donnerwetters to their faces and behind their backs for pampering the child.
The days of the heroes of Fonvisin’s comedy The Minor – the Prostakovs and Skotinins – had gone long before. The proverb ‘Knowledge is light and ignorance is darkness’ was already penetrating into the big and small villages together with the books sold by book pedlars. Oblomov’s parents understood the advantages of education, but only its material advantages. They saw that it was only education that made it possible for people to make a career, that is, to acquire rank, decorations, and money; that old-fashioned lawyers, case-hardened and corrupt officials, who had grown old in their pettifogging ways and chicaneries, were having a bad time. Ominous rumours were abroad that not only reading and writing but all sorts of hitherto unheard-of subjects were required. A gulf opened up between the higher and the lower grades of civil servants which could be bridged only by something called a diploma. Officials of the old school, children of habit and nurslings of bribes, began to disappear. Many of those who had survived were dismissed as unreliable, and others were put on trial; the luckiest were those who, giving up the new order of things as a bad job, retired to their well-feathered nests while the going was good. Oblomov’s parents grasped all this and understood the advantages of education, but only these obvious advantages. They had only the vaguest and remotest idea of the intrinsic need of education, and that was why they wanted to obtain for their son some of its brilliant advantages. They dreamed of a gold-embroidered uniform for him; they imagined him as a Councillor at Court, and his mother even imagined him as a Governor of a province. But they wanted to obtain all this as cheaply as possible, by all sorts of tricks, by secretly dodging the rocks and obstacles scattered on the path of learning and honours, without bothering to jump over them – that is, for instance, by working a little, not by physical exhaustion or the loss of the blessed plumpness acquired in childhood. All they wanted was that their son should merely comply with the prescribed rules and regulations and obtain in some way or other a certificate which said that their darling Ilya had mastered all the arts and sciences. The whole of this Oblomov system of education met with strong opposition in Stolz’s system. Each fought stubbornly for his own ideas. Stolz struck at his opponents directly, openly, and persistently, and they parried his blows by all sorts of cunning devices, including those already described. Neither side won; German pertinacity might have overcome the stubbornness and obduracy of the Oblomovs, had not the German met opposition in his own camp. The fact was that Stolz’s own son spoiled Oblomov, prompting him at lessons and doing his translations for him.
Oblomov clearly saw his life at home and at Stolz’s. As soon as he woke up at home, he saw Zakhar, later his famous valet, Zakhar Trofimych, standing by his bed. Zakhar, like his old nurse, pulled on his stockings and put on his shoes, while Oblomov, a boy of fourteen, merely stretched out to him first one leg, then the other, as he lay on the bed; and if something seemed to him amiss, he hit Zakhar on the nose with a foot. If Zakhar resented it and had the impudence to complain, he would get a hiding from the grown-ups as well. Then Zakhar combed his hair, helped him on with his coat, forcing his arms carefully through the sleeves so as not to disturb him unduly, and reminded him of the things he had to do, washing as soon as he got up, and so on. If Oblomov wanted something, he had only to wink and three or four servants rushed to carry out his wish; if he dropped something, or if he had to get something, someone else would pick it up or get it for him; if he wanted to fetch something or run out of the house for something and, being a lively boy, would like to run out and do it all himself, his father, mother, and three aunts shouted all at once: ‘What for? Where are you off to? And what are Vaska, Vanka, and Zakharka for? Hey, Vaska! Vanka! Zakharka! What are you gaping at, you idiots! I’ll show you!’
And try as he might, Oblomov could never do anything for himself. Later he found that it was much less trouble and learned to shout himself:
‘Hey, Vaska! Vanka! Bring me this! Bring me that! I don’t want this, I want that! Run and fetch it!’
At times he got tired of the tender solicitude of his parents. If he ran down the stairs or across the yard, a dozen desperate voices shouted after him: ‘Oh, hold him by the hand! Stop him! He’ll fall down and hurt himself! Stop!’ If he tried to run out into the hall in winter, or to open a window, there were again shouts: ‘Where are you off to? You can’t do that! Don’t run, don’t go, don’t open it: you’ll hurt yourself, you’ll catch a cold…!’ And sadly Oblomov remained indoors, cherished like an exotic flower in a hot-house, and like it he grew slowly and languidly. His energies, finding no outlet, turned inwards and withered, drooping. Sometimes he woke up feeling so bright and cheerful, so fresh and gay; he felt as though something inside him were full of life and movement, just as if some imp
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