Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Same Old Story by Ivan Goncharov (1847, translated 2015 by Stephen Pearl)

Ivan Goncharov (born Simbirsk, Russia 1812, died Saint Petersburg, 1881.  His best known work is his second novel, Oblomov (1859) about a minor Russian Nobel man who cannot find a reason to get out bed.  Tolstoy said Goncharov was his favorite novelist, Chekhov said his talent first exceeeded his own.

Goncharov was born into a wealthy family.  After graduation from the Moscow State University he moved to Saint Petersburg where he worked as a government translator and censor and did private tutoring.  He also wrote poetry and his novels. 

I was very happy to be given a review copy of Stephen Pearl's new translation of Goncharov first novel, The Same Old Story.  Goncharov refused  to allow translations of his work during his lifetime and this seems to be the first translation of this work.  

Goncharov tells a wonderful very well structured account of the life of Alexander Fyodoryah, from a country gentry land owning family (which also meant serf owning).  He is the only child of a widow who totally dotes on him.  Aleksander, maybe twenty when we meet him, is bored with country life (masterfully brought to life in the opening chapter) and is determined to move to Saint Petersburg to realize his dream of becoming a famous poet.   His uncle Ivan, his mother's brother, lives in Saint Petersburg and with his mother heart broken, she had a lovely affluent bride selected for him  he leaves to live initially with his uncle and his wife.  

The comic center of the novel is in the conversation and developing relationship of the romantic Aleksander and his cynical very pragmatic uncle.  Aleksander tells his uncle of his plans to become a poet, the uncle basically tells him this is just silly and he gets him as a job writing reports for a government agency, totally boring work but it might lead in twenty years to a high ranking position.  We see the nephew struggling to be a good employee.  In one brutally comic  scene, the uncle sets one of the nephew's poems on fire and lights his cigar with it. The uncle notices he seems distracted after a while and assumes he must be in love, which is correct.  The uncle lectures him on the folly of this.  The conversations of the uncle and nephew are master pieces. 

Goncharov does a masterful job with the complicated relationship of the nephew and the young woman he loves, he meets her while out fishing on a weekend in Saint Petersburg. We meet her family and see how Aleksander reacts to a possible rival, a count.  The uncle saves his nephew from the folly of a duel.  One of the really enjoyable aspects of the novel is seeing how Aleksander and his uncle's relationship changes over the years, Aleksander becomes more like his uncle and the uncle slowly opens up a softer side.  

The uncle and the mother keep in close touch through correspondence, the son writes his mother once and a while.   He decides to go home.  Of course his mother is overjoyed.  He is now thirty five, a prime age for marriage and a great catch for a local gentry lady. 

At this juncture in the plot things take a very interesting turn, precipitated by an ironically relayed tragedy.  I will leave it untold.

The Same Old Story exceeded my expectations, of Russian 19th century writers this novel most reminded me of Turgenev.  This novel was a great pleasure to read, not just another book to check of your "required reading" list.  Pearl has done lovers of 19th century literature a big favor by translating this novel. He has also translated the much more famous Oblomov and once a Kindle edition of this translation is available I will read it.

STEPHEN PEARL was a simultaneous interpreter at the United Nations for more than thirty years and was Chief of English Interpretation there for fifteen years. He is a graduate of St. John’s College, Oxford University with an M.A. in Classics. His translation of Oblomovwas awarded the 2008 AATSEEL Prize for best translation from Slavic language to English.

Mel u


Mudpuddle said...

i quite enjoyed "Oblomov" and am interested in his work... some of the modern translators of Russian lit that i've tried to read have been not very pleasing; too invested in slang for my taste; but this sounds good... on your recommendation i think i'll try to get a copy... tx...

Mel u said...

Mudpuddle. I hope you can find a copy. Thsnks once again for your comments