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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 Alexander Ivanovich, a wealthy grain merchant, and Avdotya Matveevna – Goncharov described her as "an excellent, experienced, and strict housekeeper". Simbirsk was a provincial center but  looked like a village. 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. On the surface his life passed quite uneventfully,  with the exception of his remarkable journey around the world, which lasted approximately two years and six months. 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, The Same Old Story (1847), about the clash between the decaying Russian nobility and the new merchant classes, appeared in the highly influential periodical The Contemporary. Goncharov had early learned French, German, and English, and in this comedy of manners he mocked provincialism. Alexander'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!"

Vissarion Belinsky, the most influential critic of the day, hailed the novel as an attack on outdated romanticism. Goncharov's protagonist, a young idealist named Alexander Aduev, adopts his uncle's disillusioned view of the world; Pyotr Aduev, a new practical Russian, is a career bureaucrat and also a factory owner. When Alexander argues that reality does not make man happy, he cuts him short: "What nonsense you are talking. You have brought this opinion from the Asiatic border: in Europe they have long ago ceased believing in that." Uncle Pyotr does his best to crush the idealism of his nephew. However, at the end he realizes that he cannot live without the love of his wife and decides to abandon his old ways of thinking and move with her to Italy. This novel was followed in 1848 by Ivan Savvich Podzhabrin, a psychological sketch in the naturalist manner, which Goncharov had written in 1841. 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. It fulfilled his dream of traveling to distant places. The voyage itself on a three-masted schooner with 485 crew members was not physically exhaustive; it was the Petersburg climate that had had a negative effect on his healt. Goncharov had a lot of free time to write long letters to his friends. 

After returning to St. Petersburg on February of 1855 from Siberia, 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." Noteworthy, Goncharov himself was, in private, a cool and detached observer; Belinsky sometimes attacked him for showing no emotions. 

Goncharov's travelogue, The Frigate Pallada (1855-1857), appeared first in segments in various journals and then in a book form. It was a bestseller in the Tsarist Russia, even more popular than Oblomov, and was appreciated also in the Soviet era. "A beguiling impression of excellent literature, humor, and art has remained with me from The Frigate Pallada," wrote Yury Olesha in one of his journal entries. "I'm not even talking about the material of the book itself: the voyage round the world described in it and described so well that you want to call it the best  travel book ever written." (No Day Without a Line: From Notebooks by Iouri Karlovitch Olecha, 1998 p. 153)

The purpose of the government expedition, which ended at the mouth of the Amur River in Siberia, was to establish trade and diplomatic relations with Japan and observe the Russian colonies in North America. However, the outbreak of the Crimean war made it impossible to travel to the Unites States. Like Oblomov, Goncharov himself finds it difficult to cope with changes and doesn't want to explore new ports. He also expresses prejudicial views about other nations. Constantly he points out the discrepance between expectations and actual experience - the sea is not poetic but boring and ugly, souveniers in the Cape of Good Hope are not local products have been imported from England. Because of the worldwide colonial expansion, the difference between the Europe he had left behind and the Orient do not appear to be so profound: "I expected something more,"Goncharov says.

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". Lenin, who was also born in Simbirsk and knew well the work, cited it many times as a warning: "The old Oblomov has remained, and for a long while yet he will have to be washed, cleaned, shaken, and thrashed if something is to come of him." ('The Twilit Middle Class of Nineteenth-century Russia' by Sidney Monas, in Between Tsar and People: Educated Society and the Quest for Public Identity in Late Imperial Russia, edited by Edith W. Clowes, Samuel D. Kassow, and James L. West, 1991, p. 58)

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.

Goncharov retired from his post as a censor in 1867. His last novel, The Precipice (1869), which he had begun to write in 1849 while visiting his native Simbirsk, related the rivalry between three men, a nihilist, an idealist, and a commonsensicial neighbour, for the love of a mysterious woman. This massive work failed to gain the popularity Goncharov so desired, at the time when it first came out, or later on. "It displays all his shortcomings: an absence of imagination; an extreme subjectivity in psychological painting, and the consequent lifelessness of all the characters that are not founded on introspection; an absence of poetry and of real inspiration; and an unsurmountable smallness of soul." (A History of Russian Literature from Its Beginnings to 1900 by Prince D. S. Mirsky, 1958, p. 190)

In his teens Goncharov had shown some signs of mental instability. His tendency to paranoia culminated in the accusation, that in Dvoryanskoe gnezdo (1859, Home of the Gentry) Ivan Turgenev had  stolen characters and situations from The Precipice. 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. As a result of their quarrel, Turgenev removed one scene from his book, which further fuelled Goncharov's paranoia.

In addition to three novels, Goncharov wrote short stories, reviews, essays, and a  book of memoir, Neobyknovennaia istoriia (1924), in which he  once again took up the issue of plagiarism. Goncharov considered Turgenev his only rival after the death of Gogol. He belittled Turgenev's literary achievements and maintained that Turgenev, "the chief of the Westernizers," was his secret enemy. 

Profoundly disappointed by the reception of The Precipice, Goncharov spent the rest of his days travelling and in lonely and bitter recriminations. "This novel was my life," he said. "I put in it a part of myself, people close to me, my native region, Volga, my home, in short, all my personal life. ('The Precocious Talent of Ivan Goncharov' by Galya Diment, in Goncharov's Oblomov: A Critical Companion, edited by Galya Diment, 1998, p. 35)  Goncharov never married. When he was in his sixties, he started a relationship with a housekeeper, Alexandra Ivanova Treygut, the widow of his manservant Karl Treigut.

Goncharov died of pneumonia in St. Petersburg, on September 15, 1891. He left his estate to Alexandra who was with him at his death. Goncharov's remains at Nikolskoe Cemetery of Alexander Nevsky Lavras were moved in 1956 to the Volkovo Cemetery. In his lifetime, Goncharov refused to have his novels translated and would have been upset in the English translation of The Precipice from 1915: the some twelvehundred pages long novel had been abridged into 319 pages, "beyond recognition". (Classics in Russia 1700-1855: Between Two Bronze Horsemen by Marinus Antony Wes, 1939, p. 317)

On his writing, Goncharov relied more on inspiration than on reason, like Romantic poets.  In the article 'Luchshe pozdno chem nikogda' (1879, Better Late Than Never), Goncharov said that "Initially I write sluggishly, awkwardly, monotonously . . . and I feel bored writing, until suddenly the light pours in and illuminates the ways where I am to go." The purpose of his novels, he explained, was to present the eternal struggle between East and West.

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); A Nation Astray: Nomadism and National Identity in Russian Literature by Ingrid Kleespies (2012)

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) / Tavallinen juttu: kaksiosainen romaani (suom. Kirsi Monni, 2013) 
  • 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": Ocherki puteshestviia v dvukh tomakh, 1855-1857
    - 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, 1915, abridged; Laury Magnus, Boris Jakim, 1993, abridged)
    - 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.)
  • Neobyknovennaia istoriia, 1924 [An Uncommon Story]
  • 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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