The Same Old Story by Ivan Goncharov

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Translated by Stephen Pearl

Reviewed by Karen Langley

Russian author Ivan Goncharov is known to most Anglophone readers for his novel Oblomov; indeed, with that book he created a stereotype who’s become famous in his own right in Russian culture, ‘the superfluous man’. Oblomov himself personifies that type, and Goncharov is possibly considered a one-trick pony by many readers; certainly, I was unaware that the author had written anything else, and so the publication of his first novel under the title The Same Old Story by Alma Classics came as a very welcome surprise. And what’s most fascinating about it is that not only does it pre-date Oblomov, but in many ways it sets the scene for that novel.

The Same Old Story tells of one Alexander Aduyev, a spoiled provincial young man who lives on the family estate with his widowed mother. An only child, needless to say he’s the apple of his mother’s eye, and she has his future lined up nicely; a marriage to a local sweetheart and a comfortable life running the estate. However, Alexander has attended the local university and has had a glimpse of something more than this; convinced he has it in him to be a great writer and poet, and the book opens with him leaving his family and heading off to St. Petersburg to make his name. Here Alexander will be handed into the tender care of his uncle Pyotr, whom his mother trusts to look after her precious boy. However, events will not turn out as she hopes…

Alexander is quickly revealed as an immature, over-emotional and highly-strung lad; prone to dramatic speeches, tears, and hugging everyone he meets, he encounters his complete opposite in his uncle. Pyotr is a man of restraint; cold, precise and motivated by money, everything he does is worked out to a fine degree of precision. No emotion and high drama for him; if something has no benefit for him he’s not interested and even his personal life is calculated this way. The two men are diametrically opposed and it’s soon clear that their views on life will never accord.

At first, Alexander is overwhelmed by Petersburg life, then sucked into it, and a succession of love affairs follows – none of which are really successful; and after starting to make a kind of career he falls by the wayside and lapses into a slothful way of life. Doing little more than make a cursory attempt at work, he spends much of his time fishing and it’s hard to see whether he’ll eventually find any kind of place for himself in life.

The Same Old Story is a remarkably clever book; normally, you would expect to be rooting for the hero of the tale, the young would-be poet. However, he’s so over-the-top and irritating that you actually find yourself sympathising with his self-controlled uncle and wishing the younger man would dial it down a bit! Some of the scenes where the two men are interacting are very, very funny, with Pyotr frantically trying to repel Alexander’s attempts at physical affection, and I found myself laughing out loud in places.

Yet there is an underlying sadness to the book; both characters are extremes, polar opposites, and neither temperament is the right one. Again and again, both men end up hurting other people (usually women) because they’re unable to take a sensible middle line. The world of business and St. Petersburg is shown to be a callous, surface level one in which Pyotr is completely at home, but in which Alexander struggles to fit. The latter in particular is seduced by a vision of perfect love, and ends up completely misjudging most of the women he meets, damaging them emotionally with his excessive sentiment, and rendering himself incapable of a real and lasting relationship.

Love, in fact, is one of the recurrent themes: whether true love is really possible; whether one should use the head or the heart when choosing a partner; whether a long-lasting partnership can be any more than habit. Goncharov also touches on a subject that vexed many Russian artists of the period, that of the habit of marrying off very young women to older men (as exemplified by the painting ‘The Unequal Marriage’ by Pukirev). In fact, Pyotr himself marries a woman over 20 years younger than him, closer in age to her nephew, and the dynamic between Pyotr, Alexander and his aunt Liza is one of the most important in the book. The eventual fate of all three characters is unexpected, a little tragic, and in some ways the two men reverse roles.

The Same Old Story is beautifully presented by Alma, and impeccably translated by Stephen Pearl. The latter, in fact, provides a fascinating section at the end where he ruminates on the vicissitudes of being a translator and the difficulties he faced. The phrase he chose to title the book could refer to a number of things: the constant falling in love of Alexander, who manages to convince himself that each one is the love of his life; the follies of a young man who will eventually grow out of his foolishness and illusions; the certainty that, as usual, it is the women who will suffer at the hands of the men; or the fact that much of what happens in our transient lives is the same for human beings around the world and through the decades, and there is nothing new under the sun. Goncharov’s first novel is an entertaining and thought-provoking read and definitely should no longer stand in the shadow of his more famous second book!

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings.

Ivan Goncharov, The Same Old Story, (Alma Classics, 2015).9781847495624, 385pp., paperback.

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