“The Same Old Story” by Ivan Goncharov; trans. Stephen Pearl

Same Old Story
The Same Old Story

A young idealist leaves his hovering mother behind to go change the world, only to find the world less than eager to be changed. Crushed at a couple of minor setbacks, he falls into a deep depression, and recovers only to become obsessed with money and material success.The story of one of today’s “special snowflakes”? No, it’s Ivan Goncharov’s classic 1847 novel about Alexander Aduyev, a young upper-class Russian who goes to St. Petersburg to find love and literary immortality, only to discover that he’s a poet of middling talent at best, suited more for writing articles on potatoes and manure than producing poems about passionate love, and that his own personal passionate loves end in self-inflicted separation. Possessing, like so many “superfluous men” in 19th-century Russian literature, everything except firmness of purpose and strength of character, Alexander is unable to utilize his gifts of a warm heart and good intentions, not to mention money and connections, precisely because he is unwilling to prioritize anything other than a warm heart and good intentions, and, reaching for the stars, finds himself ever more mired in the earth.

Although Goncharov is less well known in the West than Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, and what fame he does have is mostly connected to his novel “Oblomov,” “The Same Old Story” is a delight well worth reading, and, for the easily intimidated, much less of a commitment than bulky masterpieces such as “War and Peace,” “The Brothers Karamazov,” and “Oblomov” itself. Coming in at a slim 350 pages or so, “The Same Old Story” is an easy introduction to classical Russian literature for those who may have been frightened off by the brick-like productions of Goncharov’s more notable compatriots, and a fun read for lovers of Russian literature looking to expand their horizons. While, like any Russian novel worth its salt, “The Same Old Story” has plenty of philosophizing, it’s also brisk-moving, and full of that distinctly Russian irony and humor in which the reader is invited to laugh at the characters and feel compassion for them at the same time. Alexander is ridiculous, but his heartbreak is real nonetheless, as is his apparently cold-hearted and condescending uncle’s concern for his nephew and his wife. Indeed, Pyotr Ivanych, Alexander’s uncle, does everything in his power to make the lives of those close to him as comfortable as possible, while safeguarding them from foolishness and self-inflicted harm, and yet ends up being directly responsible for plunging both his nephew and his wife into states of deep depression that jeopardize not just their happiness, but their physical health. Good intentions, Goncharov seems to be telling us, are not enough: in order to do actual good one must understand what the objects of our intentions truly want, rather than imposing our own goals and desires upon them from above. A lesson that each generation struggles to learn anew.

And indeed, while “The Same Old Story” is firmly rooted in the milieu of mid-19th-century Russia, overflowing with that abundance of detail that is a hallmark of Goncharov’s style (something that comes through nicely in Stephen Pearl’s new translation, which manages both to read smoothly and to sound like a 19th-century Russian novel), it really is “the same old story,” and could be transplanted quite handily to early 21st-century America. Anna Pavlovna, Alexander’s mother, is the quintessential helicopter parent, who “for all her loving care, was unable to provide him a proper perspective on life, and had failed to prepare him for the battles in store for him as they are for everyone.” In fact, Goncharov tells us, “It would have been even better for her to have loved him a little less, not to have spent every minute of the day thinking about him, not to have spared him every possible trouble and unpleasantness, not to have done his weeping and suffering for him even in his childhood so as to give him a chance of developing a feeling for the prospect of adversity, and a chance to learn to muster his own resources and consider what lay ahead.” But that was not to be.

Nor does Alexander’s uncle Pyotr Ivanych have the answers either, however. Sounding eerily like modern-day pundits who exhort young people to toughen up, get some “grit,” and choose majors and careers based immediate hireability rather than genuine interest, Pyotr Ivanych ruthlessly crushes Alexander’s literary aspirations and preaches ad nauseum to him about the value of a steady paycheck and the benefits of a marriage of calculation rather than love. But it is Pyotr Ivanych who discovers in the end the limits of his wisdom: at fifty he has material comfort, yes, but gained at the expense of a bad back, failing health, and a listless and indifferent wife. Perhaps both Pyotr Ivanych and Alexander should have paid closer attention to Liza (the wife) when she still could be bothered to express her own opinion; a comparatively minor character, she still manages to suggest a potential way forward, combining as she does practicality with the ability to preserve other people’s happiness. But both Alexander and Pyotr Ivanych are too caught up in themselves to listen to her gentle counsel as much as they should.

Which is not to say that “The Same Old Story” is depressing. Or rather, the ostensible moral of the story is grim, but the book and the characters themselves brim with such humor and life, and the ending is so suggestive of hope that, set against the background of notoriously downbeat Russian literature, “The Same Old Story” is practically a lighthearted comedy. Youthful dreams are pretty much guaranteed not to come true, Goncharov seems to be telling us, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of good things in life, especially for those who are able to reconcile the split between their desires and their despair. “The Same Old Story” may not have the weighty presence or sparkling brilliance of some of the great classics of Russian literature, but it still shines after all these years with a homey and candle-like warmth, illuminating corners of the human heart that should be familiar to all.

My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing a review copy of this book. All opinions are my own.

You can get your own copy here: The Same Old Story

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