The Same Old Story by Ivan Goncharov

Review published on March 6, 2017.

One of the 17 for 17 challenges suggested by nb this year is to read a novel from another country. 2017 also marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution that overthrew the Romanov royal dynasty. So I dived into this new translation (by Stephen Pearl) of an almost autobiographical story by a Russian writer said to be ‘an author of high stature’ by no less than Dostoyesky.

We join the main character Alexander (Sasha), a minor Russian aristocrat, on his family estate as he prepares to move to the big city of St Petersburg. Like so many young men, he has an idealised view of what this new life will bring – as a romantic and a burgeoning writer he also dreams of love. Again, like so many young men, he leaves behind a despairing mother, scared for his health and happiness despite him taking his valet Yevsi and being under the wing of his uncle, established factory owner Pyotr Ivanych.

The writing is what you would expect of a 19th century novel. Intense dialogue, detailed description and a plot weaved closely throughout minute life-changing events.

It was easy to imagine the contrast between Sasha’s home in the lush green countryside and the dusty, overwhelming buildings of the big city.

Uncle Pyotr is disdainful of his nephew’s romantic illusions and he is soon proved correct as Alexander falls for the first young woman he encounters. After being promptly rejected, he retreats into despair and depression.

Proving to be a ‘spoilt brat’, Alexander pursues an indulgent lifestyle despite his uncle’s guidance, although the interplay between the two later reveals a deeper and sincere understanding of the generational separation.

This book gave the Russians the term ‘aduyevschina’, which refers to vain romantic aspirations, and the unmarried author Goncharov lived quite a parallel life to the main character, including having been brought up by his doting mother. He was also a Government censor, so don’t expect the high passion of War and Peace!

But it is overall a good read and it’s well translated so the prose flowed (and including original poems from the author himself!).

The plot has a gentle rise and fall, the characters are clearly outlined, and although pages of intricate dialogue may put off some book groups, it certainly provides an insight into the rural/urban Russia of the time. This is surely the year to dip into work from that country.

Philipa Coughlan 4/3

The Same Old Story by Ivan Goncharov
Alma Classics 9781847495624 pbk Oct 2015


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