Deserters in Literature

It’s little wonder Deserters crop up so much in literature. Writing, after all, is easier than working. Plus, you can do it in your pants with a gin and tonic.

From Baudelaire’s flâneur to Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the loafer has many literary ancestors.

Herman Melville’s short story Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Tale of Wall Street provided a fine template. Whenever Bartleby was asked to perform any work, he would respond: ‘I would prefer not to,’ doing less and less until he was eventually doing nothing.

John Kennedy Toole gave us the brilliant man-out-of-time, Ignatius J Reilly, who throughout A Confederacy of Dunces causes profound regret to anyone foolish enough to employ him.

‘My life is rather a grim one. One day I shall perhaps describe it to you in great detail.’

‘Apparently I lack some particular perversion which today’s employer is seeking,’ says Ignatius. ‘Employers sense in me a denial of their values.’

More recently, English, August by Upamanyu Chatterjee gave us an account of an Indian civil servant, who, faced with the futility of his position, would leave work after lunch and not return, spending his hours more fruitfully, getting stoned and masturbating.

The last few years have seen a surge in ‘slacker-lit’, including The Fallback Plan (Leigh Stein) and Flatscreen (Adam Wilson), both focussed on directionless characters living at home; irreverent loafers lacking drive, but with a strong interest in recreational drugs.

Both Esther and Eli, the respective main characters, were at one of life’s crossroads, wondering what they are going to do with their lives, but let’s not forget that being a Deserter is not a phase, it’s a commitment. While the existential crises of lost 20-somethings shouldn’t be underestimated, it’s worth remembering that being lost at 40 is not a crisis, but a lifestyle choice.

I hope these and other recent additions to the canon survive the test of time to inform future generations that working is no way to spend a life.

Below, in the first of our Deserters in Literature series, we will hear about Oblomov, Ivan Goncharov’s anti-hero whose fondness for rest rendered virtually all tasks beyond the bounds of possibility. The book may have been a parody of the Russian aristocracy, but that doesn’t mean Oblomov can’t be taken seriously as a role model.


To his eternal credit, Oblomov doesn’t even get out of bed for the first 50 pages. He thinks about getting up several times; after all, he’s got things to do. But somehow, it just doesn’t happen. He finds his mind wandering and the moment of action is lost. When he does rise it’s only so he can have a nice sit down.

He conducts most of his business from his bed. He rarely leaves his room, let alone house. His place is a bit of a tip but he can’t stand his valet cleaning up around him when he’s trying to think, or doze.

To recline is divine

Unfortunately, in the early chapters of the book, Oblomov is repeatedly shaken from his reverie by visitors. The first is a social gadfly, wanting to introduce him to this person and that and escort him to the season’s most important event, the Ekaterinhov. Oblomov can’t be bothered. “What a life!” he shrugs. “To have to be in ten different places every day.”

He pities his next visitor who works his arse off all day, considering him a poor wretch for having such an all-consuming career.

He is followed by a writer friend – which reminds him he’s been thinking about writing a letter for quite some time – whose work Oblomov insists he can’t be bothered to read. He pities him too. ‘Writing tomorrow, writing the day after, writing though the summer is approaching.’ You’ve got to admit, he’s got a point. No one should have to work when summer is approaching. Or departing.

A friend introduces him to a lovely young woman, Olga, and they fall in love. His continual procrastination eventually leads her to call off their intended marriage and he ends up wedding a far less appealing woman – his landlady – who he doesn’t even need to leave the house to meet.

He is not so much lazy, as determinedly inert. ‘For a lazy man,’ Goncharov explains, ‘Recumbence is a pleasure. For Oblomov, it is his normal state.’

More than his inertia, it’s the utter lack of ambition I admire.

Oblomov and Me

It’s hard to tell exactly when Oblomov retired from work, but he was almost certainly before he was thirty.

I too tried to retire in my twenties. I was late for work and was admonished by a Mr Henry, the man in charge of the department. I hated being told off, having someone with authority over me. Me, a seasoned adult of 22, with dreams of a better world. A better world in which I could have a lie-in every day and… well, that was about it really.

Career move

And so I resigned.

‘What are you going to do?’ my colleagues asked.

‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘I’m retiring.’

When asked what I would like as a parting gift, I said I would like a nice pillow, as I expected to do a great deal more sleeping. They had a whip round and bought me something suitable.

There were times when my flat in Charlton must have resembled Oblomov’s room. I only got it because it was available at the right price, had no stairs and I could move in immediately. It came complete with a worthless but functional furniture. I could walk in on day one, sit down and turn the telly on. Done. Moved.

It was not a place to impress the opposite sex. It was a place of sloth, forever encapsulated by the time I had to stir my tea with a potato peeler as it was the last clean object in the kitchen.

I had reached an Oblomov-scale level of inertia. Sitting on somebody else’s old sofa, surrounded by empty beer cans, watching other people run after a ball. Where did it all go right? I can only thank those wonderful men and women of letters for showing me the light.


For a bit more Deserters in Literature, listen to this podcast:

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Image credits: Unmade bed by Paul Gorman used under this license