Tuesday, 22 June 2010

REVIEW: A Hero Of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov

For the Classics Circuit this month I choose to read Mikhail Lermontov's A Hero Of Our Time. I decided not to be obvious and stay away from my beloved Dostoevsky and ventured into new Russian territories. Many factors were in Lermontov's favour: he was the so-called heir of Pushkin and we all love our Pushkin; one of my favourite films (Un Coeur en Hiver by Claude Sautet) is a loose adaptation of one of the stories in this novella; and finally I was able to find (and afford, always very important) a copy of the translation by Vladimir Nabokov, a hero of mine since I was a teenager, so this would made a nice addition in completing his body of work.

And fortunately it was a great choice. A Hero of Our Time was an entertaining, tremendously cool book to pick up.

A Hero Of Our Time
Mikhail Lermontov (translated by Vladimir & Dmitri Nabokov)
Ardis Publishing
210 pages

A Hero Of Our Time is not so much what you would expect of a novel but more a collection of five stories surrounding the central, title character. These stories vary in length and genre, are mostly set in the Caucasian frontier and include all sorts of adventures for our hero: skirmishes with enemy soldiers, kidnapping, Russian roulette, duels, tragic love affairs. But the central character, the young officer Grigory Aleksandrovich Pechorin, is less than heroic and throughout the stories the author paints an ambiguous portrait of his hero: he is dissastisfied and bored, unfeeling towards other and often cruel - specially in his love affairs.

In the first story we see Pechorin kidnap a young Princess (in exchange for helping her brother steal a horse), making her fall in love with him only to lose all interest in her shortly, and finally somehow indirectly causing her death. Next we see Pechorin himself make an appearance, crossing paths with the narrator, but Pechorin behaves cruelly and coldly towards Maksim, an older officer who very much loved him and so both narrator and reader are left with the worst possible opinion of our hero. But then the book switches point of view and we read Pechorin's own journals - and far from trying to excuse himself Pechorin openly declares his flaws and vices, glosses over them, and recalls other incidents in which he was at fault, most notoriously a duel with another man for a woman, whom Pechorin did not really love but was merely entertaining himself with. This is a hero of our time.


A Hero of Our Time is a fantastically enjoyable book. I mean, for one it's short and to the point (I completely agree with this review in The Guardian), a quality sadly overlooked by writers these days (I love a good long book when it's called for, but most novels I read overstay their welcome). It's full of adventure and action, but also of introspection and philosophy. It's very well-written, with a clear, speedy prose. And I have to admit I just have a soft spot for Russian literature (except for Tolstoy, I could never get into that) and Lermontov was never going to disappoint.

To start with the writing. I was happy to see that, although a translation, there were traces of Nabokov's style throughout these stories; specially in the descriptions, glossy and honey-sweet, a bit nostalgic, and a bit awkward-sounding - I love that in Nabokov, the way he words a thought so that you have to stop your tongue at how different it sounds. At first you have to wonder if this is not a mismatch, pairing Lermontov with Nabokov as his translator. Lermontov's prose is swift and smooth and manly (Nabokov's expression) and seems at odds with that of his translator. But that doesn't become a problem. Let's see what Nabokov has to say on this, in the very interesting introduction:
In the first place we have to dismiss, once and for all the conventional notion that a translation "should read smoothly" and "should not look like a translation (to quote the would-be compliments, adressed to vague versions, by genteel reviewers who never have and never will read the original texts). In point of fact, any translation that does not sound like a translation is bound to be inexact upon inspection; while, on the other hand, the only virtue of a good translation is faithfulness and completeness. Whether it reads smoothly or not, depends on the model, not on the mimic.
In this introduction Nabokov is also happy to talk about the defects of Lermontov's book. For example the inconsistencies between the stories, as it's clear the author wrote some of them without predicting the others. This might be true but I don't think it detracts from the genius of the work. A Hero of Our Time has some sort of messy, rushed quality, almost boyish, that is one of its most charming virtues.

One of the things that really loved about the book was the structure, so clever but very easy to follow. Very modern, too. A Hero of Our Time is a very modern book in many senses. We approach the character of Pechorin sideways at first, through the account Maksim Maksimich gives to the narrator, and a brief appearance by Pechorin himself in our story, and then through Pechorin's own journals found by the narrator. The stories are out of chronological order, too. This is what I mean by a "cool" book. I mean thoroughly modern, hip, trendy.

It is a wise choice, letting the reader reach her/his own conclusion from various sources: the narrator, Maksim and Pechorin all have different opinions on the subject, and although while we get more introspection from Pechorin, undeinably, that doesn't mean his vision of himself is more accurate than the others.

Pechorin is an atypical hero that embodies qualities of different traditions, of different archetypes that have become commonly known now in literature: he is quintaessentially Russian and yet a Byronic romantic hero (Lermontov was passionate about Byron, and had began reading him at thriteen), infussed with the very French ennui as he himself recognizes. He is bored but not apathic. Lermontov succeeds in making the character not just interesting but also seductive - the novel would have fallen flat if we as readers didn't feel the same for Pechorin as the narrator, Maksim and the hero himself: a mixture of fascination and disgust.

The other characters matter very little; we might have sympathy for Maskim but he doesn't interest us. The women even less so. Only Vera from the story "Princess Mary" (the longest, most memorable of the collection), who represents some kind of chance of redemption for Pechorin, holds fascination. But there are other two characters in the book that are of huge importance: fate and landscape. Fate not as much as material force but in Pechorin's mind, he is obssessed by it and lets it dictate his actions (he doesn't pursue Vera after falling off his horse) - we cannot be sure of the author's take on this, if he believes in this overwhelming force of destiny or if his take is ironic and Pechorin is a fool for following the signs so blindly. Perhaps it's both. And then there's the Caucasian landscape, a territory torn apart by war. Lermontov served in those parts as a young soldier and his descriptions of the landscape are full of love and remembrance. Ironically enough Pechorin does not care for the country and is bored by its landscape, which only makes these lovely descriptions all the more poignant.

Lastly, I'm sure most of the finer political points of the book escape me as I am not so versed in Russian history (at least not of that period) but the point Lermontov somehow is trying to make seems to come across to modern, foreign readers just as well: Pechorin is much a product of his time, and not completely guilty in forming his own, depicable character. He belongs to a class that feels it's not been given the opportinity to live up to all its potential. Young aristrocrats with the means and the intelligence to make their mark on the world but whose ambitions were at odds with the Russian autocratic society of the time. There's an element of social realism to A Hero of Our Time that sets it apart from just a product of the Russian Romaticism, it connects Lermontov with the social worries of the next movement, with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Although the book is concerned with Pechorin all the time the reader also comes off feeling the absurd tragedy of those hurt by the hero's actions, the senseless cruelty of it all, the victims.

Lermontov's intentions in drawing a picture not just of a Russian youth but of a state of things in Russia is never clearer than in the (wonderfully playful) words of the book's narrator:
Perhaps some readers will want to know my opinion of Pechorin's character. My answer is the title of this book. "But this is wicked irony!" they will say.
I wonder.


  1. What an excellent write up!

    I have only read the Princess Mary excerpt and it was quite long so I was startled to see that all of the book was only 210 pages! I'll have to go get the whole thing. I love the idea of the stories being out of chronological order.

    Although I didn't particularly like Pechorin, I loved to see, as you say, that he was sample from others of the era. Love this sentence you wrote: "He belongs to a class that feels it's not been given the opportinity to live up to all its potential. " I'm not a Russian lit or history expert by any means and that helps put it in perspective.

  2. I'm currently reading (for the tour) poems translated by Nabokov, and Nabokov certainly does have his opinions on how translations should be done! I'd like to read Nabokov's translations of prose; this might be a good place to start.

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