A Hero of Our Time, Mikhail Lermontov’s only novel, and a short one, is the kind of thing that gets me warmed up right away: a small, faceted, framed thing, filtering its story through several layers of mesh and coming out the other side with multiple narrators and a nonchronological plot. Readers of all but the first edition have Lermontov’s own voice to warn them, in a foreword, to pay attention to what they are about to read. He complains that the Russian literary public
is still so young and ingenuous that it does not understand a fable if it does not find a moral at the end of it. It does not get a joke, does not sense an irony; it is simply badly brought up. It does not yet know that in decent society and in a decent book blatant abuse can have no place; that the modern level of education has invented a tool more sharp, almost invisible and nonetheless deadly, which, dressed up as flattery, strikes an irresistible and sure blow. Our public resembles a man from the provinces who, if overhearing a conversation between two diplomats belonging to hostile courts, would remain certain that each of them was deceiving his own government in favour of the tenderest mutual friendship.
So then, there are to be no misunderstandings here: Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin is “a hero of our time” in the sense that he is a great villain, an antihero, a magnificent and Romantic Byronic hero, evil and wonderful and bored and irresistible. But we don’t quite know that yet.
First we know only the narrator, a travel writer on his way through the Caucasus, who gets the story of Pechorin from a fellow traveler, staff captain Maxim Maximych. Who, incidentally, gets the Byronic hero description down to a tee in the first mention of Pechorin:
He was a splendid fellow, I’ll make so bold as to assure you—only a bit strange. I mean, for example, in the rain, in the cold, hunting all day long; everyone’ll be frozen through, tired—but he’s all right. Yet another time he’s sitting in his room, there’ll be a puff of wind and he claims he’s caught a cold; a shutter’ll bang, he’ll jump and turn pale; yet I’ve seen him going for a wild boar one on one; there were times you wouldn’t get a word out of him for hours on end, but then sometimes when he started telling stories, you’d just split your sides laughing… Yes, sir, there were some very strange things about him, and he must be a rich man: he had such a lot of expensive bits and pieces!…
The portrait is too perfect; what could this Pechorin possibly be other than the hero of some romance? He is clearly passionate and mysterious; strange, but splendid overall. Maxim Maximych fairly eats him up, even when Pechorin, stationed at the same fort as the staff captain, begins a nasty intrigue straight from the most Gothic of novels: he abducts a native girl to take as his wife. Maxim Maximych is riveted to the exciting story being played out before his eyes. At the romantic climax, when the two young people finally embrace, “Would you believe it? Standing on the other side of the door, I started crying too, that is to say, you know, didn’t exactly start crying, but, well—silliness!…”
Silly indeed, like a sentimental young woman who spends much too much time reading novels!
Our narrator, the travel writer, needs our attention again. After this, he teases us: “But perhaps you want to know the conclusion of the story of Bela? Firstly, I am writing not a fictional tale, but travel notes: consequently I cannot make the staff captain tell the story sooner than he began telling it in reality.” And what must we wait through but a romantic ride through the snowy mountains, through a terrible storm, through extreme, climactic weather. The travel writer’s story is a bit of a Gothic romance too now. When he and Maxim Maximych reach the next station, he knows there will be more to the story of Pechorin, because “what began in an unusual way ought to end similarly too”—certainly, reality must meet the conventions of fiction. And it does; the ending is tragic enough for any Byronic hero.
We’re still only in the frame, though. The travel writer will meet Pechorin, by chance, and will be given his papers, including the journal that makes up the main part of A Hero of Our Time. At this point Pechorin is a character in a romance for him too, a romance told by Maxim Maximych, and the travel writer awaits him “with a certain impatience; although from the staff captain’s story I had formed for myself a not very advantageous impression of him, still several features of his character seemed to me remarkable.” He can’t resist the bad boy! Then, finally, we get the physical description of our antihero we should normally have had at the outset, in a less backward-style novel:
Firstly, [his eyes] did not laugh when he laughed! Have you happened to notice an oddity of this sort in some people?… It is a sign either of a malicious disposition, or of a profound, constant sadness. From behind partly lowered lashes they shone with a kind of phosphoric brilliance, if one can put it like that. …All these remarks came to mind perhaps only for the reason that I knew certain details of his life, and perhaps on someone else his appearance would have made a completely different impression; but since you will hear about him from no one but me, you must—like it or not—be content with this depiction. I shall say in conclusion that he was all in all rather good-looking and had one of those original physiognomies that society women particularly like.
Our travel writer, since he is describing Pechorin at the end, after he knows his story, describes “a malicious disposition, or…a profound, constant sadness” among other things; he is aware of how knowing the story has colored his impressions of Pechorin the man, and that he cannot be an unbiased reporter even of something as simple as physical appearance. But he is aware of it, wonderful! Would just any old narrator make the same admission at the beginning of a romance, even though he—that is to say, the author—was just as foreknowing?
More, later, on the journal, and Pechorin himself. He is not to be missed. Take your Darcys and Rochesters, your Heathcliffs and your Werthers; give me Pechorin any day.