“exploiting the laxity of local custom, which permits you to dance with ladies you don’t know”

Before A Hero of Our Time (1839), Mikhail Lermontov wrote many things, including a poem (1837) after the death of Pushkin that would get him sent to the Caucasus. As his Wikipedia entry quite romantically notes, “the tsar had exiled him to his native land,” and Lermontov would proceed to write the novel that takes place there.

Tiflis, 1837, by Mikhail Lermontov

Tiflis, 1837, painting by Mikhail Lermontov

Geography is key to A Hero of Our Time. To begin with, the frame is a travel writer, not doing his actual “travel writing,” but writing about his travels through the Caucasus all the same. The local customs, mountains, and climate all play a role in the travel writer’s story.

Then, there is the journal. The travel writer comes into possession of all of Pechorin’s papers up to his parting with Maxim Maximych. But he only chooses to publish those that describe his time in the Caucasus. Pechorin’s exploits in the capitals are quietly brushed to the side: “Someday it too will present itself for society’s judgement; but I do not now dare to take this responsibility upon myself for many important reasons.” Chief of which, one would guess, is that the rules are different in Russia’s outlying territories. In a vast country where society is concentrated in only two cities, very close to each other relatively speaking, different things can happen so far away.

That also makes possible a lot of what happens in the published journal. Grushnitsky is only able to act as he does in pursuit of Princess Mary because they are far from high St. Petersburg society. The rules change in a spa town. The Princess is taken with the cadet in the greatcoat.

This will probably be unusual in my current bout of Russian reading. A mix of town and country, perhaps, but nothing else this exotic.

4 comments to “exploiting the laxity of local custom, which permits you to dance with ladies you don’t know”

  • The Caucasus was part of Tolstoy’s fictional world, too. The Cossacks (1863) and Hadji Murat (1912!) are the most famous pieces, both just great. I’m curious about “A Prisoner in the Caucasus” (1872), though, because it is the basis for a perfect 1996 movie tiled Prisoner of the Mountains.

  • nicole

    Yes; when I said I wouldn’t be getting to it I only meant in the immediate future. I haven’t yet locked in what Tolstoy I am going to read but I’m 99% sure I’ll be starting The Death of Ivan Ilych tonight. My issue with Tolstoy is that he lived so damned long, and changed so much, that whatever I have time to cram in now is only the tiniest slice. And it’s years and years since I read Anna Karenina. So yes, Hadji Murat, someday, but I’m not ready to jump to 1912.

  • I know what you mean – 1912! Unbelievable.

    Thanks for including that painting, by the way. I had never seen it.

  • Bahar

    Great painting liked it too. Lermontov is my most favourite :)