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, 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
Continue reading “exploiting the laxity of local custom, which permits you to dance with ladies you don’t know”
Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin, eponymous Hero of Our Time, is deliciously evil, and also just plain delicious because he knows the power of words—almost as well as Mikhail Lermontov. The travel writer who has come into possession of his papers publishes a portion of them, noting in the foreword*:
Reading through these notes, I have become convinced of the sincerity of a man who set his own weaknesses and vices out on display so mercilessly. The history of a human soul, even the pettiest soul, is almost more curious and beneficial than the history of an entire people, especially when it is the result of a mature mind’s observations of itself, and when it is written without a vainglorious desire to arouse sympathy or surprise. Rousseau’s Confessions have the immediate shortcoming that he read them to his friends.
In this journal we have confessions that were, it is a reasonable assumption, never intended to be made public. Pechorin lays his life bare in his diary; he describes even his negative qualities “boldly, because I’m used to admitting everything to myself.”
First is the story “Taman,” of a run-in Pechorin has with some strange smugglers. Part of the trouble starts with his words, which “were quite out of place; I didn’t suspect their importance then, but subsequently I had occasion to repent of them.” He gets himself out of the scrape, but won’t go to the police because of the absurdity of putting his trouble into words: “And wouldn’t it be ridiculous to complain to the authorities that a blind boy had robbed me and an eighteen-year-old girl had almost drowned me?” Of course, the words he used to record these events in the journal were not ridiculous at all—he was robbed and nearly drowned.
In the centerpiece, “Princess Mary,” Pechorin’s affinity
Continue reading “I love enemies, though not in the Christian way”
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
Continue reading A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov