“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.

“I love enemies, though not in the Christian way”

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 for words comes into full focus as he goes up against Grushnitsky, quite his opposite in this department, for the affections of Princess Mary**. Pechorin is set on giving advice to his rival:

“She has such velvety eyes—specifically velvety: I advise you to appropriate that expression when talking about her eyes; the lower and upper lashes are so long that the sun’s rays aren’t reflected in her pupils. …What a shame she didn’t smile at your grand phrase.”

“You talk about a pretty woman as you would about an English horse,” said Grushnitsky indignantly.

Grushnitsky’s intentions might be good—he actually loves the Princess, while Pechorin is only interested in toying with her to hurt both Grushnitsky and Mary—but he knows not of what he speaks. Or rather, he does, he’s just wrong about its effectiveness. Pechorin knows how to really impress the Princess, and sometimes that means withholding words as well: “if she’s bored beside you two minutes running, you’re irretrievably lost: your silence must arouse her curiosity, your conversation never satisfy it completely; you must alarm her at every minute.” When Pechorin’s friend the doctor*** offers to introduce him to the Princess, Grigory Alexandrovich politely declines: “‘Oh, please!’ I said, clasping my hands together; ‘as if heroes are introduced! They make the acquaintance of their beloved in no other way than by saving her from certain death…’”

Grushnitsky is hopeless. “Women, women! Who can understand them? Their smiles contradict their looks, their words promise and beckon, while the sound of their voice repulses,” he complains, and then lifts his own spirits “with [a] bad pun.” Whereas Pechorin goes around facilely answering people “with one of those phrases that everyone should have prepared for such an instance.” When he does get alone with his beloved (not, ahem, Princess Mary), they have “those conversations which make no sense on paper, which can’t be repeated and can’t even be remembered: the significance of the sounds supplants and supplements the significance of the words, just as in Italian opera.”

A huge part of this is about control.**** Pechorin is in complete control of all his actions and words, in turn giving him complete control over all the social situations he falls into. Words will again betray Grushnitsky when Pechorin overhears his machinations regarding their duel; Pechorin ends up in control of the ultimate plot because Grushnitsky and his friends were so powerless over their own words. Pechorin watches what he does and says closely and thus protects himself from every contingency. Even the relatively inconsequential is held to this standard—“his proud step would have made me burst out laughing had that been in accordance with my intentions.”

Pechorin not only has power through words, he respects their inherent power, because he recognizes and fears it in a visceral way:

In my place another man would have offered the Princess son coeur et sa fortune; but the word marry has some magical power over me: however passionately I love a woman, if she lets me so much as feel that I ought to marry her—goodbye to love! My heart is turned to stone, and nothing will warm it up again.

It’s not just that Pechorin is averse to marriage, or afraid of it. The word has real effects: it changes his heart to stone, and actually rids him of love. And the word got this power, well, through a pronouncement:

It’s a sort of innate terror, inexpressible foreboding… Should I admit it?… When I was still a child, an old woman told my fortune for my mother; she predicted my death on account of a malevolent wife; this affected me deeply at the time: in my soul was born an insuperable aversion to marriage…

He even had to admit the story about the fortune, and asking whether he should do so admits there is significance in that as well. And like the word “marry,” the fortune-teller’s pronouncement had real effects.

This has gone on long enough, and I hope you get the idea. But I haven’t even mentioned “The Fatalist,” the last story in the journal. The end of that, with Maxim Maximych and Pechorin trying to explain to him the meaning of the word predestination… Oh, and—did I mention he is writing this all down?

*Hm, notice how I quoted the foreword to the whole novel to set up for the last post?
**To whom words matter so much that she goes by the Anglicized version of her name.
***Who also has a way with words: “He had a spiteful tongue: with one of his epigrams as a label, more than one good man has come to be thought of as a vulgar fool….”
****And let’s not forget who’s really in control, here, either—Lermontov is good.

A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov

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.