A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov

October 4, 2011

A Hero of Our Time is an adventure story set among the Caucasus Mountains and a character study of a Byronic hero, Pechorin. The author claims in his preface that he has created “a composite portrait, made up of all the vices which flourish, fullgrown, amongst the present generation.” The literary conceit of the novel is that it is composed from the journals of the military officer Pechorin. Another character, Max Maximych, came into possession of Pechorin’s journals and passed them on, eventually, to the unnamed writer who is responsible for delivering them to us, with some additional commentary. There is a bit of the Matryoshka doll in the structure.

I read the original translation of Lermontov’s classic and, so, missed out on Vladimir Nabokov’s foreward. Rebecca Stanton has put forward an interesting argument that Nabokov, like Lermontov and several of his characters, tries to dictate the readers’ response to the novel. Also check out His Futile Preoccupations for a nice series of posts discussing various aspects of this seminal work of 19th Century Russian literature.

One of the interesting aspects of the novel involves the parallels between the author and his characters. As many other authors, Lermontov drew on events and specific experiences in his own life to create the people (military men serving in the Caucasus) who inhabit his novel. Lermontov was, after all, a Russian military officer who served in the Caucasus. Lermontov even writes: “Others have observed, with much acumen, that the author has painted his own portrait and those of his acquaintances.”

One of the events on which Lermontov drew, however, was his death two years after completing the novel. Both Lermontov and his character Grushnitsky were drawn into a duel as a result of a joke they played on a colleague. Both are killed. While I would not ascribe any presentimental value to Lermontov’s art, the coinciding characteristics of his life and fiction provide some validation that the adventures he describes are not wholly fantastic. The novel gives us a view, enhanced by the requirements of fiction, no doubt, of life as a Russian military officer serving in the Caucasus. For that alone, it is worth the read.

The tidbits of Russian folklore and the descriptions of the “typical” Russian outlook are fascinating, both for their exoticism and for their familiarity to present day readers.

I was involuntarily struck by the aptitude which the Russian displays for accommodating himself to the customs of the people in whose midst he happens to be living. I know not whether this mental quality is deserving of censure or commendation, but it proves the incredible pliancy of his mind and the presence of that clear common sense which pardons evil wherever it sees that evil is inevitable or impossible of annihilation.

But there is more to the novel than its ability to satisfy the voyeurism of tourists of history and culture. Lermontov’s purpose is, as he says, to highlight the sort of person who was the “hero” of that time. Of course, the sort of charismatic, ethically ambiguous, and ultimately dissatisfied hero Lermontov portrays populates Bryon’s work as well as our daily news. In other words, the hero for Lermontov’s time is a hero for our time too.

Another enjoyable aspect of the novel is the Shandyish nature of the unnamed narrator (the second largest, behind Lermontov himself, of the Matryoshka dolls stacked in the novel). He writes things like:

Perhaps, however, you would like to know the conclusion of the story of Bela? In the first place, this is not a novel, but a collection of travelling-notes, and, consequently, I cannot make the staff-captain tell the story sooner than he actually proceeded to tell it. Therefore, you must wait a bit, or, if you like, turn over a few pages. Though I do not advise you to do the latter, because the crossing of Mount Krestov (or, as the erudite Gamba calls it, le mont St. Christophe) is worthy of your curiosity.

This sort of thing probably does not amuse everyone, but it tickles me.

Lermontov also peppers his tale with references to literature and authors from all over. Byron is, obviously, a heavy influence and is mentioned several times. There are many others:

The history of a man’s soul, even the pettiest soul, is hardly less interesting and useful than the history of a whole people; especially when the former is the result of the observations of a mature mind upon itself, and has been written without any egotistical desire of arousing sympathy or astonishment. Rousseau’s Confessions has precisely this defect – he read it to his friends.

At this point, I am in danger of transcribing all of my many highlights, yet I have not even given a thorough outline of the structure and the story. The Matryoshka dolls are: Lermontov who tells the story of a traveller-writer who relates the story of Max Maximych who has come into the possession of the journals of Pechorin which are then reproduced within the novel. To get to Pechorin, the reader first passes through the story of how the traveller-writer met Max and the story of how Max met Pechorin and came into possession of his journals. The details are entertaining, but there is little need to summarize.

As for Pechorin, he is a man’s man. He womanizes, fights, drinks, and tells stories. As counterpoint, and to make him a bit more interesting, we have access to his private thoughts via his journals. They reveal introspection and doubt about the significance of any of his pursuits or accomplishments. His conquests of men and women make up the adventure and his musing on the meaning of it all provides depth.

The book is quick, but satisfying. I would say of it what someone long ago said of chess: A gnat can sip of it and an elephant can swim in it. There are layers and folds and story enough for anyone. For those looking for 19th Century Russian literature that is easier, though neither less serious nor less dark, than Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, A Hero of Our Time is an excellent alternative.

Okay, another quote:

Or, is it the result of that ugly, but invincilbe, feeling which causes us to destroy the sweet illusions of our neighbur in order to have the petty satisfaction of saying to him, when, in despair, he asks what he is to believe:

“My friend, the same thing happened to me, and you see, nevertheless, that I dine, sup, and sleep very peacefully, and I shall, I hope, know how to die without tears and lamentations.”