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.”


The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

June 28, 2010

I read this book before reading Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved. I am only writing this review now because I had not been entirely what to say on finishing The Good Soldier. It is an outstanding work full of memorable quotes, intense scenes, and engaging characters. I hesitated to write anything, then ended up reading What I Loved which contains so many parallels to this work that I lost confidence that I could separate my appreciation of the two works.

The two books involve entangled families in which the story is related by a male protagonist trying to make sense of what went wrong in the families’ intertwined histories. The non-narrating male lead is a charismatic good guy who, nonetheless, remains emotionally remote from, if not everyone, at least the reader. The narrator seems more able to relate the emotions and significance of his counterpart’s wife than his own. And both involve psychological intrigue of a darkly disquieting nature.

Other than these points of contact, however, the novels are completely different. Well, nearly so.

John Dowell is the narrator of The Good Soldier and tells us early why he is telling this story:

You may well ask why I write. And yet my reasons are quite many. For it is not unusual in human beings who have witnessed the sack of a city or the falling to pieces of a people to desire to set down what they have witnessed for the benefit of unkown heirs or of generations infinitely remote; of, if you please, just to get the sight out of their heads.

The tragedy is the dissolution of the small coterie made up of the two couples and the lesser satellites they trap into orbit. Almost immediately in his narratirion, John tells us that there will be no unscathed survivors. Everyone is either dead, insane, or irrevocably broken. As for John, he tells us:

I know nothing – nothing in the world – of the hearts of men. I only know that I am alone – horribly alone. No hearthstone will ever again witness, for me, friendly intercourse. No smoking-room will ever be other than peopled with incalculable simulacra amidst smoke wreaths.

And John is the one that gets off somewhat easy. Three others are dead.

The whos, hows, and whys of the trio of deaths leads the reader into a labyrinthian social circle from which there is no safe escape. Captain Edward Ashburnan, the “good soldier” of the title, provides the central gravitational pull of the group.

Good God, what did they all see in him? For I swear [his regally charming appearance and abundant carrying cases] was all there was of him, inside and out; though they said he was a good soldier….How could he arouse anything like a sentiment in anybody?

…Ah, well, suddenly, as if by a flash of inspiration, I know. For all good soldiers are sentimentalists – all good soldiers are of that type. Their profession, for one thing, is full of the big words, courage, loyalty, honour, constancy…..He would say how much the society of a good woman could do towards redeeming you, and he would say that constancy was the finest of the virtues. He said it very stiffly, of course, but still as if the statement admitted of no doubt.

What John Dowell does not see, the reader can see almost immediately. Captain Edward Ashburnham has a suave bearing and an understated instensity that women adore. Once they have fallen and Edward has caught them, he is loathe to let them go. This sort of fidelity is, of course, immensely attractive to the opposite sex. And, as if to retain his mistresses’ hearts with secure permanence, Edward worships his wife.

John is a somewhat dull and impotent character who does not understand why Edward is so compelling as he, John, remains a steadfast friend even after Edward’s death and the revelation of painful truths. In circumstances which will make the average reader cringe with revulsion at Edward’s conduct, John gives him a pass. Edward is that kind of man, he has that sort of effect. And, in the end, he may have that effect on the reader too.

The alternatives to Edward are John, in his drab guilelessness, the conniving and disgusting Jimmy, or solitude. Edward is a respectable man, a man to emulate, to envy. The others are only to be pitied. Of course, John does not realize this. He gropes through life unable to decipher the quiet maneuverings of man. His naivete is the tool through which Ford promotes the central theme of the novel, which, if it is not the ephemeral quality of truth, is the duplicity inherent in civilization.

Through a narrator who is constantly having to revise his understanding of the world and the people around him, Ford demonstrates the contingency of knowledge. By the time the story is finished, as John tells us early on, other people begin to appear to John as “incalculable simulacra among smoke wreaths.” The theme is driven home with beautiful language and an intricate plot, much as in Hustvedt’s What I Loved. The strength of this work relative to What I Loved is that The Good Soldier relies on a naively trusting narrator observing more worldly wise companions to demonstrate the fragility of truth. Hustvedt’s relies on an pathologically deceptive character for similar purpose. Thus, The Good Soldier is more powerful in demonstrating that ordinary social intercourse undermines the childlike view that appearance is reality, whereas What I Loved relies on the extraordinary to do the same.

This is not to say that What I Loved does not have its strengths as well, but I believe this review has helped me determine what it is about What I Loved that did not quite work for me. Or maybe it did work, but I took less pleasure in it. In important ways, the works are not similar, but opposites.

But finally, what I have to say is this: If you have read and enjoyed The Good Soldier, you should pick up What I Loved for a delightful comparison. If you have read and enjoyed What I Loved, or if you have not, but have yet to read The Good Soldier, I highly recommend you do. This book is a classic for a reason.


The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

May 4, 2010

Lord Henry Wotton has to be in the running for the greatest fictional dinner guest. He is incredibly charming, provocative, and sharp. I am half-inclined to believe that The Picture of Dorian Gray was conceived as a vehicle for Harry’s witty persona. Comparatively, Dorian and his picture are rather drab.

“What of art?” she asked. [Gladys, Duchess of Monmouth]

“It is a malady.” [Harry]

“Love?”

“An illusion.”

“Religion?”

“The fashionable substitute for belief.”

“You are a sceptic.”

“Never! Scepticism is the beginning of faith.”

“What are you?”

“To define is to limit.”

“Give me a clue.”

“Threads snap. You would lose your way in the labyrinth.”

The book is full of delicious exchanges like this, and I’ve cut this one short. While, in some ways, Harry is the villain of the story, he is the most pleasant character with whom to spend time, in this or any other novel that comes to mind. “Harry spends his days in saying what is incredible and his evenings in doing what is improbable.”

Among Harry’s “incredible” sayings are some enviable zingers:

[S]he is a peacock in everything but beauty.

[S]he tried to found a salon, and only succeeded in opening a restaurant.

“You must admit, Harry, that women give to men the very gold of their lives.”

“Possibly,” he sighed, “but they invariably want it back in such very small change.”

While Harry is busy entertaining, Dorian descends into a darkness without conscience. I was taken by the extent to which Wilde anticipates Camus’ Jean-Baptiste Clamence in The Fall:

There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has a right to blame us. It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution.

Camus builds his novel around this insight, while for Wilde it seems to register as little more than one of Harry’s provocations. Or, maybe Wilde just examined the proposition from another angle. Dorian Gray could be put forward as a counterexample to Clamence. Clamence avoids the judgment of others through self-reproach, but Dorian is unable to do so.

The overt message to the story is that, after all, one cannot escape the consequences of action, even with the help of a supernatural painting. As I am learning about Wilde, he likes to put forward in his writing both a proposition and its opposite, perhaps the better to inoculate himself from criticism. It could be that, instead, his proclamations, as in the introduction to this work, that he has a love of artistic beauty above everything are the true key to his work. His “no such thing as a moral or an immoral book” gives him license to make a well-written book without answering for any deeper meanings within. I believe that his warning that “those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril” is apt.

I am not sure what I pull from the work other than a delight in Wilde’s dialogue and playfulness. Dorian could serve as a warning against vanity, lack of conscience, or the destruction of art. But I do not think he is a warning. I think that Dorian’s ultimate punishment is not for his vanity, but for his effort to try to destroy art.

There are other possible readings. Wilde, of course, was a homosexual at a time it was dangerously illegal to be openly so. Like Dorian and his painting, Wilde necessarily kept a portion of himself hidden from prying eyes. But that part, like Dorian’s painting, could not be destroyed without obliterating Wilde himself. This view seems a little too convenient and too focused on Wilde to be convincing to me, though the theme of duplicity and split-selves is certainly recurrent. My point is only that there is a wealth material for speculative (half-baked, in my case) interpretation if one is so inclined.

Wilde, of course, says it best: “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.”

There is an abundance of shiny surfaces in which to gaze. Harry’s goading statements should stir readers:

The ugly and the stupid have the best of it in this world. They can sit at their ease and gape at the play.

or

I should fancy that the real tragedy of the poor is that they can afford nothing but self-denial. Beautiful sins, like beautiful things, are the privilege of the rich.

And, so too, will the beauty of the prose and the construction of the narrative. There is an early passage in which Dorian Gray focuses on a bee as a distraction from Harry’s “strange panegyric on youth.” Later, a bee returns.

A bee flew in and buzzed round the blue-dragon bowl that, filled with sulphur-yellow roses, stood before him. He felt perfectly happy.

Dorian picks up the thread of the thought ignored many pages before. It is excellent craftsmanship on Wilde’s part and something I had not noticed until re-reading the quotes I had marked (I love the Kindle for this) while on my first time through.

Remember, Wilde’s highest praise is that a book is well-written. This one is and exquisitely so.

(Sarah reviewed this same work recently at her blog, A Rat in the Book Pile. I definitely recommend a trip over there for another perspective.)


Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street by Herman Melville

November 15, 2009

Very short books warrant very short reviews. This is a very short book, easily mistaken for a longish short story. This review will attempt to be as effectively concise. The task is difficult, because Bartleby, the Scrivener is an excellent work.

BartlebyThough apparently there is shame in it, I will admit to not having read this book previously. I owe John Self (previous link) a debt for persuasively reviewing this book. It will now go on the list of those I want to re-read.

The book is narrated by an elderly attorney who recounts all he knows of the title character. At the time the attorney first meets Bartleby, he has in his employ three copyists. The only names we know them by are Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut. Melville’s descriptions of these characters is quite entertaining. For instance, this is our introduction to one:

Nippers, the second on my list, was a whiskered, sallow, and, upon the whole, rather piratical-looking young man of about five and twenty. I always deemed him the victim of two evil powers — ambition and indigestion. The ambition was evinced by a certain impatience of the duties of a mere copyist, an unwarrantable usurpation of strictly professional affairs, such as the original drawing up of legal documents. The indigestion seemed betokened in an occasional nervous testiness and grinning irritability, causing the teeth to audibly grind together over mistakes committed in copying; unnecessary maledictions, hissed, rather than spoken, in the heat of business; and especially by a continual discontent with the height of the table where he worked.

Turkey is Nippers counterpart. He is only reliable in the morning, whereas Nippers is only reliable in the afternoon. The attorney suspects drink is the cause of Turkey’s midday transition. Not so Nippers:

But indeed, nature herself seemed to have been his vintner, and at his birth charged him so thoroughly with an irritable, brandy-like disposition, that all subsequent potations were needless.

Each of the other copyists likewise has humorously related personality quirks. The attorney, too, is not without his own oddities. But each of them has fit into this Wall Street office of an unambitious attorney. Bartleby upsets the inkwell.

Bartleby’s disruptive influence takes some time to be felt. At first, the narrator is happy to have him:

After a few words touching his qualifications, I engaged him, glad to have among my corps of copyists a man of so singularly sedate an aspect, which I thoguht might operate beneficially upon the flighty temper of Turkey, and the fiery one of Nippers.

Bartleby’s sedateness soon becomes a mild obstinance. Scriveners must check their copies for accuracy, but, the first time the narrator asks Bartleby to check the copy:

Bartleby, in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.”

Bartleby’s initial refusal is met with confused indulgence. As his preferences become more disruptive, his employer’s patience ebbs. Bartleby’s “I prefer not” becomes something of a refrain, leading to havoc in the office and consternation on the part of the narrator. Much of the meaning and fun of the book occurs after the second half, but I want to leave with a quote from midway. The narrator’s pity for Bartleby is overridden by his frustrations. He makes a particularly insightful observation:

So true it is, and so terrible too, that up to a certain point the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections, but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not. They err who would assert that invariably this is owing to the inherent selfishness of the human heart. It rather proceeds from a certain hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill. To a sensitive being, pity is not seldom pain. And when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual succor, common sense bids the soul rid of it.