A Hero of Our Time
Mikhail Lermontov (translated by Martin Parker and Neil Cornwell)
Alma: 217pp.: £4.99 rrp.
We’re accustomed to seeing book jackets and the opening pages adorned with quips and praise by other authors, newspapers and journals, and if you look through any bookshop, you’ll be guaranteed that 70% of those books will be described as the best thing you’ll read all year. Here, opening the pages of A Hero of Our Time, Mikhail Lermontov’s work from 1839, you’re first greeted by a vanguard of four of the most lauded writers of all time; Gogol, Chekhov, Lessing and Nabokov (the latter of which even doing his own translation), all of them testifying to a A Hero’s… brilliance. And what is most startling about this is their range: you wouldn’t imagine Nabokov enjoying Lessing or them snugly next to each other in an anthology.
With all classic, esteemed objects or works, things that sustain the centuries, we’re asking is it justified? Is it still relevant? We’re all familiar with the feeling of bemusement and boredom at school, which probably does its best to avert you to any classic literature later in life, only disposing you to wonder what the hell sustains these archaic pursuits of love in archaic language. You’re not given time to answer, what is this going to give me now? What is Lermontov’s work going to give me, like it gave something to Gogol and Chekhov? Schooling and dictation does not allow you to consider that. Nabokov and Lessing were not in the same classroom and were allowed to take something different away.
Indeed, you’d be forbidden for feeling timid, like you probably are when you confront any classic work of literature, and the vanguard probably adds to that. But then this is a novel about timidity; a Byronic anti-hero, a swaggering exile who’s looking for a duel, and written by a man who seems to share similar traits to his character. In fact, it’s bordering on the bullish.
For a work of realism, taking from the likes of Walter Scott’s marauding heroes, Lermontov’s work is a fragmented, layered composition, with hazy lines between fact and fiction that we’d perhaps not expect of that time. The introduction provided with this edition (worth defining as the introduction provided by Neil Cornwell, and not the author’s preface, but more about that shortly), states that “one of the most striking formal features of A Hero of Our Time is its generic mix. It is made up, prefaces apart of five short stories…”Regardless of its structure, in each section the identity of the writer and narrator is not always tangible.
James Wood in his essay on Lermontov (‘Unfathomable!’) draws analogues with Samuel Johnson’s description of the Highlands in his expedition with James Boswell: “Apparently unable to banish his dead fascination, Johnson can only fixate on the terrible depth of the loch…the real interest of the passage is Dr Johnson’s obscure knowledge of himself.” You’re on board with Wood’s hypothesis and that is certainly what pervades the reading of Pechorin and Lermontov, but it’s also what you’re feeling yourself; that here you’ve come upon a piece of work, great and mysterious, deep from the annals of literary history, something that you were not quite expecting, and ironic to its title, not of its time, beyond time.
Wood’s essay then is an attempt to reconcile the writer Lermontov and the character, Pechorin, whom is initially recounted to us by a soldier, Maxim Maximych. The first time we meet Pechorin, we already know him as dead. The last three sections we are reading Pechorin’s words but only because we’re reading his diary (there is also the attempt at another story/novel in Princess Ligovskaya which features Pechorin but is distinct from A Hero of Our Time). It’s mysterious, not in its inconclusiveness or at the expense of its narrative, but in its elusiveness. Unlike the great romanticist escapades that were so popular and fashionable at the time (and perhaps, in a different way, still are now), the mystery is at the behest of the man, not the mystery itself. The real interest, like Wood says of Johnson’s account, is the ‘obscure knowledge of himself’. This is what I think, makes it the powerful ‘literary’ novel that it is and why it has sustained such power over so many writers and readers over the centuries. Wood notes how it enamoured writers like Dostoevsky who would at first seem a very different writer to Lermontov. But like Chekhov, Gogol, Lessing, and Nabokov, what is uniting them, making them equal, is that they have all become, in the wake of the novel, writers reduced to mere readers: they submit, like we all do, to the wonder and possibility of Lermontov’s work.
As it opens, the nameless traveller and the Captain are forced to stop in the mountains whereupon they will hear about the hero, Pechorin. Lermontov was himself exiled into the Caucassian mountains which is what you’d assume provides the material for the scenery. This isn’t all though. Perhaps it’s more like ‘screenery’ similar to what Wood described in Johnson’s fixation with the Loch, where there is a “nameless stream that noisily bursts from a black, gloom-filled gorge” and “a thick mist rolled in waves from the gorges, blanketed it completely, and not a sound reached us from the depths”. And even the people who live there might be aware of it as well:
The captain then says
“We’ll have to stay here overnight,” he said, annoyed. “You can’t get through the hills in a blizzard like this. Seen any avalanches on Krestoyava?” he asked a coachman.
“No sir,” the Ossetian replied, “But there’s a lot just waiting to come down.”
They might as well be sat at the tip of an iceberg. It is not just scenery, but as Wood talks about, that unfathomable rejection of categorisation. Lermontov here though, realises that the mystery of humanity doesn’t mean determining who the person is, and their identity, it’s a mystery of the composition and the contradictions. You’ll see then how duality is so important in A Hero…, as it represents the dual way in which we can never truly know ourselves fully and consciously, as gaps in the narration and Pechorin’s character begin to explain one another. “I have an inborn urge to contradict,” Pechorin says in his diaries.
This sense of duality pervades not just the novel but the life of Lermontov as well, both literally and ironically, as both our characters and author died in duels. And they are duelling with one another here as to who takes precedence. The author’s preface for example could be ‘written’ by Lermontov, Pechorin, Maxim Maximych, a nameless traveller, but the word itself represents what it actually is here. The Pre-Face and the Fore-Word: the author applying the mask, the writer ready to project themselves, the jutting confrontation to the reader:
“A Hero of Our Time, my dear sirs is indeed a portrait, but not of one man; it is a portrait built up of all our generation’s vices in full bloom. You will again tell me that a human being cannot be so wicked, and I shall reply that if you can believe in the existence of all the villians of tragedy ad romance, why should you not believe that this is not Pechorin? If you could admire far more terrifying and repulsive types, why are you not more merciful to this character even if it is fictitious?”
Go on then, come and have a go, but be prepared for the duel. Our heroes are often projections of our unreal fantasies, and whilst Lermontov on some level is parodising the ‘hero’ fashionable at the time (and parody as Wood remarks, is often loaded with admiration), our ‘hero’ is actually, lost, exiled, probably scared and ready for battle. The romanticist’s dreams were often caught up in nationalism, but this hero isn’t even wanted by his native land. And we’re hard on him as well because he’s hard on the reader, and perhaps he’s giving us a warning: identify with this hero at your peril, but it might be a peril you’ll need to make at some point. You discover things about yourself that you did not want to discover. You will want to defeat the part of yourself that wants to defeat you.
Duality carries into ‘Princess Ligovskaya’, an unfinished piece included as an appendix in this edition. It is equally as sublime so don’t let the fact it’s an appendix make it seem any less superior. There is more duelling; weaponry leaks into descriptions of the tears of women, described as both“offensive and defensive” weapons and it seems that to fall in love, to be at the abeyance of your own emotions, is either to be conquered or conquer them:
“Pechorin, throughout the campaign, distinguished himself, just as every Russian officer distinguished himself, and fought boldy as did every Russian soldier. He paid his compliments to many Polish misses, but the instant of his last farewell and the image of Verochka invariably alarmed his imagination. How strange this was! He had gone away with the set intention of forgetting her, and the contrary happened (which is almost always the way it works in such matters). What is more, Pechorin was possessed of a most unfortunate disposition: impressions which at first might seem insignificant would little by little push themselves ever deeper and deeper into his mind. Thus as time unfolded, this love assumed the right of longest-standing over his heart – the most sacrosanct of the rights of humanity.”
It’s interesting that the paragraph following this is relaying Pechorin’s role in the “taking of Warsaw”. But there is even a duel there in how her love “assumed the longest-standing over his heart”. And also, does not the way he pushes those impressions deeper and deeper into the mind sound like the deep and dark gorges we were greeted with at the start of A Hero…? There is so much intent to do something and then realising that the mastery is not always possible, realisations that culminate in the awareness that humanity is not even capable at being at one with its own failings and contradictions, that Pechorin, in his inborn urge to contradict is upon the only way of understanding oneself. Through the duel, where one aspect will fail, at the hope the prevailing truth or nature will show itself.
Lermontov does make this about the obscure knowledge of himself, but there is an extra dimension to it. The character of Pechorin is so elusive that we’re always searching for him, and often like the dual, where the battle may seem to be between two very opposing sides, it is, in itself, over a very similar rejection: what is seen in the other that is seen in the self. Lermontov, like his hero, died in a duel. To stare into the abyss was what Lermontov did, and he may not have won the duel over himself, but he did win one over his readers. That is a battle you’ll be more than happy to lose. Great literature wins every time.
James Wood’s essay ‘Unfathomable’ was originally printed as ‘In a Spa Town’ (February, 2010) in the London Review of Books and reprinted in his essay collection, The Fun Stuff, published by Vintage.