Monday, February 11, 2008

Mikhail Lermontov and A Hero of Our Time

Mikhail Lermontov (1814-41) lived and worked in the shadow of Pushkin. His verse forms, his subject matter, and his death in a pointless duel (age 27), suggest his older contemporary at every turn. For the last four years of his life, he was widely acknowledged as Pushkin's heir, Russia's greatest living poet. But Lermontov is very much worth reading for his own sake.

Lermontov's single short novel, A Hero of Our Time (1840), is a series of four adventures of Pechorin, the supposed hero of the title. The adventures are all set on the war-torn Caucasian frontier, and involve smugglers and Chechnyan bandits, kidnapping, Russian roulette, and dueling - exciting stuff. Why, then, is Pechorin always so bored?

That's the central irony of the novel - the adventures are all a result of Pechorin's boredom, his struggle against the meaningless of his life. The result is always some sort of disaster. Pechorin sows chaos, just to have something to do, and leaves a trail of casualties. Here's a sample of how he operates. Pechorin is trying to steal the Princess Mary from his friend Grushnitski, for sport:

"During all these days, I never once departed from my system. The young princess begins to like my conversation. I told her some of the strange occurrences in my life, and she begins to see in me an extraordinary person. I laugh at everything in the world, especially at feelings: this is beginning to frighten her. In my presence she does not dare to launch upon sentimental debates with Grushnitski, and has several times already replied to his sallies with a mocking smile; but every time that Grushnitski comes up to her, I assume a humble air and leave them alone together. The first time she was glad of it or tried to make it seem so; the second time she became cross with me; the third time she became cross with Grushnitski." (p. 121, Ardis edition)

The result, in this case, is one of the greatest, craziest, dueling scenes in Russian literature.

A Hero of Our Time has an indirect, modern structure. A Lermontov-like narrator first hears a long story about Pechorin, then, by chance, actually meets him. Then the last three stories are in Pechorin's own voice, from his journals. So the reader starts at a distance, but draws closer and closer to Pechorin.

Lermontov's hero is a relative of Goethe's Werther and any number of Byronic heroes, and his own descendants will be seen again in certain protagonists of Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Dostoevsky, and any other character who asks "What's the point of it all?"

This is cross-posted at the Russian Reading Challenge. I'm not sure it's any more useful or well written than Lermontov's wikipedia entry, but such is life.

The long "Princess Mary" chapter is the earliest non-English story I know set in a spa town. In England, I'm thinking of Jane Austen and Tobias Smollett. Who am I forgetting?


  1. I think I would like to try Lermontov at some point - perhaps not his poetry but his novel. At least first.

  2. Well, I can think of the man Hume referred to as "a plague-spot on English literature" -- John Wilmot, the 2nd Earl of Rochester. He didn't so much write stories as these scandalous little things about society (for lack of a better term) at Tunbridge Wells. That would have been about 1660? 1665? I'd have to look that up. I read some of his poetry back in high school. It did not seem all that scandalous to me, but then, that was the era of Prince and various filthy rock and roll/R&B songs. So -- Lord Rochester wrote about a spa town. He's the one who wrote those mean little verses about Charles II -- "he never said a foolish thing, and never did a wise one" and so forth.

  3. p.s. -- I also like Dr. Johnson's definition of the "spaw," which he identifies as "a mineral water, so called from Spaw in Germany, known for its mineral waters." Nice try, Doc, but it's Spa and it's near Liege in Belgium. I've never been there -- they tell me it's nice. I also hear nice things about Tunbridge Wells. Which for some reason I always initially get confused with 19th-century American civil-rights activist Ida B. Wells, so whenever I run across Tunbridge Wells referred to in a travelogue or somesuch, I am very confused momentarily, until I remember, "oh, no, that's the place with the acidic water that people are so wild about, not the woman who documented all those lynchings that they named a housing project in Chicago after."

  4. Verbivore, "A Hero of Our Time" is less than 200 pages. Hardly anything. A little slip of a book.

    As for Dr. Johnson: "Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance."

  5. I had an embarrasing moment of thinking, "I should altert am. read. to the Russian spa story I read in my 19th Century Russian Lit. Class." It took a few moments to realize that it had to have been the very Lermontov story under discussion.