A Hero of Our Time by Lermontov (part III)

A Hero of Our Time and Nabokov

Nabokov, in his translation of A Hero of Our Time notes that for “the emotional type of reader, much of the novel’s poignancy and fascination resides in the fact that Lermontov’s own tragic fate is somehow superimposed upon that of Pechorin.” I’ve never considered myself an emotional reader before, but according to Nabokov’s criteria, I must be.

Nabokov implies that it’s a bad thing to mix up Pechorin’s fate with Lermontov (well at least I think it’s a bad thing since Nabokov argues that this is what the emotional reader does, and after all who wants to be labelled an “emotional reader”?) I was fascinated by the parallels between the action in the novel and Lermontov’s life and tragic death. Then add the fact that Pushkin–a man Lermontov admired tremendously–also died in a duel, and I came away with the idea that 19th century Russia hadn’t exactly been a healthy environment for at least two of its greatest writers.

After reading Laurence Kelly’s bio Lermontov: Tragedy in the Caucasus, I discovered that Lermontov included many of his own life experiences in the novel and many of the fictional characters were real people.  It’s not that I have Pechorin and Lermontov mixed up in my head as the same person. Strictly speaking, I find it a bit more reasonable to identity Lermontov with the unnamed Russian traveller–the man who grabs Pechorin’s discarded journals. But at the same time, Pechorin and Lermontov, the writer and his creation, are eternally grafted onto each other. Perhaps this is partially due to the fact that Lermontov only wrote one novel. Then there’s those duels. I can’t help but wonder if, on that last day, Lermontov thought about Pechorin’s fictional duel.

Lermontov seems to argue that Pechorin was a symptom of a diseased Russian culture–although this is an idea that Nabokov steers away from. In the foreword, Nabokov says:

“We should not take, as seriously as most Russian commentators, Lermontov’s statement in his Introduction (a stylized bit of make-believe in its own right) that Pechorin’s portrait is ‘composed of all the vices of our generation.’ Actually the bored and bizarre hero is the product of several generations , some of them non-Russian.”

Nabokov here, of course refers to Pechorin as a Byronic hero, and he goes on to list some of those non-Russian influences, including Byron and Constant’s Adolphe.

Here’s Lermontov in his introduction:

“A Hero of Our Time, gentleman, is indeed a portrait, but not of a single individual; it is a portrait composed of all the vices of our generation in the fullness of their development. You will tell me again that a man cannot be as bad as all that; and that I shall tell you that since you have believed in the possibility of so many tragic and romantic villains having existed, why can you not believe in  the reality of Pechorin? If you have admired fictions far more frightful and hideous, why does  this character, even as fiction, find no quarter with you? Is it not, perchance, because there is more truth in this character than you would desire there to be?”

Later in the section Introduction to Pechorin’s Journal , the unnamed narrator writes a statement which seems to address the issue of the “vices of our generation”  :

“Perhaps some readers will want to know my opinion of Pechorin’s character. My answer is the title of this book. ‘But this is a wicked irony!’ they will say.

I wonder.”

Laurence Kelly makes the point that in 19th century Russia literature was one of the only avenues for social protest, but that criticisms had to be obscured or layered with double-meaning–even then it was still dodgy. Lermontov, for example, found himself shipped off twice into exile for that unpardonable and apparently incorrigible sin of being a free-thinker.

Not too surprisingly, Tsar Nicholas hated A Hero of Our Time and decided the author was “depraved,” but then he’d had Lermontov in his crosshairs for some time. Upon reading the novel, Nicholas expressed the idea that at first he’d thought Maksim Maksimich was the Hero and that this character should have been developed but that instead the author “replaced” Maksim “by wretched and uninteresting people. ” The Tsar missed the point. Maksim is, of course, a very decent fellow, but he hardly garners respect from any of the other characters in the novel. At one point, Maksim acknowledges quite ruefully that he’s never inspired the sort of love Pechorin inspires. He was a good friend to Pechorin but he’s not a member of the nobility–therefore Pechorin barely acknowledges the relationship when these two men meet by chance years later. It’s nothing less than amusing to me to read about the Tsar’s scorn for Lermontov’s novel–he crows against its morality and yet the morality is dictated by the very Russian society Nicholas ruled over with a rather nasty iron fist. Off to the Peter Paul Fortress with me….

Did perhaps the Tsar object to Pechorin’s morality in grabbing Bela? After all she is a Circassian princess and not a serf. Nonetheless, Russia was engaged in a war of extermination against the various tribes in the region, and Pechorin is hardly the first 19th century nobleman to grab and exploit a girl and then tire of her. To our 21 st century sensibilities, it’s quite easy to see Pechorin as an agent of Russian Imperialism. These are the years of the Caucasian War, and the results were the scattering, decimation, and ethnic-cleansing of the region. And then there’s Chechnya … still.  Pechorin doesn’t seem to care one way or another about the Caucasus. He’s there mainly to avoid boredom, but Lermontov loved the Caucasus and loved nature–another point on which the man and his creation differ.

Well I’ve rattled on now for 1000s of words about A Hero of Our Time, Pechorin and Lermontov. Most self-indulgent of me.

One last thing: watch Un Coeur en Hiver for a film adaptation of the Princess Mary episode. The motivations of the main character, Stephane (played by the wonderful French actor Daniel Auteuil) seem up for debate, but after reading A Hero of Our Time, it all clicks into place.


Filed under Lermontov

28 responses to “A Hero of Our Time by Lermontov (part III)

  1. leroyhunter

    Guy, a great series of posts and you have again inspired a buy. I picked up A Hero.. today and am looking forward to it. You’ll forgive me that I have only read your first post in detail as, interest piqued, I wanted to come to the book with expectation rather then detailed knowledge of plot etc.

    Similar to the point you make in the first entry, I have read very little Russian literature: I had challenged myself to a Tolstoy binge this year. This now seems like an excellent (and possibly less arduous) primer for that challenge.

    • Thanks Leroy: I had a great time rambling with these posts, and yes it’s a good thing just to read the first post only if you haven’t read the book. It’s very accessible and a wonderful tale. I hope you enjoy it.
      Which translation did you get? My Nabokov is literally falling apart at the seams.

  2. leroyhunter

    Guy, there were 3 versions on offer: a new translation from Penguin Classics, an older Penguin Classics version by Paul Foote and an Oxford Classics edition. I went with the new Penguin: the translation is by Natasha Randall and having read the opening pages of each it struck me as superior for both tone and readability.

  3. leroyhunter

    I should day: if the Nabokov version had been available I almost certainly would have gone with that. I see it’s available from Everyman so maybe that would be an interesting future comparison.

  4. I would have selected Nabokov too if I had to go and buy the novel (instead of finding it neglected on my shelf). But to be honest, re-reading Nabokov’s intro annoyed me this time around.

    Didn’t know there is a new Penguin translation….

  5. I’ve hugely enjoyed these posts. On coming back from holiday I had a big backlog of blog posts to read, I saved these pretty much for last. Fascinating stuff, great to see the book get so much analysis.

    What did you think of Nabokov’s style here? I’ve heard that as a translator he can be frustratingly literal, killing sometimes flow in the name of accuracy. Is that an issue?

    I should check out the new Penguin translation, I have the older one which is pretty good, but it’s interesting to compare.

    The points on Maksim are well made, both on how important his encounter with Pechorin is to him yet not to Pechorin, and on how it comments on the wider social structures.

    What a terrible time and place, yet what great literature.

  6. I’d have to compare with another translation. Nabokov’s seemed ok to me, but to be honest I found the intro very annoying this time around. Nabokov could be very cutting and arrogant, and he rips the novel while acknowledging its qualities.

    I also thought his discussion of the ‘vices of our generation’ more than a bit disingenuous. Of course, this was territory he didn’t want to tread into, but I was quite annoyed.

    I hope you saw the clip I put on the blog.

  7. I have seen the clip, I just can’t watch it until tonight or tomorrow, I’m looking forward to it though.

  8. leroyhunter

    I finished this the other day, Guy, and was really surprised by it. Enjoyed it immensely, in large part I think because I wasn’t prepared for the complex structure or the nature of Pechorin’s character. Both very pleasant surprises.

    Reading your series of posts (with a clear conscience now, unafriad of spoilers) I must say they really illuminate this fascinating book. I particularly like your comments about the possible autobiographical element (or lack thereof) in the portrayal of Pechorin. I must look out the Kelly book. “Then there’s those duels. I can’t help but wonder if, on that last day, Lermontov thought about Pechorin’s fictional duel.” Wonderful stuff.

  9. leroyhunter

    On another point: I was able to compare the passages you quote with the relevant sections from my Penguin edition, and there is a remarkable consistency in the 2 versions. So maybe I don’t need to read the Nabokov translation in future.

    The only mark against the Penguin is the excessively glib foreword by Neil LaBute, although he does make the interesting argument that Pechorin is an early representation of sociopathic behaviour in literature. Interesting, but not a succesful argument, I think. Your own comments on Byronic vs. Superfluous are more apropos.

    • Leroy: reading this comment much later–well re-reading it actually. I think arguing that Pechorin is an example of sociopathic behaviour is a 20/21st century reading. I mean, Pechorin was a symptom of his times. You can’t say that 19th C Russia was a nation of sociopaths.

      • leroyhunter

        I agree Guy. I tend to be suspicious of this kind of reverse-anachronism. Pechorin is not a sociopath, although he is capable of prodigious self-absorption and ruthlessness.

  10. Nabokov, yes a wonderful writer, but who also can be such a snot, really annoyed me in the intro this time around. He ripped into the book while still acknowledging its power, and then he ignored the sociological observations which are really unavoidable when considering the fictional life of Pechorin and the very real-life of Lermontov–a man who was essentially thrown away and crushed by the society that despised him. 19th Russia was not kind to its greatest writers….Well the 20th Soviet Union wasn’t an improvement either when it came to artists and writers.

    Nabokov is condescending about those who draw parallels between Lermontov and his fictional creation, yet at the same time he notes the autobiographical similarities and the fact that this very young writer (you should see some of his teenage poetry) drew on his experiences. Well you can’t have it both ways, and to me while the two fictional and real are two separate entities, there are points at which they meet, and the duel is one of those moments.

    Thanks for your comments. Just thinking about this book, well….it’s an experience.

    • …arguing that Pechorin is an example of sociopathic behaviour is a 20/21st century reading. … Pechorin was a symptom of his times. You can’t say that 19th C Russia was a nation of sociopaths.

      No, but certainly there were sociopaths then. And the types of characters that authors choose to be their protagonists is itself a ‘symptom of the times.’ So, noting Pechorin’s ‘sociopathological’ traits, or, as it seems to me, his ‘addicitve personality,’ is not a bad thing as long as we remember we are reading literature and not a clinical psychiatry.

      As for Nabokov, did you read his footnotes? Commenting on the passage, “…in simple hearts, the sense of the beauty and grandeur of nature is a hundred times stronger and more vivid than it is in us, enthusiastic tellers of tales, oral or written,” he notes:
      38- This is, of course, a romanticist notion. It is completely untrue.
      Thanks, Vlad! I really needed you to tell me that. And why did you need to say it?

      Then, in No. 54: The allusion is to La Femme de Trente Ans…a vulgar novelette, ending in ridiculous melodrama, by the overrated French writer, Balzac…A little further, occur the famous, but actually insipid and commonplace pages…

      Barrel of salt needed when reading his critical opinions.

  11. Leroy:
    Just wanted to add that the Laurence book really explores the censorship of the times and through this I was able to grasp how “it” worked. The book makes it clear how claustrophic and suffocating Russian society (of the elite) was and how Lermontov escaped to the Caucasus.

    Kelly also makes it clear that Lermontov was targeted by the Tsar (as others were too), and that he was supposed to be crushed and eventually broken by boredom in the tedium of the outposts. He wasn’t supposed to be off enjoying himself and having adventures. The Tsar, who sounds like a real bastard by the way, understood Lermontov but underestimated his self-destructive impulses.

    Anyway, the Kelly book is a great companion book to read along with A Hero of Our Time.

    Finally, the Byronic hero vs Superfluous Man…there isn’t one definitive answer. It’s just marvellous to mull over the question.

  12. leroyhunter

    Yes, it seems Nicholas was a tyrannical and vindictive old goat, even by Tsarist standards. Apparently he commented “a dog’s death for a dog” when told of Lermontov’s demise.

    As to Russian writers of the 20th century, another victim of censorship and official browbeating who I’m keen to read is Vasily Grossman. I have Life & Fate on the shelf as well as his wartime diaries; the former has attracted some incredible praise so really looking forward to it.

  13. If you get to Kelly’s book, you will read that Lermontov’s grandmother said almost exactly the same phrase when L’s dad died.

    Yes, I have Grossman on my list too. One of these days…

  14. Odd, I’ve thought of many French novels while reading this book but not of Adolphe. It makes sense though. That’s maybe because I read it a long time ago. (one of the few Romantic books I really enjoyed)
    Loved the book and its witt.
    Thanks for that series of post, they’re most useful.

  15. I just finished this novel today, standing in an overcrowded carriage of a London underground train. there are many things about this novel that excite me, but also much that puzzles me. I found it particularly surprising, for instance, that the novel didn’t end after the duel, and after Pechorin’s fruitless attempt to meet vera again: one would have expected that to have been the culminating point of the work. Instead, we have a further chapter, entitled “The Fatalist” in the translation I was reading (by Natasha Randall), and, interesting though it was, seemed to me slightly bathetic after the breathtaking sequence we had just read.

    At the centre of it is, of course, Pechorin himself. Obviously, he owes much to Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, in that both are bored with life, and both effectively shrug their shoulders at the concept of moral responsibility. But where Onegin seems coldly indifferent and mainly passive, Pechorin is all action, is daredevil and excitable. Both kill a man in a duel who is a bit of a booby, and neither feels pangs of remorse; and yet, both, to their own surprise, find themselves at key moments capable of profound emotion. I am sure therehave been many essays comparing the two.

    As for Nabokov, he was obviously a brilliant mind and a wonderful writer, but I do find his writings on literature somewhat idiosyncratic, to say the elast: it’s almost as if he set out at times deliberately to be perverse!

    • I think you hit the nail on the head with Nabokov. There’s a great passage about him in a memoir. I’ll have to dig it up.

      As for the sequence/structure in A Hero of Our Time, yes it’s curious. I suppose Lermontov expected to write more adventures from the “fat notebook” .

      • Frank, in the intro to Demons, compares Stavrogin with Pechorin, saying he’s a ‘type’ in Russian lit, indeed in European 19th century lit – the Musset confessions of a child of the century type…Now I’m going to read it, having finished Demons.

        Nabokov, as you know, made fun of Dostoyevsky a lot, and I have concluded that VN was both a brilliant artist, and a conceited snob. Not a common mix. I have a friend who subscribes totally to VN’s critical views and fancies himself an ‘aesthete.’ If one is an aesthete, someone who is moved by and seeks out beauty in the world, why limit oneself to one special slice of the beautiful? For these types, literature must be one way, their way. It may be good, but it takes all kinds to make a world, as they say.

  16. Pingback: “A Hero of Our Time” by Mikhail Lermontov « The Argumentative Old Git

  17. Steven

    This is a wonderful post!
    It was interesting how you said that A hero of our time is a subliminal piece of social protest. After reading the book I have trouble understanding Lermintov’s true purpose in writing it, especially in the chapter Princess Mary where the dept of Perchorin is explored. Was he just scornfully criticizing the bad habits of Russian society? Or is there something Obvious that I’m missing. Also, since you know a lot more about Russian society than me I’m curious on what exactly was Lermintov trying to change?

  18. Steven: I recommend the book Lermontov: Tragedy in the Caucasus by Laurence Kelly (reviewed here elsewhere). Lermontov was not opposed to serfdom but Kelly goes into Lermontov’s Decembrist sympathies which only increased after his period of exiles. I would say that Lermontov chafed against the restrictions of Russian society–after all ever time he returned to St Petersburg, he got into trouble again. He found Russian society restrictive and oppressive. If you look at the post on the Kelly book you will see some passages on the Tsar and what he thought of Lermontov. To me, Lermontov’s Hero of Our Time is laced with its author’s profound despair, self-destruction and sense of societal suffocation.
    Thanks for the comment.

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