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.
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.