Category Archives: Lermontov

A Hero of Our Time (film)

I mention film from time to time, so I add here a link to an excerpt of the 2006 film version A Hero of Our Time. This youtube clip depicts the duel scene, and it’s a spectacular cinematic recreation. Sadly the film is still only available in Russian but this clip does include English subtitles:

On an aside, while the duel between Pechorin and Grushnitski took place next to a precipice, Lermontov’s real life duel did not.

Max, over at Pechorin’s Journal, this one’s for you….


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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.


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A Hero of Our Time by Lermontov (part II)

Pechorin: Byronic Hero or Superfluous Man?

A Hero of Our Time has a rather intricate structure. The novel is really a series of 5 stories: Bela, Maksim Maksimich, Taman, Princess Mary and The Fatalist. (A very short section, Introduction to Pechorin’s Journal is placed between the two stories Maksim Maksimich and Taman.) In his translation, Nabokov goes into some detail regarding the sequence of these stories, and placed in chronological order the stories are Taman, Princess Mary, The Fatalist, Bela and Maksim Maksimich. The structure of the novel (the order of the stories) is rather an important issue as Lermontov’s sequencing presents Pechorin in a rather different way than if we had, let’s say, read the stories in chronological order. Another interesting factor about the novel’s structuring is that it has a series of narrators. The first narrator is an unnamed traveler who meets the soldier Maksim Maksimich in the southern Caucasus. Maksimich entertains the traveler with the story Bela and it’s in this story that the character of Pechorin is introduced. Thus we first see Pechorin through Maksim’s eyes, and Maksim is, as it turns out, rather admires Pechorin. 

Maksim Maksimich and the traveler meet again in the second chapter, Maksim Maksimich, and at that point these two characters also meet Pechorin. The traveler’s eagerness to meet Pechorin is matched by our own interest in a character we’ve only seen so far at a distance. But the meeting between Maksim and Pechorin, such as it is, is a disappointment to the older soldier. Pechorin makes a brief appearance and tosses away his notebooks before he leaves for some new adventure. The traveler grabs the notebooks and the last three chapters or stories of A Hero of Our Time are sections from Pechorin’s journals.

By structuring the novel in this fashion, we see Pechorin first through the eyes of Maksim Maksimich, a seasoned middle-aged career soldier who is proud to have served under the legendary General Ermolov and who worships the memory of a younger officer Pechorin. Maksim describes Pechorin to the traveler as respectful and as a bit of an effete–a man who complains about the cold and yet is bold and fearless during a boar hunt. Maksimich decides that Pechorin is “a little odd,” but by the time the tale Bela ends, Pechorin seems to be more than a little odd. Pechorin’s treatment of Bela serves to highlight Pechorin’s salient characteristics–selfishness, boredom, and the manner in which he views other human beings as objects for his amusement.

The second story, Maksim Maksimich brings Pechorin directly into the picture, and this story gives yet another view of Pechorin. Here he’s seen very unsympathetically. Callous to Maksim’s patient, pathetic gestures of friendship, the flesh and blood Pechorin is thoughtless, cold and autocratic. Failing to live up to the expectations created in Bela, it’s clear that the relationship between Maksim and Pechorin had significance only for the older soldier.

But by the time we arrive at the third story, Princess Mary, told by Pechorin through his abandoned notebooks, we see still another view of Pechorin. Layers of his complex personality are peeled away through the introspective focus of the notebooks.  Now Pechorin, in his own voice, appears more than cold, more than odd–he’s deeply troubled, extremely destructive and also self-destructive. Here’s Pechorin off to attend a ball in Pyatigorsk:

“Is it possible,” I thought, “that my only function on earth is to ruin other people’s hopes? Ever since I have lived and acted, fate has always seemed to bring me in at the denouement of other people’s dramas, as if none could either die or despair without me! I am the indispensable persona in the fifth act; involuntarily, I play the miserable part of the executioner or the traitor. What could be fate’s purpose in this? Might it not be that it had designated me to become the author of bourgeois tragedies and family novels, or the collaborator of some purveyor of stories for the ‘Library for Reading’? How should one know? How many people, in the beginning of life, think they will finish it as Alexander the Great or Lord Byron, and instead, retain for the whole of their existence, the rank of titulary counsellor?”

Every bit as seminal as Lovelace, Pechorin, the hero or anti-hero of Lermontov’s novel has to be one of literature’s most fascinating creations. In each story, Pechorin leaves destruction in his wake, but he’s not only destructive, he’s also contaminating. He kidnaps a Circassian girl on a whim, and the ripple out effect of this act results in murder. He thoughtlessly rides his horse to death, scatters an ad-hoc family of smugglers into destitution or worse, and his delight in manipulating human behaviour ends in the pointless, meaningless death of another man. Is there anyone who benefits from knowing Pechorin? And that brings me to that “mad, bad and dangerous to know” idea.

Pechorin is a perfect Byronic hero (and Byron is mentioned in the novel a few times) but according to critics he also fits the criteria of The Superfluous Man–a type of archetypal character identified in Russian literature. Frankly, I have a problem with this.

Turgenev is the master in creating sublime examples of the Superfluous Man. Consider Lavretsky …  in Home of the Gentry Lavretsky is an ineffectual man who seems out-of-place wherever he goes. The world wouldn’t be a bit different with Lavretsky gone from the planet. Lavretsky simply doesn’t matter–not to his wife, his friends, his neighbours, or even his serfs for that matter. Then there’s Goncharov’s Oblomov–a man so overcome with inertia, he’s happy to spend his life in his dressing gown.

The shared characteristics of the Byronic Hero and the Superfluous Man are not necessarily mutually exclusive (men who don’t fit in society, for example), but at the same time it’s difficult to imagine a character straddling both categories. While it’s impossible to see Lavretsky or Oblomov as anything except Superfluous Men, Pechorin seems to be a different breed altogether. He’s a destructive force, and everyone he touches suffers from the relationship in some way. Destructive and ineffectual behaviour are mutually exclusive, and so I argue for Pechorin as the Byronic hero and not the Superfluous Man.  Here’s Pechorin the night before the duel as he contemplates the possibility of death:

If I am to die, I’ll die! The loss to the world will not be large and, anyway, I myself am sufficiently bored. I am like a man who yawns at a ball and does not drive home to sleep, only because his carriage is not yet there. But now the carriage is ready … good-by!…



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A Hero of Our Time by Lermontov (part I)

“You, too, are an exile.”

A few years ago, I read A Hero of Our Time by Russian writer Mikhail Lermontov, and the novel became one of the astonishing reads of my lifetime–not only is this an absolutely wonderful book, but it encouraged me to start reading more Russian stuff. Up to that point, I’d been a bit overwhelmed by the sheer volume of some of the more famous entries into Russian literature–plus then there’s that patronymic thing.

Lermontov left behind poems, plays, paintings and just this one novel when he was killed in a duel at age 26.  His early death represents a terrible loss to literature, and we can only speculate about the sort of career this amazing man might have enjoyed if he’d lived to a ripe old age. When I picked up my dilapidated used copy of A Hero of Our Time, it had been sitting neglected on my shelf for years. I finally turned to it for two reasons:

1) It was perfect timing. I’d been reading Nabokov and he translated my version of A Hero of Our Time.

2) A Hero of Our Time was mentioned–albeit briefly in a wonderful French film Un Coeur en Hiver. This was nagging away at the back of my mind.

As it turns out these two points are important but more of that later.

One of my goals for 2010 was to reread A Hero of Our Time, but before I did that I decided to read a nonfiction book about Lermontov. That book was Lermontov: Tragedy in the Caucasus by Laurence Kelly (my last post). Armed with that background, I returned to A Hero of Our Time.  Kelly’s book really is a good companion to A Hero of Our Time as it places the novel in the context of Lermontov’s life. Kelly makes the point that Lermontov fell in love with the Caucasus during his childhood trips to the region, and many of the characters in A Hero of Our Time are identified as people Lermontov met in the Caucasus during his periods of exile. Lermontov wrote the novel in 1839 just two years before his death in 1841.

A Hero of Our Time is set in the wilds of the Caucasus in the 1830s and begins with the travels of an unnamed Russian narrator. On an arduous journey, hampered by rough terrain and harsh weather conditions, the narrator meets a tough old soldier, Maksim Maksimich. Circumstances force the two men together, and eventually the narrator, eager for a story from the older man, leads Maxim into telling a fantastic tale. While Maxim’s story represents one of the five sections of Lermontov’s novel, A Hero of Our Time is really a collection of five stories–all set in the Caucasus and all concerning, to some degree or another the very romantic figure of a young officer named Pechorin.

The five sections are as follows:


Maksim Maksimich


Princess Mary

The Fatalist.

In the first story, the narrator and Maxim are stuck in a smoke-filled hovel together and Maxim tells the tale of a reckless, young officer named Pechorin who steals a wild Circassian girl, Bela, with the aid of her brother. In exchange for the brother’s help, Pechorin steals a much-prized horse that belongs to a notorious bandit. Maksim describes the tragedy that unfolds between Pechorin, Bela and the bandit.

It is through Maxim’s tale that we are introduced to the hero, Pechorin, and in the book’s next section, Maxim Maksimich Pechorin makes a brief appearance at an inn before he throws his notebooks away and takes off for yet another adventure in Persia. The narrator retrieves the notebooks, and the final three chapters of the book are taken from these notebooks and relate some of Pechorin’s colourful adventures.

Pechorin is a marvelously complex character, and in the best chapter in the book, Princess Mary Pechorin’s murky motivations are explored in great detail. Stuck at the resort of Pyatigorsk, Pechorin amuses himself–rather cruelly–with a high-ranking Princess. While she is the object of another young male’s attention, Pechorin proceeds to play a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with the girl and this eventually results in a duel.

Lengthy description of landscapes tend to put me to sleep, but Lermontov’s descriptions of the terrain are incredible:

“Gloomy and mysterious abysses yawned black, and thither glided the mists, whirling and winding, like snakes down the furrows of nearby cliffs, as if aware and afraid of the approach of day.”


“The sun had already begun to hide behind the snowy range when I drove into the Koyshaur Valley. My Ossetian driver urged the horses on unceasingly, in order that we might get to the top of Mount Koyshaur before nightfall, and sang songs at the top of his voice. What a delightful place, that valley! On all sides rise inaccessible mountains, reddish cliffs, hung over with green ivy and crowded with clumps of plane trees; tawny precipices streaked with washes, and far above, the golden fringe of the snows; below, Aragva River, infolding another, nameless, river which noiselessly bursts forth from a black gorge full of gloom, stretches out in a silver thread and glistens like the scaling of a snake.”

 The author also succeeds in describing the innermost intricacies of human motivation. The duel with the pathetic character of Grushnitski becomes, for Pechorin, an exercise in human behaviour. The stakes may well be life and death, but Pechorin seems merely curious to see how Grushnitski will act. At another point, Pechorin delights in toying with Princess Mary and realises that “she will spend a sleepless night and will weep,” Pechorin acknowledges that he feels an almost ghoulish interest in the prospect noting: “There are moments when I understand the vampire.”

The moments before the duel reveal Pechorin’s nihilistic philosophy towards life, death and everything in between. He is a man who lives recklessly and fully while understanding his transitory presence on the planet.:

“I scan my whole past in memory and involuntarily wonder: why did I live, for what purpose was I born? …  And yet that purpose must have existed, and my destination must have been a lofty one, for I feel, in my soul, boundless strength. But I did not divine that destination, I became enticed by the lure of hollow and thankless passions. From their crucible, I emerged as hard and cold as iron, but lost forever the ardor of noble yearnings–the best blossom of life. And, since then, how many times have I played the part of an axe in the hands of fate! As an executioner’s tool, I would have fallen upon the head of doomed victims, often without malice, always without regret. My love brought happiness to none, because I never gave up anything for the sake of those whom I loved. I loved for myself, for my proper pleasure; I merely satisfied a bizarre need of my heart, avidly consuming their sentiments, their tenderness, their joys and sufferings–and never could I have my fill. Thus a man, tormented by hunger and fatigue, goes to sleep and sees before him rich viands and sparkling wines; he devours with delight the airy gifts of fancy, and he seems to feel relief; but as soon as he awakes–the vision vanishes. He is left with redoubled hunger and despair!”

In this untamed land, Pechorin, very much a Byronic hero, is perpetually bored and as a seeker of new adventures–he runs wild and unleashed far from the restrictions of suffcoating St. Petersburg culture. Of course what he does with this freedom is another matter.

More in part II….


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