“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:
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….