Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Mikhail Lermontov - A Hero of Our Time

A Hero of Our Time (Penguin Classics)A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel is so good we really need to start with the translator's note.

First published in 1840, 'A Hero of Our Time' was translated to English by Nabokov in 1958, framing the experience wonderfully for the modern reader. We have been directed here by the highest of references and are being led through by his very capable hand, as if a master chef not only recommended a fine restaurant, but went with you and helped order and explain all the courses. One is thus pleasantly reassured before even beginning (good also, because the book starts slowly and gets better as it goes, to its spectacular finish).

From Nabokov one can learn a great deal about an artist's point of view, simply because he is so fearless in his evaluation of writing and literature. His opinion is simply his own, unswayed by convention or fad. "Though of tremendous and at times somewhat morbid interest to the sociologist" he begins before discussing the social significance of the protagonist, or "this is a ridiculous opinion, voiced by... Chekhov, and can only be held if and when a moral quality or social virtue is confused with literary art" when discussing the book's literary merit.

Nabokov's critical barometer is also appropriately sensitive - sometimes scathing (perhaps tinged with the occasional professional jealousy) - which makes for a good read: for instance when he describes a reference in the footnotes as "a vulgar novelette, ending in ridiculous melodrama, by the overrated French writer, Balzac".

Vanity plays a humorous role, as Nabokov spends an inordinate amount of time essentially apologizing for Lermontov's prose, much of which he attributes to the literary conventions of the age (11 cases of eavesdropping) and the rest to the author's personal inadequacies. "His similes and metaphors are utterly commonplace; his hackneyed epithets are only redeemed by occasionally being incorrectly used" or "thus in the course of [the book:] the faces of various people turn purple, red, rosy, orange, yellow, green and blue." Its really quite funny how Nabokov so carefully dissociates himself from the writing, all whilst underscoring the vital, painstaking importance of creating a translation faithful to the original text.

On to the novel itself. Morbid sociological interest aside, this novel fills in a critical gap in my understanding of Russian literature. The main character, Pechorin - well educated, handsome, strong in spirit, etc. - suffers a sort of existential ennui: he is bored with life and thus plays rather recklessly with his own fate, often at the expense of those (usually women) around him. He is the "Byronic hero", inspired by both Lord Byron's "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" and Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin". (The tradition continues: Coetzee's "Disgrace", which I read recently, places this same Bryonic hero in contemporary South Africa, with morally complex, sometimes shocking, results...).

There exists strong resemblance in character and personality of Pechorin to Turgenev's Bazarov in "Fathers and Sons", the 'nihilist' considered to be the first Bolshevik. In 1850 Turgenev wrote "Diary of a Superfluous Man" (next on my list) with a character similar to Lermontov's Pechorin; the connection is very direct and clear.

As I (and many others, I assume) have discussed elsewhere, we can then draw a line from Turgenev's Bazarov to Chernyshevsky's Rakhmetov in "What is to be Done?" (Chernyshevsky's narrative style, in which he toys with the reader regarding his own moral purpose and perspective, is very similar to Lermontov's) and then of course from Rakhmetov as the fictional character idealized by Vladimir Lenin. This complete path from the Byron-inspired Russian "Superfluous man" to the Russian nihilist to the idealized Bolshevik character (I suppose we shouldn't restrict to Bolshevism, but you get the idea) is one of great interest to me, essentially tying culturally-embedded heroes or idealized personality-types to eventual idealized sociopolitical personality-types. The extent to which these were or were not misunderstood is very significant to the course of human history.

Alright, surely that qualifies for morbid sociological interest. Sorry Nabokov.

Back to the story itself. In the beginning, one wonders just what is so special about it, and can't help agreeing with many of Nabokov's not so subtle points regarding the quality of Lermontov's prose. But it just gets better and better as one goes. The two final stories, "Princess Mary" and "The Fatalist" are both extraordinary - dramatically gripping and filled with interesting musings and insights. I'll conclude with one of them, to give you a sense of Pechorin's character and hopefully inspire you to read "A Hero of Our Time".

"The moon, full and red, like the glow of a conflagration, began to appear from behind the uneven line of roofs; the stars shone calmly upon the dark-blue vault, and it amused me to recall that, once upon a time, there were sages who thought that the heavenly bodies took part in our trivial conflicts for some piece of land or some imaginary rights. And what happened? These lampads, lit, in the opinion of these sages, merely to illumine their battles and festivals, were burning as brightly as ever, while their passions and hopes had long been extinguished with them, like a small fire lit on the edge of the forest by a carefree wayfarer! But on the other hand, what strength of will they derived from the certitude that the entire sky with its countless inhabitants was looking upon them with mute but permanent sympathy! Whereas we, their miserable descendants, who roam the earth without convictions or pride, without rapture or fear (except for that instinctive dread that compresses our hearts at the thought of the inevitable end), we are no longer capable of great sacrifice, neither for the good of mankind, nor even for our own happiness, because we know its impossibility, and pass with indifference from doubt to doubt, just as our ancestors rushed from one delusion to another. But we, however, do not have either their hopes or even that indefinite, albeit real, rapture that the soul encounters in any struggle with men or with fate."

Rapture. Let this novel stir it within you.

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