‘A Hero of Our Time’ (1840)
It was so much fun to read Lermontov after Pushkin! I don’t know that I would have enjoyed this book in a vacuum, but now I can see its essential place in the Russian literary cannon.
The best thing about ‘A Hero for Our Time’ is that it’s the first example of irony in the books that I’ve read for this project. The cover of the book looks epic and the promise of a contemporary hero fits in with this, but Lermontov has no interest in glory. Look at the cover again, because in the novel a duel does take place on the edge of a cliff (this means that at least one person is bound to die, as even if their wound would not otherwise be fatal, the shock will unbalance them and they’ll fall to their death). This pleasant twist on legalised murder is invented by the eponymous hero, Pechorin. He learns though eavesdropping that his companions consider to be a cad, a lier and a coward (all true) and to prove this they will orchestrate a duel to be fought with empty guns. The joke will be to see how scared he is before, before revealing the trick. Pechorin decides to go one better, switch his opponent’s gun and prove his worth in blood. It is very clear that his peers are completely correct in their assessment of his character.
Anti-heroes are great, though I’m thinking more of Becky Sharp than of Byron. Pechorin is up there with the best of them and his inglorious story told first though the memories of an old friend and then through his own diaries and papers. His friend admires and is insulted by him, his own narrative reveals him to be about as heroic as Fraser’s Flashman. I started this project because I was interested in the forces that lead up to the Russian revolution. As Figes makes absolutely clear in ‘A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924’, the Tzarist regime was rotten, something had to give. This novel shows a literary response to the society before the crisis. Honour is meaningless, society stagnates and no one is worthy of admiration. Those most lauded for manly virtue will be the first to let you down and they won’t care because they could teach the French aristocrats in ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ a thing or two about callus, selfish hedonism. Of course, Pushkin’s cynical Onegin predates Lermontov’s anti-hero, but truly the pupil surpasses the master. I suspect that I have just discovered my favourite ‘superfluous man’ (lishniy chelovek), that staple of early Russian literature and a character who is never going to survive the fall of the Tzars. I know the revolution is decades in the future, but I started this project with an agenda of which I’m starting to become aware. I want to see if contemporary literature fits in with my vague sense of historical hindsight. I don’t want to predict the revolution from novels, that would be silly, but I suppose I’m hoping to discover a literary landscape that pre-figures chaos. Thank you Lermontov for letting me understand my own motives behind my Russian reading, and for introducing me to a wonderfully loathsome ‘superfluous man’; he won’t be my last.