A hero of our time by Mikhail Lermontov, translated with an introduction by Paul Foote
Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974 ISBN 014044176X
This short book is a classic: along with Pushkin, Lermontov was an early exponent of Russian prose fiction, and A hero of our time was an early and successful Russian novel. It was first published in 1839, shortly before Lermontov was killed in a duel, in circumstances eerily similar to those outlined in this book.
Lermontov made his name as a poet, and was a military man who spent some time in the Caucases, where all of A hero of our time is set. The book is a series of vignettes about a line regiment officer named Pechorin. We first "encounter" him via a story told about him by an old soldier Maxim Maximych, and in that story Pechorin is shown as a self-centred, vain and dissolute character who quickly tires of the girl he steals from local tribesmen, after betraying several friendships to obtain her. Maxim admires him however, which leads to the second vignette, where our narrator and Maxim run into Pechorin at a waystation in the mountains. Maxim is desperate to catch up with his old friend, but Pechorin gives him the brush-off: a further insight into his character, and the vehicle by which Lermontov gets Maxim to give our narrator Pechorin's diaries, which he had been carrying in the hope of returning them to their owner.
The second and longest section of the novel consists of the diary of Pechorin, and his "project" to woo the Princess Mary from under the nose of his colleague Grushnitsky. Pechorin is revealed as someone who is bored with his life, who finds no solace in human companionship and so denies himself friends and true love while engaging in activities that destroy other lives. He doesn't do this for pleasure, and although some characters in the book describe him as evil he is not that either: Pechorin muses on why he does what he does and can come to no real conclusion, other than he likes to see if he can do it, and it passes the time. There are moments when we see Pechorin's more human side, and moments where he himself wonders if he is indeed falling in love with Mary, but he quickly casts them aside. By the end of this section he has destroyed the lives of Mary and Vera (his long-time mistress), and has killed Grushnitsky in a duel entirely scripted by Pechorin himself. A hero of our time was seen as scandalous at the time of publication and it's easy to see why, with Pechorin's rejection of all that held society together so blatant, but with no other theories to replace those he is dismissing. Pechorin is the Russian prototype for the Romantic "hero"; at sea in the world as it is, questing for something more but failing to find it. A hero of our time is perhaps the first foray into Romanticism in Russian literature, with the title suggesting that both the people and the times in mid 19th century Russia were adrift, and that the future was not looking good if it is the likes of Pechorin who hold it in their hands.
The final section of the book is a short self-contained story looking at destiny, and more specifically pre-destination, based around a game of Russian roulette that Pechorin becomes involved in after he predicted the death of a fellow soldier - that soldier does not die in the game, but does a few hours later at the hands of a madman, whom Pechorin subdues at great personal danger. The final lines of this short section show both Pechorin's deepness of feeling, and how that is misunderstood by those around him, and how that misunderstanding leads him to the nihilism shown in the earlier sections of the book.
It is fascinating to know that Lermontov was only in his mid-twenties when he wrote this book (he died at 26). It is the work of a very self-aware and mature writer, who not only could satirise the morals and beliefs of his time, but could also apply the blowtorch to his own generation (and, in fact himself) with equal intensity. This is a book where no-one is blameless for where they are or what they are doing.
Taken as a whole, A hero of our time is not only a scathing critique of Russian society and morals, but also a critique of the "new man", the up-and-coming-generation that dismisses the past but offers no future, a generation that is out for it's own entertainment at the expense of everyone and everything else. A very modern theme, written 177 years ago.... which is why this book is still relevant and entertaining today.
Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell