Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time remains a novel of immense romantic appeal and fascination to this day.
It’s the same space in the sky, but that’s about it. The tall, straight-lined and right-angled Intourist Hotel, the pride of Soviet Moscow, once stood here, at the end of Gorky Street. I would wander to a lace-curtained cafe on its 20th floor in search of fresh sandwiches and hot coffee. Or sidle up to its mezzanine where a cooperative staff member would happily facilitate prized tickets to the Bolshoi theatre, our friendship sealed with an inexpensive but exclusive gift of a perfume from a hard-currency store. It vanished, that world: Gorky Street became Tverskaya and the functional but unimaginative Intourist was torn down and replaced by the Ritz Carlton with its near-baroque luxury, its marbled floors and chandeliered ceilings and its cafes where wealthy men of the world smoke cigars and sip mellow brandies to the sounds of a tinkling piano. It’s all very different now and I look for signs of the old: the street, by whatever name, still has two squares dominated by the granite visages of two Russian poets — the flaming Mayakovsky and the pensive Pushkin — and from the terrace of a lounge I can still see the same view of Kremlin walls lit up in the brittle cold night and the fabulously coloured, ethereal onion-domes of St Basil’s across Red Square. It’s futile to wonder when this world changed and how much, and where did those 30 years go with their moments of iridescent joy and their pointed regrets that simply will not die away; it’s easier to return to the book in my room.
It’s just not any book though but the first major Russian novel: A Hero of Our Time, written around 1840 by the young poet-novelist Mikhail Lermontov. Set in the mountains and spa-towns of the Caucases and Black Sea region and strewn with Byronic episodes revolving around love affairs, duels of honour and military adventures, it remains a novel of immense romantic appeal and fascination to this day. Not the least because its author, the young Lermontov, himself cast in Byron’s mould, died a year after the book’s publication, killed in a duel at 26.
The early novel, to take first things first, is interesting for its uncomplicated structure which is in fact is a stringing together of incidents, events and stories all involving the Byronic hero (or anti-hero), Pechorin, an upper class military officer based in the Caucasus. First, the narrator — Lermontov himself — is told stories about Pechorin by a fellow traveller, the veteran staff-captain Maksim Maksimych, who has known Pechorin in the past. The second perspective is offered by a brief meeting between the narrator and Pechorin himself before the latter sets off on a journey to Persia, only to die somewhere along the way. The longest portion of the book comprises Pechorin’s diaries which Maksim Maksimych, heartbroken by Pechorin’s indifference, hands over to the narrator and the latter feels free to publish them after Pechorin’s death.
Pechorin typifies the ‘superfluous man’ of 19th century Russian literature, preceded by Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and followed by Turgenev’s Rudin. This class of noble gentlemen, usually of high intelligence and ability, found themselves utterly helpless against Czarist autocracy. Burdened by a sense of boredom, cynicism and weariness they pursued idle intellectual or social interests. Some, like Lermontov, and his creation Pechorin, tried to find escape in frenzied activity — the military life, dangerous travels, romantic scrapes, gambling and duels. But the sense of world-weariness remained, heightened no doubt by the ability for self-analysis: “My soul has been spoiled by the world, my imagination is unquiet, my heart insatiate. To me everything is of little moment. I become as easily accustomed to grief as to joy, and my life grows emptier day by day,” Pechorin mourns. And before going into a duel in which he may die, he muses: “The loss to the world will not be great; and I myself am already downright weary of everything. I am like a guest at a ball, who yawns but does not go home to bed, simply because his carriage has not come for him. But now the carriage is here...Goodbye.”
Pechorin’s attitude towards love and women dominates the book. His whimsical obsession with and then disregard of a Tartar princess, his revival of an affair with Vera, his love of bygone years and his concomitant manipulations to win the love of Mary, a Moscow princess in a spa-town are elaborately depicted. Pechorin comes through as a man who really does not care much for anyone but himself. As he admits: “I often ask myself why I am so obstinately endeavouring to win the love of a young girl whom I do not wish to deceive, and whom I will never marry.” And then: “To none has my love brought happiness, because I have never sacrificed anything for the sake of those I loved: for myself alone have I loved — for my own pleasure.”
He cannot countenance the thought of marriage for which he has the same unaccountable dread that some people have for “spiders, beetles, mice.” He cannot love women of strong character; he believes he acquires — without endeavouring to — invincible power over the women he does love; and he considers himself a master of the paradoxes of the female mind. He deceives, he prevaricates and he despairs. He wonders if his sole mission is to destroy the hopes of others, whether he is just the “indispensible person of the fifth act”, in the manner of an executioner or a traitor. Life offers him one chance of redemption when Vera departs with her husband and he realises that she would be lost to him forever. He rushes after her in insane panic but when his horse falls and dies, his passion too cools. “I realised that to pursue my perished happiness would be unavailing and unreasonable. What more did I want? — To see her? — Why? Was it not all over between us?”
In a telling preface, Lermontov answered the shock of his readers that such a manipulative man could exist and challenged the assumption that his portrait was based on the author and his acquaintances. “A Hero of Our Time, gentlemen, is in fact a portrait, but not of an individual; it is the aggregate of the vices of our whole generation in their fullest expression.” Little wonder that Albert Camus, another chronicler of world-weary men, chose to begin The Fall with these words.
Known more as a poet than a novelist, Lermontov is a word-painter of memorable descriptions, such as this of a dawn in the Caucasus: “The dancing choirs of the stars were interwoven in wondrous patterns on the distant horizon, and, one after another, they flickered out as the wan resplendence of the east suffused the dark, lilac vault of heaven, gradually illumining the steep mountain slopes, covered with virgin snows. To right and left loomed grim and mysterious chasms, and masses of mist, eddying and coiling like snakes, were creeping thither along the furrows of the neighbouring cliffs, as though sentient and fearful of the approach of day. All was calm in heaven and on earth, calm as within the heart of a man at the moment of morning prayer....” For that last simile alone, read Lermontov.