Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Back to Classics: Lermontov’s Hero of Our Time

“Герой Нашего Времени, милостивые государи мои, точно портрет, но не одного человека: это портрет, составленный из пороков всего нашего поколения, в полном их развитии.

“The Hero of Our Time, my dear sirs, is indeed a portrait, but not of one person: it is a composite portrait of the flaws of our whole generation, in their full development.” (all translations are mine)

-M.Yu. Lermontov in the forward to A Hero of Our Time

The Writer: Mikhail Lermontov

Work and Date: Герой нашего времени (A Hero of Our Time), a novel in five easy pieces: “Бэла” (“Bela”), “Максим Максимыч” (“Maksim Maksimych”), “Тамань” (“Taman’”), “Княжна Мери” (“Princess Mary”), and “Фаталист” (“The Fatalist”), 1838-1840

Why it’s important: Very modern-feeling prose presenting events out of chronology told by varying narrators. The title has become an inescapable phrase for era-specific anti-heroes, and there are many literary references to Pechorin, the ennui-drenched title character. Vladimir Makanin’s Андеграунд, или Герой нашего времени is one of the most obvious contemporary examples.

Favorite criticism, analysis, and background: I particularly liked excerpts from Boris Eikhenbaum’s comments in the prose section of his writings about Lermontov: after discussing Lermontov’s early novel-length prose, he writes that Lermontov solved narration difficulties by stringing together stories. I also enjoyed Vladimir Nabokov’s introduction to the novel, in which, toward the end, he mentions some technical weaknesses that he sees in the book but then refers to its eternal appeal for rereading. (I read this piece in a Russian collection of lectures on Russian literature; I believe the introduction is from this edition of A Hero, which Nabokov and his son Dmitri translated. The book includes illustrations by Edward Gorey!)


First, a brief summary: Lermontov uses five stories of varying provenance and genre to tell of Pechorin’s escapades in the Caucuses. This thin volume includes abduction, cultural differences, moody nature descriptions, death and a duel, a mermaid, people taking the water cure, various forms of deception, and much more as Lermontov exposes Pechorin’s lack of morals. Pechorin is world-weary to an extreme, bored and cynical, so there is frequent yawning and shoulder shrugging.

Pechorin is a thoroughly reprehensible person – he even kills a horse by riding too fast – who frequently mentions his moral shortcomings but never seems to regret them. I doubted his sincerity and trustworthiness as a narrator, perhaps because he is something of a charmer at times. (Of course he is also, thanks to Lermontov, an excellent writer.) There is a reference or two to Lord Byron in Hero, and Pechorin is also a relative of Pushkin’s Evgenii Onegin. Victor Terras points out in A History of Russian Literature that both names spring from Russian bodies of water.

My favorite story is “Princess Mary,” no surprise since it’s the longest (70 pages) piece in Hero. “Princess Mary” is Pechorin’s diary at the waters, and he writes of romantic rivalries, displaying caddish treatment of women and a frequent disregard for the truth. Yes, the plot turns are very predictable, but Lermontov makes them so enjoyable through Pechorin’s vinegary first-hand accounts that these old stories – written in 1838-1840 and filled with stock characters – feel almost contemporary.

Nabokov notes the energy and rhythm of Lermontov’s storytelling, and I think that’s what I found so compelling, too, both times I’ve read the book. It feels like Lermontov was absolutely driven to write this book. And I felt driven to keep reading it, whether I was at the beach or in a soft chair.

Lermontov’s understanding of psychology is another factor: even if he’s a composite, Pechorin seems so real that it’s easy to see why readers thought Lermontov was writing about himself. I also enjoyed hearing the voice of Maksim Maksimych, in whose home Pechorin stays in “Bela.” Maksim Maksimych, whose patronymic tells me he’s a man of tradition, clearly feels affection for Pechorin, so one moment stands out in the book as particularly sad. When Maksim Maksimych and Pechorin find themselves in the same town and Pechorin finally arrives for a meeting, Maksim Maksimych reaches to hug Pechorin, but Pechorin can only cough up a smile and a handshake.

I almost forgot to mention that A Hero of Our Time is also very funny, often in a sneakily cynical way. In “Taman’,” a story that includes a treacherous mermaid, Pechorin frets that he has disturbed “мирный круг честных контрабандистов” (“a peaceful group of honest smugglers”). In “Princess Mary” he says the man who becomes, in a way, his rival for a woman has the goal of becoming the suffering, main character of a novel. (Of course Lermontov makes sure he does.) My favorite line comes from the lips of Princess Mary’s mother, who tells Pechorin, basically, that he makes everyone crazy, then says, “Я надеюсь, что воздух моей гостиной разгонит ваш сплин...” (“I hope that the air of my drawing room will clear away your melancholy…”)


A Hero of Our Time is an indispensable part of any Russian literature reading list: it’s important for its structure and storytelling techniques as well as Lermontov’s famous portrayal of Pechorin. I also think it’s a lot of fun to read. To draw on Nabokov’s comments once more, A Hero is particularly remarkable because, to paraphrase crudely, the book was written when Russian prose was still a toddler and Lermontov himself was only 25.

And a brief note: The Russian word “герой” translates into English as both “hero” and “main character,” giving the book’s title a nice ambiguity. It’s too bad Christopher Hitchens didn’t know that when he wrote this piece for The Atlantic.

Painting: Lermontov's "Перестрелка в горах Дагестана" (A Skirmish in the Mountains of Dagestan), 1840-41, via Wikipedia.

Lermontov on Amazon


  1. First Edmund Wilson and then Hitchens: why do these non-Russian critics feel the need to try to argue Russian details with Nabokov?

    Anyway, a good post, and I urge everyone to follow Lisa's advice and read this wonderful book.

  2. Thanks, Languagehat. Yes, that Hitchens piece makes a rather futile attempt at arguing details with Nabokov!

    "Wonderful" is a perfect word to describe A Hero of Our Time: I love how the pieces almost magically fit together to form such an enduring novelistic portrait. I'm not sure if I just read Hero for the second or third time, but I know that Lermontov's achievement still fascinates me.

  3. I think this is pretty interesting (still listening):

  4. Thank you for posting that link, Uncle Vanya! I like that professor Mil'don covers structure and his thoughts on the influence of Pushkin's "Belkin Tales" -- a topic I didn't have space to get into in my post.

    Just as background, for anyone that's interested... this lecture is part of the sophomore screenwriter coursework on Russian literature at the Russian film school known as VGIK.

    It looks like the entire Hero of Our Time lecture is nine installments, all posted on OrangeFilm's YouTube channel. There are other lectures, too, on Pushkin, Chekhov, Tolstoy, and poetry.

  5. Интересно написано....но многое остается непонятнымb