A novel of its time

October 31, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov. Written in 1836. Published in 1840. French translation by A. de Villamarie. I don’t have the translation by Nabokov but I used the online English translation available here.

There are two men in me – one lives in the full sense of the word, the other reasons and passes judgment on the first.

Well, that’s a feeling I know and there were many other feelings I knew in A Hero of Our Time. Honestly, I’m having difficulties with this review. I have so many random thoughts and 14 pages of quotes I can’t really put in an intelligible order. I’m under the impression that Lermontov summed up in one work the literature of the first forty years of the 19thC.

In the first part Bèla, the reader is told the love story between Pechorin and Bèla. Pechorin is a Russian soldier stationed in a remote fort in the Caucasus. He’s described as a reckless man, unaware of danger, loving to hunt – literally and figuratively. When he sees Bèla at a party, he decides to seduce her, partly for the fun and for the challenge, partly because she’s beautiful. Follow the conquest and the tragic relationship. I wasn’t excited by that part, it reminded me of Atala, which I didn’t adore either. However, I enjoyed the description of the mountains and the nature there.

The moon, becoming pale in the western sky, was about to immerse itself in the black clouds that trailed like tattered bits of a torn curtain from the mountain peaks in the distance.

This summer I visited a 19thC fort in the Alps and I could picture very well the soldiers’ life in that isolated place. Lermontov has a beautiful prose and alternates engrossing descriptions of the nature and the autopsy of Pechorin’s feelings, his youth and his outdoorsy manners and lack enthusiasm for life.

In the second part, we are still seeing Pechorin through a third person’s eyes and watch him reject his old friend Maxim who was the witness of his love story with Bèla. Right. The man is light in love and light in friendship too.

The third part is my favorite one. It’s Pechorin’s journal, we dive into his thoughts, living with him the events he describes. The book is worth reading for the Princess Mary section. Pechorin is in a thermal city in the Caucasus. There he stumbles upon an old acquaintance, Grushnitsky, a soldier like him. The most desirable woman in town is Mary Ligovskaya and she rules the little social circle of the town. Grushnitsky admires her very much and would like to win her heart. He’s on his way to succeeding until Pechorin steps in the way and starts coveting and courting her too. He’s more handsome and more cunning than him. He wins. He doesn’t like her though, she’s a cover for his meetings with his true love Vera. All the way we read his thoughts, mocking Grushnitsky, toying with Mary’s feelings and being in love with Vera. It’s a cruel tale with many victims. Pechorin is in a foul mood, tempestuous, looking for danger and indifferent to death. The duel scene is incredible.

Is Pechorin likeable? Does he have to be? I can’t say I liked him but I enjoyed his witty and insightful remarks on life. In the foreword Lermontov added to the second edition in 1841, he says “A Hero of Our Time, my dear readers, is indeed a portrait, but not of one man. It is a portrait built up of all our generation’s vices in full bloom.” Really, it’s clear that Lermontov was well-read and knew the literary trends of his time. I’ve been reading a few novels of that period over the last 18 months, The Red and The Black, René and Atala, A Slight Misunderstanding, Confession of a Child of the Century. (I should read Lord Byron, I haven’t so far.) and I found a bit of all these novels in this one. Pechorin has common points with Octave, Julien Sorel, René.

As bored as Octave (Confession of a Child of the Century by Musset) 1836. He even argues with a friend to know who of the French or the British have made boredom fashionable.

Is it worth the trouble to live after this? And yet you go on living–out of curiosity, in expectation of something new… How ludicrous and how vexatious!

As miserable and happy to be so as René

‘Listen, Maksim Maksimich,’ he replied, ‘I have an unfortunate character. Whether it is my upbringing that made me like that or God who created me so, I don’t know. I know only that if I cause unhappiness to others I myself am no less unhappy. I realize this is poor consolation for them–but the fact remains that it’s so. In my early youth after leaving my parents, I plunged into all the pleasures money could buy, and naturally these pleasures grew distasteful to me. Then I went into high society, but soon enough grew tired of it; I fell in love with beautiful society women and was loved by them, but their love only aggravated my imagination and vanity while my heart remained desolate . . . I began to read and to study, but wearied of learning too. I saw that neither fame nor happiness depended on it in the slightest, for the happiest people were the most ignorant, and fame was a matter of luck, to achieve which you only had to be clever. And I grew bored…

Trying to escape his life by traveling like Lord Byron.

My soul has been warped by the world, my mind is restless, my heart insatiable–nothing satisfies me. I grow accustomed to sorrow as readily as to joy, and my life becomes emptier from day to day. Only one thing is left for me, and that is to travel.

Cynical as a Balzacian hero

Sometimes I despise myself; is that why I despise others too? I am no longer capable of noble impulses; I am afraid of appearing ridiculous to myself. Another in my place would have offered the princess son coeur et sa fortune but for me the verb “to marry” has an ominous ring: no matter how passionately I might love a woman, it’s farewell to love if she as much as hints at my marrying her. My heart turns to stone, and nothing can warm it again. I’d make any sacrifice but this–twenty times I can stake my life, even my honor, but my freedom I’ll never sell. Why do I prize it so much? What do I find in it? What am I aiming at? What have I to expect from the future? Nothing, absolutely nothing. It’s some innate fear, an inexplicable foreboding…After all, some people have an unreasoning fear of spiders, cockroaches, mice…

Cousin in heart with Mérimée’s Darcy

If you don’t get the advantage over her, even her first kiss will not give you the right to a second. She’ll flirt with you to her heart’s content and a year or two later marry an ugly man in obedience to her mother’s will; then she will begin to assure you that she is unhappy, that she had loved only one man–that is, you–but that fate had not ordained that she be joined to him because he wore a soldier’s overcoat, though beneath that thick gray garment there beat an ardent and noble heart…

Reading A Hero of Our Time, I had the same feeling as before when I read Princess Ligovskaya, the impression I was reading French literature. I know Russian upper-classes mostly spoke French and sometimes hardly spoke Russian. Lermontov has read Goethe, Byron and other Romantic writers; you can hear it in the themes of the stories. But for me, he’s closer to French writers, there’s this French touch of impertinence in the style as well as the use of short witty and imaged phrases. Now I want to watch Un Coeur en hiver, a French film based on Princess Mary.

That’s the best review I could do and I’m not exactly happy with it. Readers interested in reading A Hero of Our Time may want to read other reviews: Kerry’s review is here and Guy’s thoughts are available here: Part One, Part Two, Part Three and The film

 

 

 

  1. October 31, 2011 at 2:08 am

    Well you hit the nail on the head when you say that Lermontov is closer to French writers for you. Multiply that and you have a huge portion of the Russian intelligensia out of touch with their own country–so much so that they don’t even speak the language.

    You will enjoy Turgenev.

    Like

    • October 31, 2011 at 8:34 am

      I wonder if he sounds close to French literature because I read him in French.
      I have Fathers and Son on the shelf.

      Like

  2. October 31, 2011 at 7:57 am

    I’ve had this book for years now but still not read it. You make it sound interesting but like a book one appreciates but doesn’t necessarily like. It seems very heterogenous though. I haven’t seen Un coeur en hiver yet. Didn’t know about this connection.
    Isn’t it interesting how we struggle with some reviews while others are so easy to write. I struggle most with those that are due on a particular date. Typical.

    Like

    • October 31, 2011 at 8:37 am

      It’s an excellent book. I highly recommend it. Read Guy’s reviews they’re better.
      I had difficulties to write this review because I had too many things to say. I didn’t have time to write several posts and it deserves several.

      Like

  3. November 3, 2011 at 12:59 am

    Emma, I wasn’t going to read your review of this novel until I had written mine, but I have been putting that off… It is a quite a relief to discover that you haven’t found this novel easy to review either, although I think I have too little to say rather than too much.

    Very interested in your comments about the French feel of the novel, because my feeling was that I didn’t recognise in the novel the Russian characteristics that I find in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, even though they were inspired by Lermontov. Russian authors so often refer to Lermontov, or mention Pechorin, in their own novels.

    Great quotes that you have chosen. Each one struck me as the perfect quote, but it is an eminently quotable novel.

    I enjoyed your review but feel even less able to come up with something worthwhile to say myself!

    Like

    • November 3, 2011 at 9:50 am

      Like I said before, it would have needed 3 posts: one for the part I&II, where it is narrated by a third person, one for Princess Mary and one for the other chapters.
      I chose that post title because it sums up my impression of the book: Lermontov was on the same wavelength than his contemporaries. I don’t know enough British and German literature of the time to find comparisons, but there are some, I’m sure. He refers to Byron and Goethe several times. He was obviously well-read and the novel left a feeling of a community of intellectuals or writers who knew each other’s work quite well.

      There’s something between France and Russia. I’m not an expert but Voltaire spent time there and other writers too. (Mme de Staël, Dumas, Balzac in 1843) Gogol went to Ferney, to visit Voltaire’s château when he had the chance.

      Himadri’s going to review it soon too. Sure you don’t want to write your thoughts?

      Like

      • November 12, 2011 at 2:32 am

        Now that I have some time available for blogging (and hopefully a functioning laptop soon) I will have another think about Pechorin. I picked up on the Byron references and felt seriously inconvenienced by my lack of working knowledge on the man in question. I think a trip to Wikipedia is in order.

        Like

        • November 12, 2011 at 9:28 am

          I’m interested in your review. For Byron I recommend a trip to Pechorin’s Journal (the blog).

          Like

  4. November 7, 2011 at 1:48 pm
  5. jaspal mahey
    January 9, 2012 at 6:51 pm

    where can i get book’pechorin ki diary’ in hindi language.

    Like

    • January 9, 2012 at 7:13 pm

      Thanks for visiting.
      Sorry, but I have no idea of where you can find it in Hindi.

      Like

  6. December 23, 2012 at 3:55 pm

    I couldn’t recommend Byron highly enough – he’s absolutely brilliant – although, the Byron of Childe Harold is very different from the Byron of Don Juan. I’d suggest that if you want to get a comprehensive picture of the character that we’re used to calling “Byronic”, four works are essential: the long poem, Childe Harold; the shorter poems The Corsair and The Giaour; and the lyric drama Manfred. Of all these, Manfred is, I think, the most solidly Byronic of all his characters.

    Like

    • December 24, 2012 at 10:33 am

      Hello, thanks for the recommendations.
      I’m not sure I have the cultural background necessary to enjoy these works. I’m French and when I hear Don Juan, I think Molière, not Byron. See what I mean with lack of cultural background? Plus I’m not particularly attracted to Romanticism in general. So even if I know I should read Byron, I find his work daunting.

      Like

  1. November 7, 2011 at 4:47 pm
  2. January 1, 2012 at 1:09 am

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: