Saturday, April 4, 2009

A Hero of Our Time

The prose in this slim volume is as clear and bracing as a mountain stream.

The book presents five episodes in the life of a Byronic character named Pechorin. The unusual narrative structure allows us to see him first through the eyes of other characters, for whom he is a cipher.

The core of the book, both in terms of length and psychological depth, is the fourth episode, "Princess Mary," which is told in Pechorin's own words. He describes himself as a "moral cripple."

The final piece, "The Fatalist," has an eerie Poe-like quality to it, describing a man with "the mark of death" on his face.

Now examine the cover of the novel above. This is a portrait of Lermontov. Do you see the mark of death on his face?

Lermontov was a soldier as well as a Romantic poet -- brave, dashing, and equipped with a lethal wit. He was twice exiled to the wild Causcasus region, once for a poem he wrote on the death of Pushkin, and the second for fighting a duel. The character of Pechorin is clearly modelled on himself.

Byron (the name comes up several times in the book) was an important influence. Another was Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. Pechorin and Onegin (both characters named after rivers) are similarly bored but dangerous men. Both kill a friend in a duel.

The duel in A Hero of Our Time is impossibly Romantic. It takes place on the ledge of a cliff against a backdrop of mountains. Even a wound is likely to prove fatal. A coin is flipped to see who will shoot first. The men are positioned six paces apart, so that a miss is highly unlikely.

Like Pushkin, Lermontov himself was killed in a duel. He died in 1841, the year after A Hero of Our Time was published. He was only 27.

Mikhail Lermontov was the greatest Russian poet of his age, after Pushkin, and his influence on later Russian writers has been great -- Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Pasternak.