I’ve finished the 1840 novel Герой нашего времени (A Hero of Our Time; see this LH post for leaf-rustling imagery in the novel and L’s poems). It is, of course, an amazing performance for an author in his mid-20s, but Hemingway was the same age when he wrote The Sun Also Rises, and of the two the latter is the more adult. Lermontov’s is very much a young man’s novel in its passions, its pretended world-weariness, and its impatience with detail (Nabokov, in his introduction to the novel, points out the heavy reliance on overheard conversations, important events glimpsed through chinks and bushes, and other such convenient coincidences); what makes it irresistible is its headlong storytelling, and what makes it endlessly rereadable (despite what Nabokov calls Lermontov’s “awkward and frequently commonplace style”) is the brilliant construction, starting out with secondhand accounts of Pechorin (the titular hero) by the narrator’s traveling companion Maksim Maksimych, moving on to the narrator’s brief encounter with Pechorin himself, and ending up with three stories presented as journal entries written by Pechorin (who left his writings with Maksim, who passed them on to the narrator). This provides endless material for comparison, not only between Pechorin’s actions in different sections (he treats poor old Maksim exactly as he had treated beautiful Bela) but between the views of Pechorin provided by Maksim, by the narrator, and by the hero himself. Lermontov clearly poured into this book everything he had been thinking and feeling, and it has the power of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, grasping you so that you cannot choose but hear.
But what kind of hero is Pechorin? Lermontov mischievously called him “a hero of our time,” explaining in the preface he added for the second edition that he was made up of “the vices of our entire generation in their full development,” a portrait of “contemporary man.” Besides providing fodder for the unfortunate vice of social-realist fiction which was to preoccupy Russian literature for the next century and a half, this is misleading in that (as Nabokov says) Pechorin is at least as much a copy of previous world-weary protagonists like Goethe’s Werther, Byron’s various Byronic heroes (not to mention the poet himself), and Pushkin’s Onegin as he is a portrait of anything contemporary. But if we are to try to bring him up to date, to make him comprehensible in cultural terms more present in our minds than Goethe and Byron, what can we compare him to? Certainly not to “hipsters,” pace this misguided attempt by Harry Leeds; hipsters (whoever they are) may be bored, but they don’t go around getting people killed. No, I think the closest comparison from post-WWII culture is Harry Lime, the dangerously attractive psychopath at the center of the classic 1949 film noir The Third Man (played unforgettably by Orson Welles). Pechorin, like Lime, doesn’t really give a damn about anybody but himself, and I can very easily picture him delivering Lime’s famous speech from the Ferris wheel (“Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?”). Such people can be fun to read about, but they are (as Lady Caroline Lamb said of Byron) mad, bad, and dangerous to know.
I’ll take the liberty of rendering one of Pechorin’s better bon mots (Russian below the cut) very freely, as part of the film noir script it would fit so well into: “If it’s time to die, well, I’ll die. It won’t be much loss for the world, and me, I’m bored. I’m like a guy at a dance hall who doesn’t go home to sleep just because he can’t get a ride. But here’s a taxi now. See ya, sweetheart…”
The Russian: “Что ж? умереть так умереть! потеря для мира небольшая; да и мне самому порядочно уж скучно. Я – как человек, зевающий на бале, который не едет спать только потому, что еще нет его кареты. Но карета готова… прощайте!..”