LERMONTOV’S NOIR HERO.

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!..”

Comments

  1. I like the Harry Lime comparison. To me the post-WWII equivalent of Pechorin is the hypermasculine gangster rapper, especially Biggie Smalls and Ready to Die.

  2. карета -> charette, obsolete German Carette (found only in Grimm now).

  3. orson welles's ghost says:

    “Roller coaster”? Roller coaster?! It’s a Ferris wheel!

  4. I don’t think Lermontov wanted Pechorin to come across as a psychopath. He’s not entirely devoid of empathy, although I can’t say right now what exactly makes me believe it.
    I haven’t seen The Third Man but I imagine that Orson Welles was particularly good at playing highly egocentric men.

  5. I like the film noir translation. I might change “guy” to “chump” or “mook”, or is that taking it too far?

  6. Jeffry House says:

    I read Hero about forty years ago, and the Taman chapter more recently. My expertise is therefore zero.
    I did recently read this book:
    http://www.bibliovault.org/BV.book.epl?ISBN=9780299229306
    In which the author, Priscilla Meyer, argues that Lermontov set out to demonstrate in Pechorin the exhaustion of the figure or stereotype of the European romantic hero, and the need to remake heroism in a Russian register.
    Since she used the Taman chapter extensively to make her argument, I wasn’t totally at sea. For what it is worth, I found the thesis convincing.

  7. “Roller coaster”? Roller coaster?! It’s a Ferris wheel!
    Sorry, Orson, I don’t know what I was thinking. It’s fixed now. Pass the Paul Masson, willya?
    I don’t think Lermontov wanted Pechorin to come across as a psychopath.
    I don’t think he did either, but that’s how he comes across to me. Of course, I’m no longer young and bamboozled by flair and a good line of existentialist patter. Also, I confess I’m pushing in that direction because I’m tired of analyses that more or less take Pechorin at his own evaluation. If you eliminate his elaborate self-justifications about how Fate is the boss of him, you’re left with a guy who gets annoyed at a casual acquaintance, provokes him into fighting a duel, and then kills him (while toying pointlessly with the affections of several women), and later abducts a girl, gets bored with her, and leaves her alone to get killed. In short, he’s a jerk. Psychopath may be pushing it, but I want to provoke thought and reevaluation.
    I might change “guy” to “chump” or “mook”, or is that taking it too far?
    No, no, I think both are excellent!

  8. I apologize in advance for this most trivial of comments, probably straight out of the Russian class of grade school, but since not all of your readers took the class:
    That the name Pechorin alludes to the name Onegin is patently clear to anybody familiar with Russian geography (Lenin may or may not be the 3rd term of this semantic row). Pechorin as “hero of our time” is Onegin’s counterpart a generation younger, but deprived of the noble aspirations of Onegin’s revolutionary time, and degraded by pointlessness of his own reactionary epoch.
    Lermontov actually spells out this generation-depraved-of-action-and-goal, a generation-overburdened-by-hindsight-of-its-fathers narrative in a verse, “Печально я гляжу наше поколенье … В бездействии состарится оно … Богаты мы, едва из колыбели, ошибками отцов и поздним их умом…””

  9. pS: depraved or deprived, hmm, must have been a Freudian slip

  10. marie-lucie says:

    Dmitry, do you really mean “Russian geography”?

  11. If I may, marie-lucie, it’s geography indeed: Onega and Pechora are two hydronyms from the Russian North. There’s Onezhskoye Lake (Onego/Onega), and there’s the Onega, a river in the Arkhangel region. Pechora is a larger river to the east of Onega.
    But Pechery/Pechory can also refer to caves, as in the Kievo-Pechersky monastery.

  12. I said that I’m reciting a fairly widespread knowledge – actually I just looked for a confirmation and, doh, one doesn’t need to look further than the Wikipedia entry on A Hero of Our Time:
    The name Pechorin is drawn from that of the Pechora River, in the far north, as a homage to Aleksandr Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, named after the Onega River
    Still I think that this tidbit it adds something important to the discussion here.

  13. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks Alexei, my knowledge of Russian (or Russia) is very meager and I did not know the meaning of the roots or stems of those names. That’s why I did not understand your comment, which seemed to me to refer to history rather than geography. I did not know the origin of the name “Lenin” either, but now that you mention rivers I see that it must come from “Lena”.

  14. marie-lucie says:

    Dmitry, Alexei, sorry I mixed you up (or rather, confused your comments). The Wiki sentence completes the picture.

  15. Trond Engen says:

    Surely, somewhere there has to be an Onegin parody named Ladogin? But Google is empty.
    Is the Pechora river running partly underground?

  16. Trond, Pechora the river (and Pechora tribe said to inhabit its basin) are far from the traditional Russian-populated areas, and toponyms there tends to be Finno-Ugric or Samoyed in origin. Most of the dictionaries consider Pechera a Nenets / Samoyed name, &lt=Pe “woodland / highland” (the meaning shifts in different Samoyed languages), with the ethnonym meaning smth. like forest-dwellers.

  17. Quoth Wikipedia: “Vladimir adopted the nom de guerre of ‘Lenin’ in December 1901, possibly taking the River Lena as a basis, thereby imitating the manner in which Plekhanov had adopted the pseudonym of ‘Volgin’ after the River Volga”. So Lenin would be the fourth term, I suppose.
    He first used this name on his 1902 book What Is To Be Done? The article also notes that his 1899 book The Development of Capitalism in Russia, written while he was in internal exile, used the name “Vladimir Ilin”. In any case, his exile was on the Yenisei, not the Lena, not that that means anything.

  18. Yenisei is masculine (as in “Mother Volga, Father Yenisei”) and thus slapping a possessive suffix -in to it would have been somewhat ungrammatical.

  19. Quoth Wikipedia: “Vladimir adopted the nom de guerre of ‘Lenin’ in December 1901, possibly taking the River Lena as a basis, thereby imitating the manner in which Plekhanov had adopted the pseudonym of ‘Volgin’ after the River Volga”.
    I love the way some diligent Wikipedia editor insisted on the “possibly.” I’d love to quiz him (surely “him”) on what other possibilities he supposed there might be.

  20. I love the way some diligent Wikipedia editor insisted on the “possibly.” I’d love to quiz him (surely “him”) on what other possibilities he supposed there might be.
    Maybe it’s a way to avoid the dread “citation needed”.
    BTW, since we have Russian Ferris wheels here, does anybody know why they are called “Russisches Rad” in German?

  21. John Emerson says:

    In Tolstoy’s “Sebastopol Sketches” there is a character who is a rough Pechorin equivalent, a nobleman who was busted to the ranks because of a crime (duelling I think). He is shown as not at all Pechorin-like — an entirely pathetic sponger and wheedler who ingratiates himself with anyone he can and puts on airs to the extent he’s able to get away with it.

  22. what other possibilities he supposed there might be
    feminine personal name Lena? Generally in Russian, only Jewish surnames are derived from female personal names. But the chap’s birth family name, while obviously derived from the extinct male name form Ulyan (Julian), must have been misunderstood to mean “Julianne’s” even in XIX c. So he was probably no stranger to lady’s name-derived surnames.

  23. Gary: since we have Russian Ferris wheels here, does anybody know why they are called “Russisches Rad” in German?
    For that matter, why are they called Ferris wheels in English ? According to an explanation at Mayerhofer Modellbau, a Ferris wheel is called a Russisches Rad in honor of a French carny ride operator J.B. Russes, who “as far back as 1850 built the precursors of today’s giant Ferris wheels”.

  24. Wikipedia traces ferris wheels as far back as 1615, where one was in operation in Constantinople; it was human-powered, but there is no mention of size. But Ferris’s wheel was 80m tall, steam-powered, and made entirely of steel, which was a pretty big step up from the 15m wooden wheels of his competitor Somers (and the patent courts of the day agreed). I can’t be sure, but I suspect it was the first all-steel wheel. I think it deserves to be the type specimen, at least in the anglophone lands.
    The Wiener Riesenrad dates to 1897 but is only 65m. After the demolition of the 100m Grand Roue de Paris (1900-1920), the Vienna wheel was the tallest in the world until 1989. The current record-holder is a 165m whopper in Singapore, built in 2008.

  25. I have not found even a scrap of information in the internet as to who this “J.B. Russes” might be. The claim now looks like somebody’s folk etymology of Russisches Rad. I’ve written Mayerhofer to ask for the source of their claim.

  26. marie-lucie says:

    I did the same thing, Stu, with the same result. Russes, although an actual word meaning ‘Russians’ (as a noun or adjective), does not sound right as a French last name, so “J.B. Russes” may have been invented (unless “Russes” is a typo or reformation on another name such as “Roussel”, if J.B. operated outside France).
    But Russisches Rad reminded me of the French phrase montagnes russes, literally ‘Russian mountains’, meaning ‘roller coaster’. French Wiki says that this type of structure was inspired by a Russian custom of making snow ‘mountains’ to play on in the winter. It gives names associated with designers and makers of roller coasters, but nothing on the elusive “J.B.Russes”. I thought that perhaps Russisches Rad was perhaps originally applied to a roller coaster rather than a giant wheel, and the German article on the roller coaster mentions the French (and Italian) names. It is likely that some of the people in the business of building and improving roller coasters also got interested in giant wheels.

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