A shorter Russian Classic
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 18 July 2013
My wife often extols the virtues of Russian literature to me (although I've noticed that Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are in fact rarely at her side). I can claim to have read A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a short work by Russian standards, which may be explained by the fact that Alexander Solzhenitsyn had to memorise it while being marched from Gulag to construction site. Ayn Rand's works are longer, but by the time she wrote the best known of them, Atlas Shrugged, she was perhaps more American than Russian. So, when I saw a chance to read a relatively short Russian classic, albeit by an author that I hadn't heard of previously, I thought "why not?
I thought that I might also get a chance to learn something of the Russian campaigns in the Caucasian mountains, where the novel is set and the author served in the Imperial army. Lermontov was a poet, radical and only incidentally a novelist, this, his only completed novel, published just a year before his death, in a duel, in 1841. In fact, however, there is very little about the military campaigns in the novel, and you would be forgiven for thinking that young officers in the Czar's army were allowed rather too much leave to debauch themselves in frontier spa towns!
"A Hero of Our Time" is the story of a disillusioned young man, a junior officer in the Russian army, an anti-hero before that term was coined. The protagonist, Pechorin, is not intended to be a likeable character, which the author, through the mouthpiece of a narrator and posthumous editor of Pechorin's diaries, emphaises. For me, the literary character that Pechorin most brought to mind was the Viscomte de Valmont from Les Liaisons Dangereuses - a cynic who sets out to manipulate others as much for his own pleasure as for any tangible benefit. Pechorin is a less experienced, less talented manipulator than Valmont, but then, in the end, Valmont wasn't quite as clever as he thought he was, either! This possible influence is one that's not mentioned in the introduction, by the way, so I have no idea whether De Laclos' work was on young Lermontov's library shelf.
This is a short novel - jut 136 pages of text - but it comes with a substantial introduction, extensive notes, a chronology of Lermontov's short life, and Alexander Puskin's travelogue, A Journey to Arzrum. The excellent introduction by Andrew Kahn, Professor of Russian Literature at Oxford University, explains the historical and literary context of the novel, and the extent to which Lermontov was influenced by Pushkin and other earlier writers (including Sir Walter Scott, no less!), and his influence on subsequent ones. In short, the book is self contained package - although there are two pages of suggested further reading in the bibliography.
The story is told from two or three points of view, and not in chronological order. It is suggested that the author intended the reader to reappraise the protagonist as he comes across earlier events; the order also reflects the order that some sections of the book were originally published in a literary/political journal. I found it slightly confusing - although it does mean that the book would merit a second reading. If you intend to make a project of the Russian classics, this book may be a good starting point, although knowing what I know now, I might have started with Pushkin. I have to admit, however, that I have not been inspired to start that project just as yet - it may be one to leave for my retirement.