Again, you’ll tell me, no man can be as bad as that; and I’ll ask you why, if you have believed in the possibility of the existence of all the villains of tragedy and romance, you should not believe in the reality of Pechorin? If you have admired inventions far more terrible and monstrous, why does this character, even as an invention, not deserve your mercy? Could it be because there is more truth in him than you would like?
A Hero of Our Time is described as one of the first great Russian novels, though I have to confess that until recently I had never even heard of it or Mikhail Lermontov. Having read the biographical information about the author included in this book, it seems Lermontov’s life was almost as unusual and interesting as his fiction! A Hero of Our Time was published in 1840, just before he was killed in a duel at the age of twenty six.
This is not a novel with a chronological structure or a conventional plot with a beginning and an end. Instead it consists of five separate stories, some very short and some much longer. Together they create a portrait of Grigory Pechorin, a young army officer – though as the author tells us in the preface, it’s also “a portrait built up from the vices of our whole generation, in all the fullness of their development”.
Far from being the hero suggested by the title, Pechorin is actually much more of an anti-hero, selfish, cruel, manipulative and motivated by boredom and disillusionment. He is not a likeable character at all and isn’t supposed to be, but as the novel unfolds and we are given his own version of events as well as seeing him from the perspective of others, we come to understand him better. By the end of the book I found I didn’t hate Pechorin as much as I thought I would at first and for all his faults and flaws I thought he was a fascinating character.
In the first story, an unnamed narrator is travelling through the Caucasus where he is joined by an army captain, Maxim Maximich. As they travel together, the captain tells the narrator about his friendship with Pechorin. In the second story the narrator briefly meets Pechorin and the final three stories are entries from Pechorin’s own journal. With each of these five chapters we learn a little bit more about Pechorin’s life and follow him through a series of adventures, romances and even a thrilling duel. Despite the disjointed and episodic feel of the book it’s fast-paced and never boring. I was also pleased to find that although the main characters are soldiers, the story concentrates on their personal lives and there are no long battle scenes or detailed descriptions of military tactics to struggle with – though there are some great descriptions of the landscape of the Caucasus, where the novel is set.
I really enjoyed A Hero of Our Time. Of all the Russian novels I’ve read, I found this one by far the easiest to read, despite it being written in the early 19th century. This Oxford World’s Classics edition is translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater (the nephew of Boris Pasternak who wrote Dr Zhivago) and I think it’s an excellent translation; it flows so effortlessly it hardly feels like a translation at all. It’s a very short novel too (the actual story is less than 140 pages long – the rest of the book is made up of the introduction, notes, maps and other additional material) so could be a good choice if you want to read some Russian literature but feel intimidated by Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky.
This edition also includes a piece of writing by Alexander Pushkin entitled A Journey to Arzrum in which Pushkin describes his own travels through the Caucasus. It’s really more of a travelogue or journal than a story but it works as an interesting companion to Lermontov’s novel.
Have you read this book? Which other Russian classics would you recommend?