Books June 2005

A Doomed Young Man

No, he was not Byron. But he certainly tried

"The point to be marked in a study of A Hero of Our Time," observed Vladimir Nabokov, "is that, though of tremendous and at times somewhat morbid interest to the sociologist, the 'time' is of less interest to the student of literature than the 'hero.'" With this characteristically lofty ruling—which helped introduce his own co-translation of the novel in 1958—Nabokov proposed a false antithesis, or a distinction without a difference. The "student of literature" must needs be to some extent a student of history, if not exactly of "sociology." Much of the fascination that the book continues to exert is owing to its context, and none of the editions I possess, including Paul Foote's 1966 translation and now this very deft version by Hugh Aplin, has failed to include quite a deal of background material without which Mikhail Lermontov's brief, intricate masterpiece is difficult to appreciate. These five nicely chiseled stories, giving Rashomon-like perspectives on the short life of a doomed young man, are in a most intriguing way "of their time."

The equally pleasurable elements of time and heroism are in fact united in the most common description of the novel and its author: both are referred to as "Byronic." And the similitude is fair in either case. Early Russian literature was intimately connected to the Europeanizing and liberal tendency of the "Decembrist" revolution of 1825, which was enthusiastically supported by Pushkin and his inheritor Lermontov. And the debt of those rebels to Byron's inspiration was almost cultish in its depth and degree. Lermontov even published a short poem in 1832 titled "No, I'm Not Byron." In it he wrote,

No, I'm not Byron: set apart
Like him, by Fate (though I'm
unknown yet) …
I started sooner, I'll end sooner:
But little work will I complete …

Those last two lines surely betray a foreknowledge of—almost an ambition for—an early and Romantic death. A few months before his actual death, in 1841, Lermontov set down this even more premonitory verse:

In noon's heat, in a dale of Dagestan,
With lead inside my breast, stirless
     I lay;
The deep wound still smoked on;
     my blood
Kept trickling drop by drop away.

Dagestan, like Chechnya and Ossetia, is part of the southern Caucasus, which czarism was at that time engaged in conquering and disciplining. (This was the Russian end of the "Great Game" that Kipling later described as extending all the way to the North-West Frontier Province of India and Afghanistan.) Lermontov served twice in the Caucasus as a cavalryman, both times as punishment. On the first occasion he had offended the authorities by writing a poem implying that Pushkin's death, in a duel in 1837, had been orchestrated by the czar's regime. On the second occasion he was in trouble for fighting a duel himself, with the son of the French ambassador to St. Petersburg. In 1841 he fought another duel, with a brother officer in the Caucasus, not far from the spot where Pechorin fights his duel in A Hero of Our Time, and was killed instantly. This obsession with single combat and possible self-immolation is admitted by Nabokov to be poignant because, as he bluntly put it, "the poet's dream came true." Well, then: we should by all means be as much aware of the surrounding conditions as he was.

Lermontov, like Byron, was of partly Scottish origin, being descended from a seventeenth-century mercenary named George Learmont. (Pushkin himself was of part-Ethiopian descent, so multiculturalism and multi-ethnicity had their role to play in the evolution of Russian letters; but Sir Walter Scott was also a kind of gold standard in those days, and his Old Mortality, of all novels, is respectfully mentioned as the book that Pechorin reads on the night before the duel.) Lermontov recurs to Byron with attention throughout A Hero of Our Time. Pechorin's close friend, Werner the physician, is described as having "one leg shorter than the other, like Byron." His chief female target, Princess Mary, is described admiringly as one "who's read Byron in English and knows algebra." (Most Russians of the period would have read Byron in French.) In a moody moment Pechorin reflects, "How many people, beginning their lives, think they'll end them like Alexander the Great or Lord Byron, but then remain titular councillors an entire lifetime?" He speaks appreciatively of a poem titled "The Vampyre," which was then believed to be Byron's work.

It is when we move from the Byronic to the ironic that difficulties arise. The publication of the novel, in 1840, aroused a pitch of criticism that was based on the very title itself. How could such a louche, amoral young man as Pechorin be presented as a hero? In a languid preface to the second edition Lermontov commented, "Our public is still so young and ingenuous that it does not understand a fable if it does not find a moral at the end of it. It does not get a joke, does not sense an irony; it is simply badly brought up." But where is the irony of the title to be discovered? Once again it is necessary to be daring enough to disagree with Nabokov. Quite plainly, Pechorin is not presented as a "hero" of any kind. Even when described by others who admire him, such as the staunch old soldier Maxim Maximych (one of a series of diminishingly reliable narrators), he appears affectless and irresponsible even if charismatic. To himself, he is bored and detached on the outside and moved by nameless discontents within. To the objective reader, if such there be, he seems callous and occasionally sadistic. At the very end of the last story he demonstrates a bit of initiative and élan in subduing a homicidal Cossack; but in the wider war to repress the natives of the Caucasus he does mainly as he is told. If this is Byronic at all, it is of the Byron of The Corsair: a consummate egotist. Not a hint of idealism or principle is permitted to occur—or not ostensibly, at any rate.

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Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Vanity Fair. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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