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.

No, the irony must be about the "time." Pechorin, and Lermontov, treat society and the military exactly as they find them. Russia's slavishness and torpor are taken for granted: there is a matter-of-fact mention of the knout, and later of a dowry of fifty serfs. Drunkenness is endemic in the army; snobbery and favoritism are the rule at the aristocratic health resorts in which the Caucasus abounds. The glorious Russian war to civilize the Muslim tribes is a squalid and brutal business on both sides. In these circumstances why should Pechorin rouse himself to care about anything? Meeting old Maxim Maximych by chance, in what is for me the most tragic scene in the novel, he snubs him like any young Prince Hal turning away a superfluous Falstaff. Women are creatures whose influence on men is to be resented; if the opportunity arises, revenge can and should be taken for this. Thus the scandal of the novel was occasioned by a young officer of good family who said, in effect, Here is a mirror. Look into it if you care to, but don't be hypocritical about what you see.

It might be more rewarding to trace the hidden influence of Pushkin than the relatively blatant traces of Byron. Before his own pointless death Pushkin had begun, to Lermontov's infinite disgust, to compromise with the czar and the establishment. Even in the poem Lermontov wrote on his own hero Pushkin's suspicious end ("Death of a Poet"), he inquired angrily about the way the idol had gone soft: "Why did he shake hands with worthless slanderers? / Why did he trust false words and flattery?"

The hero of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin took his name from the River Onega, in northern Russia. The "hero" of Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time, Grigory Pechorin, was named for the River Pechora, somewhat farther to the north. One Russian critic has pointed out that whereas the Onega flows smoothly to the sea, the Pechora is turbulent and wild. It was obviously part of Lermontov's fictional plan to be more remote and more extreme than his predecessor. This becomes plain when, by a fantastic process of eavesdropping and coincidence, Pechorin learns that the duel into which he is to be provoked will also be a setup for his murder. In riposte he adopts a strategy that allows him to kill his adversary, Grushnitsky, with no more compunction than he would have felt in killing a cockroach. His casual remark to Dr. Werner, and to the landscape, as Grushnitsky's corpse topples into a ravine is a masterpiece of the laconic: "Finita la commedia!"

One is more than tempted to speculate that Lermontov made Pechorin do what Pushkin could not: discover the plot against his life and then act with ruthlessness and cold decision to ensure that it was the assassin who was assassinated. This makes it the more eerie that he was incapable of such resolution in his own life and death. Czar Nicholas I had denounced A Hero of Our Time in a clumsy letter to his wife. (As Anthony Powell, a superior contriver of literary and social coincidence, once phrased it, "In spite of Russia's great size, the number of people who actually operated things politically, socially, culturally, was very small. Thus a poetry-writing subaltern could be a real thorn in the side of the Tsar himself.") When Lermontov was brought to the field of honor, he apparently declined to fire on the fool who had provoked the duel. Slain on the spot, he never heard the czar's reported comment: "A dog's death for a dog." His unflinching indifference on the occasion, however, drew on two well-rehearsed nineteenth-century scenarios: the contemptuous aristocrat on the scaffold, and the stoic revolutionary in front of the firing squad. The Decembrists, in their way, admired and emulated both models.

One remaining question will probably never be cleared up. Doris Lessing alludes to it slyly in her foreword to Aplin's translation. "I often wonder," Pechorin says, "why I'm so persistent about winning the love of a young girl I don't want to seduce and will never marry. What's the point of this feminine coquetry?" The "feminine coquetry" here is not in the female. Nabokov makes the same point in a different way, by remarking,

Lermontov was singularly inept in his descriptions of women. Mary is the generalized young thing of novelettes, with no attempt at individualization except perhaps her "velvety" eyes, which however are forgotten in the course of the story. Vera is a mere phantom, with a phantom birthmark on her cheek; Bela, an Oriental beauty on the lid of a box of Turkish delight.

The Casanova complex—a hectic and indiscriminate pursuit of women who are not truly desired—is sometimes suspected of being a masking symptom of the repressed homosexual. Byron's frantic activity in this sphere (or do I mean in these spheres?) has long been a subject in its own right. Powell mentions that although the duel that extinguished Pushkin was apparently about his wife's supposed adultery, "there were also homosexual undercurrents in the circles involved."

Pechorin is described from several perspectives in the novel: by his old friend, by himself, and by a third party, who speaks of his skin as having "a sort of feminine delicacy." Lermontov himself, according to Turgenev, was considerably stooped and bowed by childhood maladies, giving him an appearance that—at least in youth—was fascinating rather than repulsive. The feminine fictional character seems to have had some will to live, whereas the masculine actual one had a strong need to throw his life away.