A Hero of Our Time, by Mihail Lermontov

A Hero of Our Time

A Hero of Our Time is a short novel, told more or less as a series of related short stories.

The book is narrated by a man traveling in the southern portion of the Russian empire—present day Georgia, Chechnya, etc. It is a semi-chaotic area, with periodic skirmishes with non-Russians—exotic Muslims and “Asiatics.”

He meets another traveler, and they fall to talking. The other man tells him stories of his past comrade Pechorin, the “hero” of the title of the book. Pechorin is a swaggering army officer, equally adept at dispatching enemies on the battlefield and seducing fair maidens.

By coincidence the travelers then unexpectedly run into Pechorin himself. Only briefly though, much to the chagrin of his supposed friend, who clearly has a man-crush on Pechorin, while Pechorin remembers him only as one of many casual acquaintances/admirers who have passed through his life. As Pechorin rushes off to his next destination, the friend tries to hold him back by reminding him that Pechorin had entrusted him with some of his possessions, which he still has for him. Pechorin shrugs off the items and is on his way.

The items in question include a kind of journal of his adventures that Pechorin had kept for a while. The disappointed friend lets the narrator have the journal, and the remainder of the book consists of stories supposedly from this journal.

One reason A Hero of Our Time was of interest to me is that I had read it described as kind of the precursor to all the great middle and late 19th century Russian fiction—Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Turgenev, etc. That’s one of my favorite eras of literature. Lermontov was just before that time, so more a contemporary of Pushkin. (Both Lermontov and Pushkin died young, in duels.)

The edition of the book I have is a translation by Vladimir Nabokov, which includes plenty of his commentary. Nabokov is unapologetic about offering his supremely confident assessments of Lermontov and other writers along the way, which can be entertaining. Clearly he thinks of Lermontov as a significant writer, but he also on occasion dismisses certain aspects of his writing as if he were a hack.

If this book wasn’t historically significant as ushering in a golden era of literature, could it stand on its own? Would it be worth reading?

To some extent, probably so. On the surface it’s mostly hackneyed adventure stories, but there’s more sophistication to it than that, more psychological and social insight. Certainly not on the level of, say, Dostoyevsky, but it has some depth.

Let’s start with the title itself. Is Pechorin a “hero”? Superficially he’s a typical adventure story hero, the dashing leading man who gets the girl, etc. I think most readers, though, would interpret the title as ironic. Lermontov himself in The Author’s Introduction provides evidence for this interpretation. He identifies Pechorin and those like him as embodying “all the vices of our generation in the fullness of their development.”

Nabokov, though, reminds us not to necessarily take the claim in the introduction literally. There’s no law that says an author has to mean exactly what he says and say exactly what he means when he talks about his writing within that writing.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between hero and anti-hero.

Pechorin is a complex character with plenty of traits to admire and plenty to condemn. He’s an alpha male, larger-than-life-type, the sort of charismatic, dynamic person who will always be a leader, always draw people to him.

He’s a “hero” in that sense, but that in and of itself doesn’t make him good or bad. I suppose if you’re Nietzsche or Ayn Rand or something maybe it makes him good, but really it just gives him extraordinary potential to do a great deal of good or a great deal of harm.

But it’s as if he doesn’t know quite what to do with that power. For now he seems to just do what he’s inferred people like him are supposed to do—display prowess on the battlefield, sow his wild oats with the ladies, always seek new and different adventures and challenges, etc.—but more because he doesn’t know what else to do with himself rather than because it’s really all that satisfying for him.

One of the things that makes Pechorin an interesting character is that he has more of an inner life, more of an ability to step back and analyze himself and his world, than one might expect. And what he makes clear in his journal is that he’s really quite bored with it all. He’s only in his 20s, but already he’s kind of seen through this whole practice of societies creating heroes out of dynamic males like himself. But he keeps doing what he’s doing, presumably because he can’t envision an alternative.

You could easily see him “growing up” in one of two ways. One, he could dispense with the self-doubt and the analysis as youthful folly and fully embrace the usual pursuits of normal people, relishing the fact that he’s destined to be a lot more successful at them than most folks, and to acquire far more than his share of money, power, sexual conquests and the like.

Two, he could become even more disillusioned and walk away from it all, becoming more of a moral hero than an action story hero. Having achieved worldly success early, and having understood its hollowness better than those who only see it from the outside and incessantly strive for it thinking it will solve all their problems and make them happy, he could devote his life to some kind of spiritual or moral success instead, more like a character Tolstoy might create.

(In reality he dies before he could develop in either direction. The narrator reports his death fairly early in the book, before presenting Pechorin’s journal.)

I’m not immune to the appeal of larger-than-life figures like Pechorin myself. The appeal doesn’t prevent me from assessing them objectively and, when justified, assessing them negatively, but they certainly get one’s attention. There’s a certain fascination to them, a sense that they matter more, a desire to associate oneself with them. I can totally understand why the storyteller early in the book wants to present himself as some sort of close friend and confidante of Pechorin.

In my case maybe it’s the feeling that if I could have a close enough relationship with someone like that to influence him in a positive direction, the consequences would be of greater magnitude than with most people—the stakes are higher in that sense. That could be part of it anyway.

A Hero of Our Time features a protagonist that gives the reader plenty to think about, whether one approaches the book as a series of entertaining action stories or as something more significant.

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