A Hero of Our Time: Foreword by Vladimir Nabokov, Translation by Vladimir Nabokov and Dmitri Nabokov (Everyman's Library (Cloth)) (英語) ハードカバー – 1992/6/30
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In its adventurous happenings–its abductions, duels, and sexual intrigues–A Hero of Our Time looks backward to the tales of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron, so beloved by Russian society in the 1820s and ’30s. In the character of its protagonist, Pechorin–the archetypal Russian antihero–Lermontov’s novel looks forward to the subsequent glories of a Russian literature that it helped, in great measure, to make possible.
This edition includes a Translator’s Foreword by Vladimir Nabokov, who translated the novel in collaboration with his son, Dmitri Nabokov.
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The setting for this novel (which is really a loosely connected string of short stories) is the wild Caucasian mountains, to which Lermontov himself had been "exiled" to fight against the fierce Chechens. After the death of Pushkin, Lermontov took it upon himself to keep the great poet's legacy alive. The authorities did not take kindly to Lermontov's endeavour, and transferred the young officer to the war zone.
To 19th centrury Russian writers, the experience of the Caucasus and of 'Asiatics' in general was of tremendous value as a gauge of the value of Russian civilization. Juxtaposing Russian high society with the people of the steppes and the mountains became a familiar device in Russian literature, just like American Indians were used to symbolize the natural/unadulterated or the uncivilized/savage in American literature.
However, in "A Hero of Our Time" the officer Pechorin transcends the boundaries between culture and nature. In the early chapters of the book, Pechorin's adventures are described from outside, and seem extraordinary, bizzare, yet captivating. Later on, other stories are recounted in Pechorin's diary, and they draw a different picture of the modern hero: disillusioned, hateful, and profoundly unhappy. Life is a game which he has long mastered, he knows exactly how to play into people's pride, vanity and passion. Yet, at unlikely moments, a stir of long-forgotten emotion briefly produces a vulnerable, human hero with whom we, despite ourselves, are forced to identify...
The picture he paints is an interesting one. On the one hand, he declares this Pechorin a great friend, but on the other, comments on his lack of emotion and coldness. He is capable of great generosity, and equally great hostility, the choice of which seems more a whim than for any reason. Maxim admires his education, wit and talent with women, but is offended by his lack of accountability.
In the story Maxim tells, he and Pechorin travel to an Asian warchief's home, where Pechorin is infatuated with the leader's young daughter, Bela. Through a series of manipulative events - all arranged by Pechorin, without remorse or even satisfaction - the daughter is kidnapped and the young soldier falls in love. The story ends tragically, though not unexpectedly, and serves to whet our appetites for who this man really is.
As narrated by Maxim, these stories are colorful, eventful, and written with great, broad strokes. Maxim is not a very educated man, and as such he is unable to properly paint the picture of Pechorin. But he has an admirable flair for description, which in his own, simple ways, are very effective. The narrator is more intelligent and inquisitive, commenting playfully on characters and situations, and viewing the world with an almost child-like glee. Everything is interesting, every road is worth travelling. The road he does happen to stumble upon is Pechorin's, and because the man being described is so different to the airy views of the narrator, it is interesting to watch him struggle with this enigma.
The next section - which forms the meat of the story - are three short pieces written by Pechorin that the narrator managed to acquire from Maxim. Taman, the first piece, is probably as interesting as Maxim's story, although it reveals little of Pechorin's character. The third piece, The Fatalist, serves as a rounding out of who and what Pechorin is, and acts well as a finisher, being only 9 pages long.
But it is the story of Princess Mary that is by far the most interesting. Set over a month, it chronicles the events of Pechorin's holiday at the Elizabeth Spring, a place where hopeful socialites mix with distinguished military men to secure strong marriages, or engage in clandestine affairs. A man Pechorin knows - not a friend, because, 'of two friends, one is always the slave of the other...I can never be a slave, and to command in these circumstances is too exacting', is in love with Mary, the daughter of a wealthy but socially poor Princess. For no reason other than it would amuse him, Pechorin sets out to make young Mary fall in love with, enjoying himself immensely while the spa descends into a chaotic, backstabbing pit of secret looks and pistol duels.
Through his journal, we come to know Pechorin. He is very casual in the way he writes, trailing off with thoughts he finds distasteful, commenting slyly on everyone, including himself, and willing to analyse everything and everybody. He is witty, cultured, and bored with is life. Toying with people amuses him, dispelling the ever-present melancholy of his life. Yet - and this is something that is initially difficult to believe, but thanks to Lermontov's skill as an author, works very well - Pechorin is not malicious, nor does he do what he does out of anger. He tends to work at people's emotions, playing them out more artfully than they would themselves. When events escalate, and he finds himself in a rigged duel, Pechorin is not contrite, but is willing to let it all go and have everyone go back to the spa, with all forgiven. When this request is denied, he doesn't mind very much, and if he is to die, what matter? 'After all, the worst you can do is die, and you've got to die sometime.', he comments.
Pechorin is not a sympathetic character, but he is not trying to be. Through Maxim's story, and the narrator's subsequent efforts to discover more about this interesting man, our curiosity is aroused. How could Pechorin be the way he is? What man would enjoy the suffering of others, but be equally amused by the lack of excitement? Why would anyone risk life and limb for a woman, then spurn her when she offers herself to him? The journals of Pechorin both answer and do not answer these questions. Pechorin is Pechorin. Self-consistent, and absolutely accountable to himself, he is assured, intelligent, and charismatic. To others, he is a mystery, but, as he muses, it may be because everyone is attracted to evil, and for him, it is more interesting than being good.
In structure, the book consists of a collection of short stories and novellas rather than a single narrative. These stories, however, are linked in two ways. Firstly, all feature the same protagonist, Grigoriy Pechorin, a young officer serving with the Russian army in the Caucasus. Secondly, they are bound together by a complex framework featuring a single anonymous narrator (not to be identified with Lermontov himself), a traveller in the Caucasus. The first story, Bela, is supposedly told to this narrator by Maksim Maksimych, a brother-officer of Pechorin. The second, Maksim Maksimych, is related by the narrator himself and deals with a meeting between Pechorin and Maksim. The other three, Taman, Princess Mary and The Fatalist, are all told in Pechorin's own words, taken from his journal which has come into the narrator's hands after Pechorin's death.
It is the fourth tale, Princess Mary, which is the longest and the one which lies at the heart of the work. Bela and Taman are adventure stories with an exotic setting (the Caucasus had the same sort of appeal for nineteenth-century Russians as India had for their British contemporaries). Maksim Maksimych is a linking narrative, and the final story, The Fatalist is an unsettling, spooky treatment of the concepts of fate and predestination.
In Princess Mary, the mood changes abruptly from the romantic exoticism of the earlier stories. Pechorin is stationed in a fashionable spa town in the northern Caucasus. Here he has little to occupy his time, and becomes embroiled in liaisons with two women, the Mary of the title (the daughter of an aristocratic family), and Vera, a former mistress of his, now unhappily married to an older husband. As a result of these intrigues, Pechorin quarrels with Grushnitsky, a rival for Mary's affections, and the story culminates in a duel between the two men.
The loose, episodic structure of the novel must have seemed very radical to readers in the first half of the nineteenth century. Lermontov also seems to prefigure later developments in the novel in his treatment of the character of Pechorin, a cynical, amoral figure who does not conform to the normal nineteenth idea of a literary "hero". This may make the title of the book seem ironic. Lermontov himself recognises this when he invents a dialogue between his narrator and his imaginary readers. The narrator says that the title of the book would be his reply should anyone ask him for his opinion of Pechorin's character. "But that is wicked irony!" Lermontov imagines his readers replying, to which the narrator's only comment is "I don't know.....". The suggestion is thereby given that the title can be taken both in an ironic sense and also at face value.
In a limited sense, Pechorin can indeed be seen as a heroic figure. A common usage of the word "hero" (possibly its original usage) is a person of great bravery, and there is no doubt that, in his duel with Grushnitsky, Pechorin shows both physical courage and indifference to death. What he lacks is the moral stature of the true hero in the unqualified sense of the word. We may admire someone who shows courage in order to help others, or in the service of his country, or in defence of a moral principle. Although this is difficult for us to understand today, people in the nineteenth century (or at least the upper classes from which Lermontov came) may also have admired someone who was prepared to risk death in defence of his honour or the honour of a loved one. What does not seem admirable, either from the perspective of the nineteenth century or from that of the twenty-first, is a contempt for death arising out of boredom with life, and it is this boredom which is the motivation for many of Pechorin's actions. His pursuit of Mary and Vera (like his earlier relationship with the Caucasian girl Bela) is born not of love or affection for the women involved, or even of sexual desire, but rather of a lack of anything better with which to occupy himself. He fights the duel with Grushnitsky not out of a belief that some things are worth dying for, but rather out of a belief that nothing is worth living for.
If Pechorin is not a conventional hero, neither is he a conventional literary villain in the sense of a brutal or Machiavellian evildoer, whose evil serves as a contrast to the virtue of the hero or heroine. Although there is something demonic about him in the way he brings misery to others, he is not wholly evil. A surprising side of his character brought out in his journals is his sensitivity to the beauty of nature; vivid descriptions of Caucasian scenery alternate with details of squalid intrigues. This is more than the stock Romantic cliché about wild characters being drawn to wild scenery; Lermontov uses these passages to suggest that even Pechorin sometimes aspires to a better way of life. After the literally breathtaking description of his duel with Grushnitsky, Pechorin concludes the story of Princess Mary with an unexpectedly poetic image, comparing himself to a mariner who has become so used to storm and strife that he cannot abide a peaceful life ashore and who paces the beach, watching for the sail that will take him back to sea.
Although there are similar characters in Romantic fiction, such as Pushkin's Onegin, the restless, cynical Pechorin can also be seen as prefiguring the "outsider" anti-heroes of the literature of the mid-twentieth century. (Camus's Meursault and Osborne's Jimmy Porter are examples that come to mind). More than a century and a half after his creation, Pechorin still seems a very modern figure; an anti-hero for our times as much as his own. I finished the book with only two regrets; firstly, that Lermontov's untimely death prevented him from writing any more novels, and secondly that there do not currently seem to be any English versions of his poetry in print.