Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov

Four of the last nine novels I've read have been Russian, which is a record for me. Before September, my only foray into Russian lit had been two nonconsecutive weeks with Dostoevsky (Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov). Lermontov has some similarities with other Russian authors, and the byronic hero is a common character. We see him in Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, again in Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, and now in A Hero of Our Time's main character, Pechorin. Lermontov was conscious of Byron's influence on his writing, and Byron is mentioned or alluded to several times in this novel.  

A Hero of Our Time sets itself apart from the other Russian novels I've read recently in part due to its incredible descriptions of the Caucasus and its people. There are around fifty languages spoken in the Caucasus, and it's not possible to generalize about one culture type or people group exemplified by the region. However, it's safe to say that the peoples of the Caucasus aren't Russian, either in their mother tongue or their culture, yet they were part of the Russian Empire.  For Russia, the Caucasus represents both the self and the other, and an interesting discussion of the role of the Caucasus in Russian literature can be found here.

I wouldn't say there is a lot of in-depth character development in this novel, but the byronic hero is meant to be read as a type, not as a complex individual, and the author accomplishes what he sets out to do. I would recommend A Hero of Our Time as a softer introduction to Russian lit than Dostoevsky. Lermontov also captures the senses of romantic longing, appreciation for nature and inescapable ennui just as Pushkin does in Eugene Onegin, but with a more active plot. If you want to read about horses and samovars and Russian scenery, this is the book for you. On the other hand, if you want to read about thwarted characters or characters for whom life has lost its meaning...this is also the book for you. Finally, if you don't have a lot of time and you're looking for something under 300 pages but with more intellectual weight than a plot-based current bestseller, this is the book for you too! And if, upon finishing, you find yourself casting about for something even more deep, dark and delicious, well...there's always Dostoevsky.

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