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Princess Ligovskaya by Mikhail Lermontov

July 4, 2011 14 comments

Princess Ligovskaya by Mikhail Lermontov. 1836. I haven’t found the English translation.  

I came across this little book published by Folio in their 2€ collection a few months ago. (I find the cover rather silly, btw). Two things made me buy it: first, I wanted to try Lermontov before reading A Heroe of Our Time; second, it had the same theme as Journey into the past by Stefan Zweig and South of the Border, West of the Sun, by Harukimi Murakami, ie the come back of an old romance after years of separation.

A little disclaimer before starting. I read non-English books in French translations. The problem with Russian literature is that names aren’t transcribed into French the same way as they are in English. For example, the princess is named Ligovskoï in French and Ligovskaya in English. I suspect the English is more faithful to the Russian than the French. When I can, I try to find the English spelling, but here I couldn’t find an English version. This book doesn’t seem listed on Lermontov’s page at Wikipedia but it is mentioned in the text as a record of his doomed love for Barbara Lopukhina. Well, it’ll give to the Anglophone reader an idea of how it sounds for a French one.  

According to the foreword of my French edition, Princess Ligovskaya is an uncompleted novel written by Lermontov and his friend Sviatoslav Raïevski in 1836, before A Hero of Out Time (1839-1841). Lermontov died in 1841 and I don’t know why he never resumed writing this novel. Was it started as an outlet for his unfortunate love and abandoned when the pain had soothed?  

Princess Ligovskaya opens with a Balzacian scene of a young civil servant on foot roughly jostled by an officer on horse. The officer is Grégoire Alexandrovitch Piétchorine and I suppose it would be Pechorin in English, like in A Hero of Our Time. His friends call him Georges (In French). This scene is important as it gives us an insight of Piétchorine’s temper and at the same time settles an enmity between the two men.

Piétchorine lives with his mother and his sister and is a member of the upper classes in Saint Petersburg. He is courting the now fading Elisabeth Nikolaïevna, but it’s more a game for him than true love or even financial interest. When he gets home, his valet gives him a card from Prince and Princess Ligovskoï who have left Moscow to spend some time in Petersburg. He reacts violently, burns the card and becomes restless. We quickly understand that he used to be in love with Viéra Dmitrievna, now married to Prince Ligovskoï and that it hurts him to see her. Follow their encounters at the theatre and later at a diner.

That’s for the plot.

It left me really frustrated and a bit angry at Lermontov. I wish he had taken the time or the pain to complete this novel. It is so full of promises. He had a vivid tone, I imagine him walking briskly through life, with a sharp mind and an impertinent conversation. The descriptions of the Russian high society are lively and full of irony. The scene at the theatre reminded me of Balzac, in the description of clothing and the way people behave according to their social class. I could image the swish of gowns, the gossips in the boxes, the people watching, the buzz of conversation in the interval, the fancy crowd in the stairs at the end of the play. His prose sounds so French. The long description of Elisabeth Nikolaïevna’s fate as an ageing single woman reminded me of Jane Austen. He throws an uncompromising look at this poor young woman nobody wants to court with a serious wish to marry her. It is not without cruelty but also with lucidity: women’s fates were really like a lottery game. Either they picked a good number i.e. a decent husband or they didn’t and were miserable.

Unfortunately, the renewal of the acquaintance between Pietchorine and Viéra Dmitrievna is barely touched upon, evidence that this text was meant to be a long novel and not a novella. I would have wanted to know more. Again, I thought of Balzac when reading the passage where they meet at a diner. We can guess their respective misery is due more to a lot of misunderstanding than to one of them falling out of love with the other. Their passion smoulders, it wouldn’t need a lot to kindle it.

After finishing this book, I don’t really know how Lermontov would have covered the same topic as Zweig and Murakami. But I sure know I want to read A Hero of Our Time.

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