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A novel of its time

October 31, 2011 15 comments

A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov. Written in 1836. Published in 1840. French translation by A. de Villamarie. I don’t have the translation by Nabokov but I used the online English translation available here.

There are two men in me – one lives in the full sense of the word, the other reasons and passes judgment on the first.

Well, that’s a feeling I know and there were many other feelings I knew in A Hero of Our Time. Honestly, I’m having difficulties with this review. I have so many random thoughts and 14 pages of quotes I can’t really put in an intelligible order. I’m under the impression that Lermontov summed up in one work the literature of the first forty years of the 19thC.

In the first part Bèla, the reader is told the love story between Pechorin and Bèla. Pechorin is a Russian soldier stationed in a remote fort in the Caucasus. He’s described as a reckless man, unaware of danger, loving to hunt – literally and figuratively. When he sees Bèla at a party, he decides to seduce her, partly for the fun and for the challenge, partly because she’s beautiful. Follow the conquest and the tragic relationship. I wasn’t excited by that part, it reminded me of Atala, which I didn’t adore either. However, I enjoyed the description of the mountains and the nature there.

The moon, becoming pale in the western sky, was about to immerse itself in the black clouds that trailed like tattered bits of a torn curtain from the mountain peaks in the distance.

This summer I visited a 19thC fort in the Alps and I could picture very well the soldiers’ life in that isolated place. Lermontov has a beautiful prose and alternates engrossing descriptions of the nature and the autopsy of Pechorin’s feelings, his youth and his outdoorsy manners and lack enthusiasm for life.

In the second part, we are still seeing Pechorin through a third person’s eyes and watch him reject his old friend Maxim who was the witness of his love story with Bèla. Right. The man is light in love and light in friendship too.

The third part is my favorite one. It’s Pechorin’s journal, we dive into his thoughts, living with him the events he describes. The book is worth reading for the Princess Mary section. Pechorin is in a thermal city in the Caucasus. There he stumbles upon an old acquaintance, Grushnitsky, a soldier like him. The most desirable woman in town is Mary Ligovskaya and she rules the little social circle of the town. Grushnitsky admires her very much and would like to win her heart. He’s on his way to succeeding until Pechorin steps in the way and starts coveting and courting her too. He’s more handsome and more cunning than him. He wins. He doesn’t like her though, she’s a cover for his meetings with his true love Vera. All the way we read his thoughts, mocking Grushnitsky, toying with Mary’s feelings and being in love with Vera. It’s a cruel tale with many victims. Pechorin is in a foul mood, tempestuous, looking for danger and indifferent to death. The duel scene is incredible.

Is Pechorin likeable? Does he have to be? I can’t say I liked him but I enjoyed his witty and insightful remarks on life. In the foreword Lermontov added to the second edition in 1841, he says “A Hero of Our Time, my dear readers, is indeed a portrait, but not of one man. It is a portrait built up of all our generation’s vices in full bloom.” Really, it’s clear that Lermontov was well-read and knew the literary trends of his time. I’ve been reading a few novels of that period over the last 18 months, The Red and The Black, René and Atala, A Slight Misunderstanding, Confession of a Child of the Century. (I should read Lord Byron, I haven’t so far.) and I found a bit of all these novels in this one. Pechorin has common points with Octave, Julien Sorel, René.

As bored as Octave (Confession of a Child of the Century by Musset) 1836. He even argues with a friend to know who of the French or the British have made boredom fashionable.

Is it worth the trouble to live after this? And yet you go on living–out of curiosity, in expectation of something new… How ludicrous and how vexatious!

As miserable and happy to be so as René

‘Listen, Maksim Maksimich,’ he replied, ‘I have an unfortunate character. Whether it is my upbringing that made me like that or God who created me so, I don’t know. I know only that if I cause unhappiness to others I myself am no less unhappy. I realize this is poor consolation for them–but the fact remains that it’s so. In my early youth after leaving my parents, I plunged into all the pleasures money could buy, and naturally these pleasures grew distasteful to me. Then I went into high society, but soon enough grew tired of it; I fell in love with beautiful society women and was loved by them, but their love only aggravated my imagination and vanity while my heart remained desolate . . . I began to read and to study, but wearied of learning too. I saw that neither fame nor happiness depended on it in the slightest, for the happiest people were the most ignorant, and fame was a matter of luck, to achieve which you only had to be clever. And I grew bored…

Trying to escape his life by traveling like Lord Byron.

My soul has been warped by the world, my mind is restless, my heart insatiable–nothing satisfies me. I grow accustomed to sorrow as readily as to joy, and my life becomes emptier from day to day. Only one thing is left for me, and that is to travel.

Cynical as a Balzacian hero

Sometimes I despise myself; is that why I despise others too? I am no longer capable of noble impulses; I am afraid of appearing ridiculous to myself. Another in my place would have offered the princess son coeur et sa fortune but for me the verb “to marry” has an ominous ring: no matter how passionately I might love a woman, it’s farewell to love if she as much as hints at my marrying her. My heart turns to stone, and nothing can warm it again. I’d make any sacrifice but this–twenty times I can stake my life, even my honor, but my freedom I’ll never sell. Why do I prize it so much? What do I find in it? What am I aiming at? What have I to expect from the future? Nothing, absolutely nothing. It’s some innate fear, an inexplicable foreboding…After all, some people have an unreasoning fear of spiders, cockroaches, mice…

Cousin in heart with Mérimée’s Darcy

If you don’t get the advantage over her, even her first kiss will not give you the right to a second. She’ll flirt with you to her heart’s content and a year or two later marry an ugly man in obedience to her mother’s will; then she will begin to assure you that she is unhappy, that she had loved only one man–that is, you–but that fate had not ordained that she be joined to him because he wore a soldier’s overcoat, though beneath that thick gray garment there beat an ardent and noble heart…

Reading A Hero of Our Time, I had the same feeling as before when I read Princess Ligovskaya, the impression I was reading French literature. I know Russian upper-classes mostly spoke French and sometimes hardly spoke Russian. Lermontov has read Goethe, Byron and other Romantic writers; you can hear it in the themes of the stories. But for me, he’s closer to French writers, there’s this French touch of impertinence in the style as well as the use of short witty and imaged phrases. Now I want to watch Un Coeur en hiver, a French film based on Princess Mary.

That’s the best review I could do and I’m not exactly happy with it. Readers interested in reading A Hero of Our Time may want to read other reviews: Kerry’s review is here and Guy’s thoughts are available here: Part One, Part Two, Part Three and The film

 

 

 

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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