A Hero Of Our Time

By Mikhail Lermontov.

There is so much that is exceptional about this novel that I don’t know where to start. The structure is innovative in that you read Pechorin’s diaries later after you have been given stories about him from others either first or second hand. Because of this the original events have so many more colours than a flat narrative.

The subject matter is romantic – an officer’s adventures in the Caucasus, but this isn’t artificial – this was Lermonov’s world. One of the greatest losses for literature must surely be that he died in a duel at age 26. This means he would have been writing ‘A Hero of Our Time’ from at least 24 – something I can’t quite fathom. The voice in this novel is so mature and the disillusionment so profound in some areas that it’s impossible to imagine how Lermontov could have been capable of this at his age. Unless of course, he was a genius and was therefore more creative, sensitive and perceptive than we mere mortals can conceive.

Most writers have related ideas that they continue to examine or develop throughout their life. Unfortunately we only have this one novel from Lermontov. Through each standalone chapter the preoccupations of Lermontov are shown to be chance, fate and determinism mixed into a delicious cocktail and served with irony and sincerity in equal measure. The final story rounds these themes up perfectly – and you could say the reality of Lermontov’s life and its end completes the novel. I would rather it hadn’t. We know that Lermontov asked to be relieved of his military duties so he could devote himself to writing but this was refused by the authorities and the Tsar. The Tsar hated ‘A Hero of Our Time’ and on hearing of Lermontov’s death he is reputed to have exclaimed “A dog’s death for a dog.” Well, this ‘dog’ Lermontov is still read widely and his preoccupations and examinations of life and living are still relevant today.

As an aside, I was watching the Bergman film ‘The Silence’ last night when I noticed the young boy in the movie was reading the Swedish translation of  ‘A Hero of Our Time’. I’m not sure why Bergman put this in, particularly in the hands of a boy of 8 or so. Apparently it also features in his film ‘Persona’ as well. There’s an article that might explain this called ‘Images and Words in Ingmar Bergman’s Films‘ – however the domain seems to be down at the moment.

The best book I have read for a long time, and I might read it again in a week or so. Maybe reading ‘A Hero of Our Time’ should become an annual occurrence.

Soundtrack: just silence.

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A Night in the Luxembourg

By Remy de Gourmont.

This was a quirky little book: its structure sets up a mystery which frames the dialogue between a journalist and a god as they walk through the Luxembourg gardens. There is much questioning and developing of concepts that twist and turn on themselves. You are never quite sure on the position of the two participants – particularly the god, which I think is part of the point. They are joined by three women – one of which decides to stay with the journalist, as the discussion closes, as the immortal mistress of a mortal man. I won’t give the story away as you may decide to read it as it is interesting, rich and very worthwhile.

Remy De Gourmont’s symbolist tendencies are very present throughout the work and I have to say I really enjoyed this. The aesthetic pleasure from the words with their descriptions and illusions was quite decadent. I felt as though I was getting in touch with a meaning behind the words through the combination of philosophy and ideas mixed with their sensual appreciation.

So, yes, de Gourmont followed the form well – this book is still very much in keeping with the symbolist aesthetic even though ‘A Night in the Luxembourg’ (1906) was written a little later  than the movement’s heyday.

De Gourmont was apparently a formative influence on Blaise Cendrars, who I greatly admire. De Gourmont’s poem Le Latin Mystique seems to have inspired Cendrars and his Trans-siberian, but as the two men were friends I am sure de Gourmont impacted in other ways in Cendrars life and writing. This sounds like something that could be covered in a PHD or Masters – perhaps it already has.

I have de Gourmonts novel ‘Sixtine’ waiting to be read, hopefully that will be up to the standard of ‘A Night in the Luxembourg’.

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Pushkin’s Fairy Tales

By Alexander Pushkin.

There are some great stories here. In 1833 Pushkin took a break from busy city life and retired to his estate where he wrote these tales. Even though many of these are known folk stories, which were originally told to him by his childhood nurse, Pushkin imbues them with his personality. I particularly like the fact that he directly announces his presence in these tales. He finished two by saying:

“And I was there, drinking beer and mead, and hardly wet my moustache.”

Very amusing.

This edition has wonderful illustrations by the Australian artist Arthur Boyd. It is really nice to have a book like this as a physical object with a good translation. The favourite story for me is ‘The Story Of A Priest And His Servant Balda’. It finishes with the statement: ‘It isn’t wise to try to take a man’s labour for nothing!’ This might not sound like much; but in the political ferment of the time, and with Pushkin’s position of influence, this maxim is provocative and gives a clear indication of where his sympathies still lie.

A few very pleasant evenings were spent dipping in and out of these stories. I recommend them, and this edition, to you.

Soundtrack: Cake – Commissioning a Symphony in C.

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Taras Bulba

By Nikolai Gogol.

First of all, the good things about this novel and then the misgivings. The atmosphere and story really transports you. Comparisons can be made to the epic Iliad by Homer and the story is entertaining. With Gogol you can never really tell what is going to happen and the tale goes off on a whole different direction at the end. I loved ‘Dead Souls’ beyond measure but Taras Bulba lacks the humour that you find in the characters of Dead Souls. It does have some fantastic one-liners:

“I want my vodka so clear and frothing that it hisses and whirls like it is possessed!”

I have to say though, I found the anti-semitism and xenophobia directed towards the Turks and Poles distasteful. Throw in a some handfuls of misogyny and rampant nationalism and you start to wonder why you are reading the novel. I finished it though, and went on to another short story (St John’s Eve) that mirrored all these elements again. So this wasn’t a one-off. For context, the story was written at a time just after the Poland had attempted a revolution to self-govern the Russian partition of Poland – so Russian nationalism was probably riding high. As for the anti-semitism there are no mitigating factors apart from the fact that those prejudices were part and parcel of Russian life at the time. However, we don’t find anti-semitism in Lermontov or to anywhere near the same degree in Pushkin. Pushkin may have, in fact, had Jewish ancestors as well as African. Unfortunately, after Taras Bulba it seems that Yankel (who is Jewish) seems to become something of an archetype in much Russian literature. We find this later in Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Babel and Turgenev.

So, should this book be read given these factors? I think so, as long as you are aware of them. Everything you read has to be viewed in context. Works of literature don’t just spring into being from nothing – they are created from the historical, social and political milieu that surrounds them. This is why books are so important – they don’t just tell stories – they tell us about what it was like to live in that place at that particular time.

Right, having leapt into the air and kicked the soapbox away in one fluid motion (today is World Book Day), I will read some more of Gogol’s short stories acutely aware of context.

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