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.