Lermontov was a romantic and enigmatic figure; some of this was brought about by revisionism after his death and the silence of many who knew him him best but mostly because of his poetic and somewhat heroic activities – which again we are viewing through a historical filter. Kelly does a good job of canvassing different versions of Lermontov’s actions and possible motives. Often these come from second-hand sources which could be more credible than the first hand sources that may have had an agenda. The biography is very engaging and the fact that much of Lermontov’s poetry is included in the text made for a very welcome surprise. The poetry, apart from ‘the Demon’, is quite difficult to get in translation.
As always (similarly with Pushkin) you are left considering the ‘what if’ question. Could Lermontov have lived up to his promise – or would he have lost himself in dissolute living after being singled out by the Tsar for punishment as an example? These are questions that can never really be answered. We know he was thinking of two novel projects before he died in the duel, but he had also been considering other projects earlier in the 1830s which never came to fruition. Out of the army life he may have knuckled down and left society, as Pushkin did from time to time, to get some writing done. Unfortunately he never had the chance having aroused the Tsars displeasure for firstly, his poem in support of Pushkin. Secondly, a duel. Thirdly, his novel ‘Hero of Our Time’ which the Tsar didn’t appreciate. Fourthly, that despite his prodigious talent Lermontov wasn’t using it in the service of Tsar and Russia in the way that the Tsar would have liked. As Lermontov used up his second chance by engaging in a rash duel the Tsar wasn’t prepared to forget a second time despite Lermontov’s heroics in the the Caucasus. He was sent back again, and while recuperating in Pyatigorsk managed to cause offence to an old colleague with his ascerbic wit. This colleague Martynov then challenged him to fight the duel in which he died. You can blame the intervention of the Tsar for the death of Lermontov – sending him back to the Caucasus with little hope of his situation improving, but you can also take the view that Lermontov would have found some way to get himself into trouble again. If it hadn’t been this duel – it could well have been one in Moscow having been forgiven by the Tsar. Lermontov was still only 26 but what we can say is that his novel and poetry does not seem as though it is written by a young man. Lermontov had a precocious talent and understanding of existence despite his years. This is an excellent biography.