Mikhail Lermontov, “A Hero of Our Time” (1840) (translated from the Russian by Paul Foote) – I was supposed to read this book during my first semester of college! I skimmed it at best- I wasn’t a very disciplined reader at the time, even though this is a slim volume. I guess my old history professor had in mind teaching us something about Russian romanticism and imperialism in the Caucasus. Maybe something about framing devices in literature, too. The book is about an officer named Pechorin- first, another officer relates hearing stories about him, then the officer finds and transcribes Pechorin’s diary after the subject dies.
Pechorin is a Byronic hero (Byron and other British romantics like Walter Scott are referred to throughout the text), a man apart from society, cynical about its pretenses but passionate about his feelings, enamored of big landscapes and death, both of which the Caucasus provides in plenty. He is depicted as being irresistible to the ladies but caring only intermittently about one, who “got away.” Banished from St. Petersburg for scandal(s?), he stirs up trouble amongst the provincial/vacationing society in the Caucasus as well. He seduces a princess (as a lark- he’s basically indifferent towards her), angers fellow officers, fights a duel. The story is basically told backwards, we find out about his last exploit — kidnapping a (local, tribal, this time) princess and marrying her before she gets revenge-killed and he flees for Persia, where he dies — first.
One element of interest here is the self-awareness and even irony of romanticism here. Pechorin knows he’s posturing, based in part off of models like Byron, and so do many of his interlocutors — the officer reading the diary, Pechorin’s second in his duel — but he plays it entirely straight anyway. It seems pretty early in the historical game for Lermontov to be making such a point about romanticism, but I guess Byron had already been dead for a while. It probably helps explain why this work is enduringly popular in literary circles. Lermontov basically lived a Pechorin-type life, dying in a duel (one key difference between him and the character, I guess) at age 26. Even people who can see through some of romanticism’s premises can be sucked in by it, I guess. ****