What is it with Russians and duelling? There’s scarcely any major Russian writer of fiction who hasn’t depicted duelling at some time or other. There’s Pierre’s duel with Dolohov in Tolstoy’s War and Peace; there’s the duel Bazarov fights with Pavel Petrovich in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons; Dostoyevsky depicted duels in Demons, and also in The Brothers Karamazov (in the chapters dealing with Zossima’s early life); Chekhov actually wrote a story called “The Duel”, and later gave us an offstage duel in the final act of Three Sisters. And, of course, there are perhaps the two most famous fictional duels of them all – Onegin’s duel with Lensky in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, and Pechorin’s duel with Grushnitsky in Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. Both these fictional duels have non-fictional resonance: both Pushkin and Lermontov were killed in actual duels. I cannot think of any other national literature in which the duel plays so prominent a role.
Lermontov possibly ranks with Pushkin and Gogol as the most influential of Russian authors – insofar as they effectively kick-started into existence what, in retrospect, is possibly the most extraordinary flowering of literary greatness in modern times. But of the three, Lermontov is perhaps the least known in the West, possibly because, in addition to his poems (which, incidentally, I have never seen translated), he left behind before his untimely death only a single work of prose fiction – A Hero of Our Time.
I had read this novel way back when I was still at school, when, having developed a fascination with 19th century Russian literature, I was determined to read everything Russian that I could get my hands on. But inevitably, at that age, the mind is not prepared to take everything in to an adequate level, and this one had certainly slipped through my net. So, in effect, if not in terms of strict literal fact, this latest reading was my first reading, and I couldn’t help wondering why I had left this work for so long.
The parallels between A Hero of Our Time and Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin are fairly obvious: at the centre of each is a man who, for all his charisma, is detached from life, who is, indeed, terminally bored with it. Both kill in duels people who are foolish, and who are perhaps no great loss to the world, but who, for all that, did not deserve to die: neither appears to display any great remorse for their deed – at least, not openly, and perhaps not even to themselves. But neither is perhaps as detached from life as they would like to think themselves; and by the end, both are defeated, for even as they are rejecting life, they are themselves rejected. But while the parallels are striking, Pechorin is no mere imitation of Onegin: for while Onegin seems for much of the novel to be in a state of inertia, Pechorin throws himself headlong into endless action, into daredevil adventures – not necessarily because he enjoys adventure, but for reasons that Pechorin himself cannot quite understand. Staving off boredom may be one possible motive, but it doesn’t seem an adequate explanation, for even with all this endless whirlwind of activity, Pechorin remains bored.
Pechorin is an enigma, even to himself. And it is this enigma that gives the character, and the novel, such fascination. The novel is narrated from several perspectives: first from a Russian traveller in the Caucasus, and then, from Maxim Maximych, who had formerly served with Pechorin in the army, and who appears virtually to hero-worship his former comrade. But when Pechorin himself appears on the scene, he does not reciprocate Maxim Maximych’s warmth of feeling: Pechorin appears a cold fish, quite different from the picture Maxim Maxymich had presented. Then, for the rest of the novel, we hear Pechorin’s own voice: we are presented with his diaries, and in these diaries, we are taken back in time to before the events narrated by Maxim Maximych. And the voice we hear is of a man who is bored with life, and with all life has to offer; a man who looks down contemptuously on all that is around him, feeling himself superior to everything. But at the same time, he is surprisingly sensitive to landscape, to beauty. He is a man who is driven by forces that puzzle even himself. Like Onegin, Pechorin discovers himself experiencing intense emotions that he had thought were beneath him, and despite his intelligence and his self-knowledge, he cannot understand why.
Even to someone such as myself who knows Russian literature only through translation, and who, for all his enthusiasm, is by no means an expert, it is hard to over-estimate the influence of this book on the literary flowering that followed. The “superfluous man”, the man alienated from his surroundings, who feels himself both intellectually and morally superior, but who, perhaps for that very reason, is profoundly bored with everything, and who fails ultimately to understand either the world around him or even himself, is a figure who, in various forms, has virtually haunted Russian literature. Characters as diverse as Bazarov, Dolohov, Stavrogin, etc. are cut from the same cloth as Pechorin; and the sinister Solyony in Chekhov’s Three Sisters, believing in his stupidity that such a character is admirable and to be imitated, imagines himself a Lermontovian hero.
The setting too, of the Caucasus, resonates throughout Russian literature: Tolstoy especially was drawn to it, from such early works such as The Cossacks to the late masterpiece Hadji Murat. The Romantic landscape of this region seems to represent a certain state of mind, a certain freedom away from the restrictive social codes of Moscow or of Petersburg. But no-one, not even Tolstoy, describes this landscape as well as does Lermontov: even in translation, it is exquisite. (I read the excellent translation by Natasha Randall, published by Penguin Classics.)
The climactic duel scene is breathtaking. Perhaps it is not so surprising that the duel has loomed so large in the Russian literary imagination, given that two of most seminal works of Russian literature – Eugene Onegin and A Hero of Our Times – each presents us with such memorable duels. The duel in Eugene Onegin took place in the snow: here, the duel is magnificently staged at the edge of a cliff, so that whoever is shot will inevitably fall from a great height, and the death could be written off as an accident. Lermontov stages this scene with all the skills of a master narrator: even as masterly a storyteller as Dumas may have been proud of the set-up, and of the sustained tension throughout these pages. But ultimately, the focus is not really on the narrative: however exciting the events may be – and they are, frequently, breathlessly exciting – it is Pechorin’s state of mind, the psychology of the “superfluous man”, that takes centre stage.
Rather curiously, the novel does not end after the duel, and after Pechorin’s subsequent loss: although it is hard not to see this entire sequence as forming the climax of the work, both thematically and in terms of narrative, there is a further chapter entitled “The Fatalist”. This chapter is certainly interesting in itself, and would have made a tremendous impact had it appeared earlier in the novel, but coming as it does after the major events of the narrative, it did appear to me somewhat anti-climactic. However, this impression might change once I have allowed the book to resonate in my mind a bit longer. This reservation apart, A Hero of Our Time seems an extraordinary work, and one I know I will return to again: I have, after all, barely begun to understand it.