Archive for November 6th, 2011

“A Hero of Our Time” by Mikhail Lermontov

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.

[PS added Monday, 7th November, 2011: There are some fascinating posts on this novel here, here and here in the blog “His Futile Preoccupations”; and also here, in the blog “Book Around the Corner”.]

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In praise of Dracula: a belated Halloween post

It was in Blackpool I first encountered Dracula. Not in the flesh, of course, because as we all know vampires don’t really exist. But no matter how insistently I kept saying that to myself, I couldn’t dispel the terror behind that nagging thought: “But what if they did?”

I was nine years old at the time, which may count perhaps as something of a mitigating factor. And it was in the Chamber of Horrors of a deliciously tacky waxwork exhibition on Blackpool Pleasure Beach that used to call itself Louis Tussauds.

To keep myself on the safe side of libel laws, I think I should point out that Louis Tussauds have now been taken over by Madame Tussauds, and, although I have not been to this place since the takeover, I have no reason whatever to believe that any element of tack attaches itself to this waxwork exhibition nowadays. No, indeed. No element of tack whatever.

I can’t help feeling, however, that waxworks should be a bit tacky, a bit seedy. And that the highlight of a visit to a wax museum should be a gloriously lurid Chamber of Horrors. That’s certainly the way Louis Tussauds used to be, and if the establishment has now become nobler, exhibiting likenesses of the latest wholesome showbiz celebrities rather than exciting the visitors’ baser instincts with vulgar and gratuitous displays of horror, then, alongside the undoubted gains, there may perhaps also be a certain loss. For I find it hard to imagine how even the most edifying likenesses of Posh & Becks & co could make the sort of impact that tableau of Dracula had made on me that day.

Memory can, as we all know, play the most outrageous tricks, but what I seem to remember of that tableau was a woman lying in bed, her skin a ghastly green, and with two lurid punctures in her neck dripping crimson. And next to her stood the Count himself, sated with blood, his face marked with a frown and a wrinkle and a sneer of cold command. I was horrified, in a way I never could be now in my middle age. And I was fascinated.

What perversity is it in our natures that makes us seek after that which horrifies and repels? The rational reaction to my terror in Blackpool that day would have been to avoid such things altogether. But no – the effect it had on me was quite the opposite. In those days, Scottish Television used to show Hammer Horror films on late nights on Fridays, and my parents, who took their parenting responsibilities somewhat more seriously than I might have wished, would not allow me to stay up for them. (Indeed, I don’t think they’d have allowed me into Louis Tussauds had they known at the time what it contained.) So I used to read the blurbs in TV Times, and roll those marvellous titles around my tongue – The Curse of Frankenstein, The Gorgon, Brides of Dracula… I used to envy my good friend Terence: his parents, unlike mine, let him stay up for these films, and every Monday morning, at playtime, he used to tell me what he had seen the previous Friday night. It may not seem like much now, but it was then: what Terence told me, coupled with what I had seen in Louis Tussauds in Blackpool, fired my imagination. At night, I would lie awake in my bed in the dark, imagining every creak of the floorboards and every gurgle in the water pipes to betoken the imminent approach of Count Dracula himself, whose deadly bite would drain my blood, and turn my skin ghastly green. Yes, my parents were in the next room, I knew, but what could even parents do against the power of the Count?

Of course, with the passing of the years, for better or for worse, our imaginations learn not to be frightened of vampires. We are frightened instead of more realistic matters – paying our bills, holding on to our jobs, maintaining our health, and so on. All very mundane, sadly. But the imagination is a fine thing, and the more beset we are by real everyday worries, the more attractive seems that flight of imagination that takes us back to our childhood fears. And, for me anyway, it doesn’t take too great an exercise of the imagination to return to that world in which Count Dracula really was a figure to inspire terror. Although I cannot return to feeling as I did when I was nine, even the act of remembering the fears I once had felt is strangely pleasurable.

But enough of this psychobabble. I don’t know why it is I still enjoy reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or why I enjoy watching those splendid Hammer Horror films. That I enjoy them is reason enough for my continuing to enjoy them. The opening section of Stoker’s novel, especially, remains terrifying for reasons I am not prepared to speculate upon. That entire section in which Jonathan Harker travels through Borgo pass into Castle Dracula, and then effectively finds himself a prisoner in that fearsome place, still sends up the spine shivers of supernatural terror, and reminds me that I am perhaps not too far removed from that boy who used to be terrified by the gurgles in the water pipes. Admittedly, the level of intensity of the early section of the novel is not maintained throughout, but there are, nonetheless, splendidly terrifying passages, not least the superbly staged finale where we return once again to Castle Dracula.

No adaptation has, to my mind, quite captured the atmosphere of the novel. I suppose the closest is the BBC adaptation from the 1970s: the casting of Louis Jourdain as the Count was certainly unexpected, but it paid off handsomely. The old Universal films with Bela Lugosi seem hopelessly stiff and stagey these days: they certainly haven’t lasted as well as the wonderful Frankenstein films from the same studio, with Boris Karloff as the monster giving one of cinema’s finest performances.

But the finest screen Dracula, certainly for me and, I suspect, for many others as well, is surely Christopher Lee. It was 1958 when the Hammer Dracula (US title: Horror of Dracula) first hit the screens, and while it was quite different from the novel on which it was based, it was, and remains still, a considerable achievement in its own right. Above all, it fixed for ever our mental picture of Dracula: from now on, Dracula is the suave, aristocratic and darkly menacing figure presented by Christopher Lee. There have been many other actors since who have played the Count, but none has supplanted Lee in this role.

The surprise is not that sequels followed, but that it took so long for the first one to turn up: it was the mid-60s by the time Dracula, Prince of Darkness appeared, and, for my money at any rate, it is even finer than its predecessor. The sequence in the first half of the film where the four travellers find themselves in Dracula’s castle is still weird and eerie, and retains its ability to frighten, and to cause unease. There are many other splendid scenes as well –  not least the scene taken straight from Chapter 3 of Wuthering Heights in which Helen (Barbara Shelley), now undead, appears at the window, begging to be let in. Add to that the finest staking scene of any vampire film, and we have what, for me at least, is among the great classics of horror cinema.

The following sequels (five more featuring Christopher Lee as Dracula) did not quite maintain this standard, although there remains even in the least of them much that I find enjoyable. But then again, I am a diehard aficionado. Ah – those waxworks in Louis Tussauds have much to answer for!