Lermontov died in a duel just over a year after publishing A Hero of Our Time (1840). For we readers, this is the kind of timing of which legends are made. Imagine if Paul McCartney had died in a fist-fight after writing Live and Let Die, or if Marlon Brando had been fatally wounded by a pit-bull after appearing in On the Waterfront. For Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time stands as the brilliant legacy of a creative mind snuffed out prematurely.

The very title can be considered to be, in the narrator’s own words, “malicious irony.” The novel’s protagonist, Grigory Pechorin (named after the northern Russian river, the Pechora) is manipulative, deceitful, course, and often outright villainous. He frequently sabotages and sometimes even destroys the lives of others, including friends and lovers.

It’s easy to see this is as a precursor to so many of the famous Russian masterpieces of the 19th century, especially a book such as Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. But it would be wrong to read this purely for a literary history lesson. This is quite simply an astounding work, ingenious for its construction and flawless in its execution.

There are five story arcs here told by three different narrators – one unnamed, who opens the book, Maxim Maximych, an army captain, who picks up the narrative very quickly afterward, and Pechorin himself, who relays the bulk of the dramatic narrative through to the book’s conclusion. So in a way, we approach Pechorin a bit like a plane breaking through the clouds to get to its destination: we begin at a distance, we get closer, and ultimately we get very close indeed.

Of the five narratives, I enjoyed the first, Bela, and the last, The Fatalist, the most. But this book shouldn’t be confused for a collection of short stories. I do think A Hero of Our Time must be read in sequence: the logic of following the prescribed order is to gain insights en route to the final part’s considerations of some Truly Big Questions – and to bear such weight, we need to live with Pechorin for a while.

In Bela, Maxim Maximych tells the story of his encounter with Pechorin. The events take place in the Caucasus – the Russian empire’s frontier, a rough and wild place. Pechorin falls for a beautiful woman named Bela, and schemes up a cunning way to win her over. It turns out that Bela’s brother Azamat covets the horse of a local trader, and Pechorin says he’ll steal the horse in exchange for Azamat’s sister. (Yes, a horse ends up getting “traded” for a woman – this isn’t exactly a pleasant read for a 21st century reader.)

But here’s the thing: Pechorin sets in motion this awful sequence of events, which ultimately ends fatally for Bela, without having ever really been in love. Before Bela’s demise, she becomes quite devoted to Pechorin, but this only hastens his sense of boredom with her.

Pechorin is a restless figure – seemingly never satisfied, always seeking new adventures, pleasures and schemes, and openly scorns or considers himself unfit for conventional life. In this respect, Lermontov has presented a very modern figure; Pechorin reminded me a little of David di Meola in Michel Houellebecq’s seminal novel 1998 novel, The Elementary Particles – insofar as we’re dealing with somebody almost entirely unmoored from any kind of moral structure.

In The Fatalist, Pechorin takes a break from his sophisticated games of plotting and scheming. What unfolds instead is the tale of a drinking game, rather like Russian roulette, and its aftermath. Pechorin believes that the man pointing the gun at his own head will not survive, and bets against him, believing he has seen some physical sign of doom on the man’s face. This raises questions about fate and predestination — the subjects of the drinking conversation all night.

After the events of the party (no spoilers here!)  Pechorin departs, and we are treated to the following paragraph – a meditation on the rapid decline of fatalistic thinking in society generally:

I walked home through the empty back streets of the village. A full red moon was just showing over the broken line of buildings, like the glare of a fire. Stars shone calmly in the deep blue sky, and I was amazed to think that there were once wise men who imagined the stars took part in men’s pretty squabbles over a patch of land or somebody’s ‘rights.’ While in fact these lamps, which they supposed had been lit for the sole purpose of shining on their battles and triumphs, still burn on as bright as ever, while they, with all their passions and hopes, have long since vanished, like a fire lit by some carefree traveller at the edge of a forest. Yet what strength they derived from this certainty that the heavens with all their countless hosts looked down on them in silent, but never-failing sympathy. And we, their pitiful descendants, drift through the world, without beliefs, pride, pleasure or fear, except that automatic fear that grips us when we think of the certainty of death. We can no longer make great sacrifices for the good of mankind, or even for our own happiness, because we know they are unattainable. And as our ancestors rushed from illusion to illusion, so we drift indifferently from doubt to doubt. But, unlike them, we have no hope, nor even that indefinable but real sense of pleasure that’s felt in any struggle, be it with men or destiny.

I admit, I was pretty shaken by these words. I had to stop and read them again. And again. And then I read them aloud to my wife.

All in all, this book’s mix of nastiness, violence and vice, combined with beautiful insights, popping up in the most unexpected of places, like an obelisk rising from a swamp, kept me utterly enthralled.

The translation I read was Paul Foote’s – the Penguin Classics edition. Thanks, Nick Glossop of the Paltry Sapien, for lending it to me.
Top image: Tiflis, 1837, A painting by Mikhail Lermontov