Du Malone writes: ‘What a glorious place that valley is! Inaccessible mountains on all sides, red-hued cliffs hung with green ivy and crowned with clumps of plane-trees, yellow precipices streaked with rivulets; high up above lies the golden fringe of the snow, while below the silver thread of the Aragava — linked with some nameless torrent that roars out of a black, mist-filled gorge — stretches glistening like a scaly snake.’
The Caucasian setting of hero of our time matters; it locates the novel on the margins, far from the cultivation of Petersburg and Moscow. And it imbues it with Byronic wildness.
Despite the role of nature, the core of the novel focuses closely on human action and psychology. Loyalty, friendship, rivalry, hostility, affection, erotic attraction, courage, honour, duplicity — these are its themes.
I call it a ‘novel’, but though that is the usual term for the book it is somewhat misleading. The work is more like a series of short stories, loosely linked by a focus — though not an unvarying one — on the character of Pechorin, the rather unheroic ‘hero’. The reader is offered a series of glances into Pechorin’s life and its context: the feeling is quite different from the more panoramic perspectives offered by subsequent novelists, such as Tolstoy. There is a shifting viewpoint. Sometimes Pechorin is presented in the first person, in his journal, and sometimes in the third person according to one or more narrators.
Of the stories, the one that interested me least was, unfortunately, the longest, namely ‘Princess Mary’. Set mostly in spa society in the town of Pyatigorsk, the story traces gradually shifting romantic relations and affairs of the art. I confess that the middle sections bored me, in the way that passages in Turgenev sometimes bore me. But the tale does have a strong dramatic finish.
Overall I found the writing very engaging. The discontinuous form I found attractive: it has an oddly contemporary feel. From the shifting perspectives and partial insights you gradually compose an image of the ‘hero’, without ever quite knowing what you’re dealing with.
Mikhail Lermontov, A hero of our time (Penguin, 1966), translated by Paul Foote.