Since I started at Oneworld Classics, I have had the pleasure of working on a number of fantastic titles that I would never have read otherwise, and probably wouldn’t even have heard of. This isn't just because I am a literary philistine, although that may be true – it is largely due to the policy we have of publishing translated classics, rightly famous in their countries of origin, that remain relatively unknown in the English-speaking world. There are many examples – Sadegh Hedayat’s Three Drops of Blood, Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus and Georg Büchner’s Lenz, to name but a few. My favourite, however, is probably Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time.
Set in the Caucusus during the 1830s, the novel tells the story of Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin, a young Russian officer, and his exploits in the wild and dangerous frontier between European Russia and the East. Mikhail Lermontov was himself an officer who served in the region, and it features heavily throughout his writings – he would eventually come to be known as the Poet of the Caucasus. His love for the country is evident in his beautiful descriptions of the majestic scenery which forms the backdrop to the tale.
The chief joy of this novel, however, lies in the central character, the “hero” of the title. Pechorin is in fact an antihero – a rake and a cad, he schemes, lies, murders and seduces his way through the book. But far from being a two-dimensional cartoon villain, Pechorin is fascinatingly complex. We are given access to his innermost thoughts – three of the novel’s four parts consist of extracts from his diary – and I frequently found myself in sympathy with him.
Anyone who, like myself, was raised on a diet of George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman books will see similarities between that series’s eponymous protagonist and Pechorin. However, Lermontov’s creation is at once more chillingly sociopathic than his British counterpart, and more winningly human. Pechorin confesses that he is entirely unmoved by the sufferings of others, and manipulates them merely for his own amusement; at the same time, he experiences agonies of existential despair and laments the death of the moral part of his being.
The most famous and powerful scene in the novel involves a duel between Pechorin and a fellow officer – eerily, Lermontov himself was killed in just such a duel, shortly after his novel was published. The similarities between Lermontov and his antihero might lead one to suspect that the former shared the latter’s cynicism and despair. But certainly the aim of the book is not to denigrate old-fashioned notions of honour and good-conduct. As Lermontov himself is at pains to point out in a foreword, the novel is fundamentally a lament for a godless and amoral age. In one passage, as Pechorin is walking through a town at night, he looks up at the sky:
“…the stars shone placidly in the dark-blue firmament, and I was amused at the thought that there once were sages who believed the heavenly bodies have a share in our wretched squabbles over a bit of territory or some other imaginary rights. Yet these lamps, which they thought had been lit only to illuminate their battles and triumphs, still burn with undiminished brilliance, while their passions and hopes have long since died out together with them, like a campfire left burning on the fringe of a forest by a careless wayfarer. But what strength of will they drew from the certainty that all the heavens with their numberless inhabitants looked down on them with constant though mute sympathy! Whereas we, their wretched descendants, who roam the earth without convictions or pride, without joys or fear other than the nameless dread that constricts the heart at the thought of the inevitable end, we are no longer capable of great sacrifices either for the good of mankind or even for our personal happiness, since we know that happiness is impossible, and we pass indifferently from one doubt to another just as our forebears floundered from one delusion to another, without the hopes they had and without even that vague but potent sense of joy the soul derives from any struggle with man or destiny…”
So... it’s a fairly gloomy outlook then. However, A Hero of Our Time isn’t all stargazing angst. It’s beautifully written and intellectually intriguing, but it’s also a wonderful story in the fine 19th-century tradition – I loved it, and I hope others will too.