|Oneworld Classics Ltd|
the observer Sat 26 June 2010
Mikhail Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time demonstrates the peculiar fascination of the Byronic antihero. First published in 1840, the novel recounts a series of adventures of the military officer Pechorin during his travels in the Caucasus. He kidnaps the beautiful Bela, daughter of a Circassian tribesman, becomes involved with smugglers, and schemes to win the affection of a Muscovite princess while embarking on an affair with his former lover Vera. Ultimately his intrigues culminate in a duel with fellow officer.
Pechorin embodies the concept of the "superfluous man" in 19th-century Russian literature. The character is an intense individual, a nihilist whose melancholic sensitivity is combined with a constant cynicism and sense of boredom. He remains distanced from the emotional manipulation he works upon others: "I often wonder why I'm trying so hard to win the love of a girl I have no desire to seduce and whom I'd never marry."
Landscape is rendered as compellingly as the central figure. Lermontov creates memorably lyrical descriptions of the vast, mountainous scenery: "Reddish crags draped with hanging ivy... yellow cliffs grooved with torrents." The sublimely wild aspect of nature was a key imaginative concept for the Romantics. Here, the impenetrability of the landscape is a kind of physical correlative for Pechorin himself, who is both wild and inscrutable.
Lermontov's novel resonates today in the way it foreshadows contemporary concerns. Russia's problems in central Asia were as intractable then as now. The fatalism displayed by the "superfluous man" heralded the nihilism of modern revolutionary terror. Especially stark is the depiction of the cold machinations that occur in the relationships between men and women, where the other always remains unfathomable.