Wednesday, 22 July 2009

"A Hero Of Our Time" by Mikhail Lermontov

I made the mistake of taking this book with me to read over lunch at my local cafe in Belsize Park. "Mistake", since my Russian waitress hissed, pointed at the book cover, and flew into a screaming fit, asking me why I was "reading books by bad people". Trying to carry the situation off as best I could, I asked if she had read any of Lermontov's poetry. Shuddering silently, she crossed herself and retired into the back room.

After such an unsolicited testimonial, the book itself proved rather disappointing in terms of its capacity for evil. It is certainly no more "amoral" (the allegation commonly levelled at it) than Boccacio, Rabelais, or (more to the point) most of Lermontov's nineteenth century contemporaries. It seems strange to believe that he was literally hounded to death, on the orders of Tsar Nicholas I, for having written it.

It has long been described as one of the great Russian novels, earning Lermontov comparison with Pushkin, whose The Captain's Daughter he greatly admired and tried to copy, but without success, his Vadim remaining unfinished at his death. Like Pushkin, he uses informal language, particularly in his dialogue, and creates rich, memorable characters in this novel, which is essentially a set of tales told by various protagonists, including not just the author/narrator but also at least two others. Apart from Pushkin, however, I was also struck by similarities with Tolstoy, but also with two French writers, Dumas and Proust.

Another feature of the book is that the various tales are not told in chronological order, something which is naturally confusing at first, but which does lead to a feeling of successive layers of meaning being made available to us. I wonder if Lawrence Durrell had read this book, or at least heard of it, before he wrote The Alexandria Quartet?

A Hero Of Our Time had long been on my list of books that I felt I really should read before I die, and One World Classics are to be heartily congratulated on bringing it back into print. If only there were a few more publishers around who put a book's literary merits ahead of its perceived commercial potential. I have another of their recent offerings to review as well, so watch this space.

Talking of death and matters metaphysical, the Russian waitress took me to one side as I paid my bill. Earnestly, she told me that she spoke to Jesus every day, that he was coming soon, and that I should be ready for him when he did. Somewhat shaken by this news, I stopped on the way home to buy an extra pint of milk. I hope he likes Earl Grey.

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