For the love of classics- Hero Of Our Time, a novel by Mikhail Lermontov ( book review & recommendation)
It has been a while since I published a book review here, hasn't it? This is probably due to the fact that I have opened a special blog reserved just for book reviews. Still, I think it is not a bad idea to share an occasional book review & recommendation here as well. Alright, maybe it is not even that, maybe I just can't shut up about books no matter what. Anyhow, I recommended quite a few classics to you in the past and now it is time for another one. Hero of Our Time ( Герой нашего времени) was written by Mikhail Lermontov, a notable Russian writer and poet. Published in 1840, this novel has a Byronic hero (some would say anti-hero) for its protagonist.
Hero Of Our Time is a novel that I wanted to read since forever but it was not until last Summer that I had actually managed to do it. I knew what Hero Of Our Time was about. I did study literature, so naturally I had read about it a dozen of times, yet it wasn't until last year that I actually got to read it. Sometimes things just work out that way. Maybe it is for the better, because this way I actually managed to read it in its original language (and that would obviously be Russian). In addition, I found this beautiful edition (you will know what I mean once I scroll down) in the library. This edition has such lovely illustrations. I do love vintage books, especially when they come with illustrations. Another lovely vintage book that I read recently (also from a library) is A Wizard Of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin. That book also had some fabulous illustrations. If you want to give them a look, here is a link. Have you ever noticed how vintage books often have such illustrations? I wonder why is that not the case anymore.
1. What kind of novel is this?
Hero of our time is often describes as a predecessor to a psychological Russian novel. It could also be considered a turning work, a literary mix of some sort, in it that it contains elements of both romanticism and realism. It is an interestingly structured little wonder, it is written almost like a collection of interconnected stories, all focusing on the same protagonist-our Byronic hero Pechorin but it still very much feels like a novel. Despite its somewhat complex narrative perspective and shifting perspective, this classic is quite easy to read. I felt that the way it was written was quite logical. Populated with memorable characters, filled with plenty of suspense and completed with poetic descriptions, it is really an accomplished work.
2. To whom would I recommend this novel?
To lovers of classical literature, for one. Hero Of Our Time is a classic for a good reason. Secondly, I would also recommend it to those who enjoy both realism and romantics, as this novel is a mix of both. Thirdly, it would surely appeal to poetical souls as it contains many poetic descriptions of nature. Another thing to have in mind is that it is rather short (compared with other Russian prose classics), so if don’t have time or energy to take up something as time consuming as War And Peace or Brothers Karamazov, this could be a good substitute. To conclude, if you’re looking for a profound yet easily read Russian classic, this novel might be perfect for you.
3. What did I like most about this novel?
That is easy to answer: the characters (especially Pechorin), the form (the complex narrative) and the writing itself. I thought that the characters were all extremely well portrayed and interesting. Some people don't like the narrative form this novels employs, but I personally thought it makes sense. As far as I can remember, I was never put off by complex narrative structure. What matters to me is whether the novel itself makes sense and this novel surely does. Moreover, I thought that the writing was both beautifully poetical and very intelligent. What more could one possibly ask for?
Let's talk about the characters a bit more, shall we?
I was enchanted by pretty much every character in this book, with an exception of the person who is supposed to have collected the stories and published the book. You know the character who besides Maxim, is one of the characters employed in the frame narrative. He is the one that listens to Maxim and retells his story and hence also Pechorin’s story. That character, unlike Maxim, wasn’t terribly likeable. Was he supposed to represent the author? Indeed, perhaps he was; I sensed traces of self-irony in him. Remember when he was rejoiced by the news of Pechorin’s death? Was that a writer’s self-irony, an implication that a writer (any writer) sees people, at least sometimes, only as a material for their stories. Or is it a mockery of wannabe writers who would jump at a chance to publish somebody’s diary or use other people’s lives as a source? I would have to think about that.
What did I think about Pechorin?
The hero (or antihero) of our novel (and his time), Pechorin is wonderful sum of contradictions, as he himself seems to be very much aware of. He is terribly honest- and perhaps this honesty is his most rewarding virtue. His inability to settle anywhere, his restlessness and finally his openness about the horrid void in his soul- all of these things contribute to making of this tragic hero per excellence. It is hard to hate Pechorin, for there is intelligence in his cynicism and honesty in his self-mocking. Pechorin’s perplexing self-awareness make him a hard target for judgement- How do you judge a man who has already judged himself? There is no doubt about the fact that Pechorin had hurt many people in his life but the question is whether he was able to avoid it- and if yes in what measure. Is Pechorin’s inability to love his own fault? I was fascinated by him. He is truly quite a superfluous man.
What did I think about Bela?
The sad destiny of this innocent girl really moved me. It is hard not to be moved by it really, especially as we learn the whole story from a perspective of an older man (Maxim) who cared for Bela. What is more, I feel like her character played an important role. It is through her, an isolated girl that we get to know Pechorin and even Maxim better. Without her, we as readers would not get that view of Pechorin from another’s man perspective. Maxim, filled with fatherly feelings for Bela, is angry at Pechorin for his loss of interest in her. This shows us, quite early on, Pechorin in a very negative light- something that is important for the novel, for Pechorin is by no means a typical good guy. Pechorin, despite all her qualities, and despite his status as a tragic hero, does seem to have something vicious in himself. However, as unflattering to Pechorin as the whole episode with Bela was, as cold as he can be, he also shows a sensitive side to himself- a human side. For our antihero has truly hoped that Bela could turn him into a decent man- and in that sense they both fell for this illusory love. I was not sure that Pechorin wasn’t moved by what happened to her- even if that is how Maxim saw it. Perhaps Pechorin was already a shadow of a man at that time, but he must have been moved. That is part of his tragedy- and perhaps his destiny is indeed much sadder than that of Bela, who in her innocence, was never capable to feel that kind of melancholy and sadness.
What did I think about Vera?
Vera was (for me personally) without the doubt, the most interesting female character in the novel. Her understanding of Pechorin adds a whole new dimension to his character. Even he himself admitted that Vera knows him like nobody else. Interestingly enough, Vera seems to be the woman that he cared about the most. Still, he cannot bound himself to her, something is holding him back- and Vera seems to understand that. From all the female characters in the book, Vera is the one most like to him. Perhaps it is no wonder that she will end up the same way as he did.
What did I think about Maxim?
Maxim is the basically the narrator behind the narrative in two chapters (there is this other character but he mostly retells Maxim’s words). The rest of the book is composed of ‘Pechorin’s diary’ so it is clear why Maxim is the real voice of a large portion of the novel. I really warmed up to him. Hence, I was annoyed when in the second chapter, Pechorin treated him so coldly. He deserved better- but was Pechorin really able to react in any other way? The more I think about it, the more I'm sure that perhaps Pechorin couldn't have had helped his coldness. It just goes to show, though, how important our actions can be. How a moment of friendly kindness can change literally change someone's life. Still, true friendliness is something that can't be forced. So, all in all, I would say that Maxim is one of the characters that stood out the most to me, both as a narrator and a character in his own right. It was easy to sympathize with and relate to. When you can clearly imagine what a certain character must have felt like at a certain moment in time, that in itself is a sign of great portrayal and writing skill. Characterization doesn't always need long descriptions. A great writer can create a character with a handful of well selected details, just like a great artist can create an expression with just a few strokes of his brush.
What did I think about Mary?
If Pechorin was to blame for Bela’s untimely death, he is even more to blame for Mary’s broken heart. One might argue that a girl like Mary will recover sooner or later, but that doesn’t make Pechorin’s act pardonable any more that the fact that there might have been some truth in his lies. What remains true is that Pechorin deliberately hurt her, hurt her in a profound way. As the writer himself said, we learn from being hurt- and soon we repeat the actions of our torturer, becoming tortures ourselves. Being wronged, we feel justified in wronging others. Evil always breeds more evil- how true is that! I couldn’t help wondering- what will happen with Mary? Will she end up becoming a female parody of Pechorin, hurting men just for the fun of it? Or will she learn from her mistakes? Anyhow, Mary was a very well-drawn character. Her change from a proud coquette to a woman madly in love was most convincing.
Can a man truly be hold guilty for being what he is, even if what he is, means hurting others? Well, obviously he can. I mean, Pechorin is by no means an ideal man. There were plenty of instances where he could have acted better, plenty of chances for him to do the right thing. If he was indeed unable to love profoundly, if he couldn’t find peace in the company of others, then he should have had stayed away from other people’s paths, opting to be a hermit of some kind- but obviously he couldn’t do that. Pechorin wanted to be loved, even if he wasn’t able to love himself. What makes him different from most people who expect exactly the same is that he was more aware of his faults, horrible faults that most of us have but tend to ignore or suppress.
Do we not all crave love? Do we not expect it? Do we not often believe in this rather absurd idea that others are there to make us happy? Are we not all, at least at times, terribly selfish? The genius of Lermontov is that by creating a flawed protagonist, he was also able to portray the flaws that exist in any human society and in almost every human being. Pechorin is a mirror, once in which both the individual and the social darkness is reflected. Is it enough to make him a hero? Is it enough that Pechorin aspired to, hoped for, desired more, that he wasn’t happy with an average’s man life? Is it enough that he managed to go down in flames? Is it enough to justify his cruelty? I can’t answer that, but I think I understand why the author considered him a hero of his time- and I do believe that Lermontov wasn’t being ironic.