FRAGMENTED IDENTITIES: Mikhail Lermontov’s ‘A Hero of Our Time’, trans. by Elizabeth Cheresh Allen
Mikhail Lermontov, A Hero of our Time, translated by Elizabeth Cheresh Allen (Northwestern University Press, 1840/2016)
By Alex Fleming
“You’ll say to me again that an individual can’t be so bad, but I’ll say to you that if you believed in the possibility of the existence of all the tragic and romantic villains, then why don’t you believe in the reality of Pechorin?.. It isn’t because there’s more truth in him than you’d like, is it?”
Upon its first publication in 1840, A Hero of our Time garnered such criticism for its protagonist, Grigory Aleksandrovich Pechorin, that Mikhail Lermontov was forced to pen this defence of his work, later appended to its 1841 edition. To the charges of immorality, remorselessness, even un-Russianness levelled at his text, his response was simple: he wrote what he saw. And in doing so, he created a prototype for the “superfluous men” who were to dominate Russian literature of the nineteenth century.
To call A Hero of our Time innovative seems an understatement; Russian literature’s first novel, it is also a genre-bending flurry of adventure, travel notes, psychological studies and social tales; a work that pays homage to and mocks its Romantic roots in equal measure, whilst also anticipating future realist and modernist trends. And, as Elizabeth Cheresh Allen brings out in her authoritative new translation of the novel, this is all entirely apt: Lermontov’s success in the novel is not only to write this hero of his times, but to write both the hero and his times into the novel’s very form.
Pechorin, who, as Lermontov asserts, is “composed of the vices of our entire generation in full flower” is both the beating heart and anchor of this text. Vindictive, rootless, angst-ridden and irresolute, he is a magnetic character, psychologically complex and deeply enigmatic, a man who manages to conjure hurricanes around himself whilst seemingly remaining at the eye of the storm. Over the course of the novel, we see him involved in the abduction of a Circassian princess, narrowly survive a run-in with a smuggler’s ring in Taman, manipulate his way around the spa society of Pyatigorsk – including a fatal duel – and, finally, question life and fate after learning of a brutal, fateful murder. It is, as Pechorin himself quips, “As if no one could die or fall into despair without me.” Pechorin approaches these events with a mixture of apathy, bemusement, and irony, although his diary entries pinpoint more conflicts and contradictions in his character than he would perhaps readily admit. Such conflicts are best summed up by his ex-lover Vera in her letter to the protagonist:
No one can want to be loved as constantly as you, in no one else is evil as attractive, no one’s gaze promises such ecstasy, no one uses his advantages better – and no one can be as sincerely unhappy as you, because no one tries as hard to convince himself of the opposite.
The fact that this letter stirs Pechorin from his apathy – if only momentarily – is telling.
When it comes to discussing his own approach to life, however, boredom is the emotion that comes to Pechorin’s mind. On the very real prospect of impending death, he says, “I’m like the man at a ball, yawning, who doesn’t go home to bed only because his carriage hasn’t arrived yet. But if that carriage should arrive? – good-bye!”
Incidentally, this would be a quite fitting analogy for the novel’s ending; Lermontov lingers no longer than he needs to in Pechorin’s story, nor does he offer us any resolution or moral to it. But this is the point. For, as remarkable as Pechorin and his story are, what is also key to the novel’s success is the manner in which Lermontov approaches his hero, with a form that not only frames but echoes him. The novel progresses in fits and starts, from a number of shifting perspectives and in a number of different genres. As mentioned, A Hero of our Time was the first modern Russian novel, and we see Lermontov playing with the boundaries of this new form: for example, the section entitled Bela reads largely as travel notes, complete with both a Romantic and orientalist treatment of the Caucasus; Taman is more of a straightforward adventure; and Princess Mary is a society tale in diary form, with a realist focus on social mores. In addition to this, the novel progresses non-chronologically, it is cleaved seemingly arbitrarily into two parts, and it ends abruptly and inconclusively. In her Introduction, Allen rightly points out that all of this serves to highlight the conflicts at the core of Pechorin’s character, his detachment and lack of purpose – “a fragmentary existence between a severed past and an uncertain future”. Pechorin, “born” in the post-Romantic era, is a hero of transitional cultural times, and the disorientation this brings is acute. Much as Pechorin is unsure of his way in life, Lermontov doesn’t appear sure what to do with him either: “don’t think that the author of this book had any proud dream of correcting human vices. God save him from such ignorance!” he writes. The novel’s formal organisation brings the protagonist’s uncertainty and fragmentation into the reading experience; Pechorin is the only thing left for us to anchor ourselves to, and his identity is shaky at best.
It is, conversely, in its transposition of Pechorin’s voice that this translation really shines; Allen captures Pechorin’s petulance, indifference and delicious irony well, with a clear delivery and eye for detail. His tone is resounding, even in the most apparently anodyne of statements: when he asserts that Grushnitsky, his foppish rival, has “such a proud, brave appearance,” for example, we all feel in on the joke.
This novel’s shifts in genre complicate the task of the translator, whilst also increasing the importance of the “solidity” of the translation. Allen negotiates these shifts well, and the travel sections of the novel feel particularly successful. Sentences such as “mists, swelling and coiling like snakes, spread across the creases of the nearby cliffs, as if aware and afraid of the coming day” sing with the rhythm of the original, echoing the author’s own poeticism.
One area in which I felt this translation could have benefitted from a different approach was in its treatment of speech – particularly in Bela, in which the frame narrative adds an extra level of complexity to speech and timelines. The speech here at times felt slightly lumbered: either not completely convincing as idiomatic speech, “the way she embroiders with gold, it’s a miracle!” or over-complicated; a simple “Хочешь, дождись меня” (literally “If you want, wait for me”) becomes “Do you want me to do that? Wait for me.” Additionally, the vacillations between tenses in these passages – I counted as many as five in a paragraph, and more than in the Russian – felt somewhat jarring. Speech, however, is a particularly subjective area of translation, and these areas may be less troubling to other readers.
A Hero of our Time has been translated dozens of times over the years, and Allen, a professor of Russian and Comparative Literature, brings a great deal of expertise to this reading of the text. She frames the text well: her introduction is insightful, thorough and compelling, and her abundant footnotes throughout the text will undoubtedly provide valuable guidance for readers desiring additional detail and signposting. There is also a note on the translation, which highlights the nuts-and-bolts attention to detail needed for the translation of such a work. Finally, her decision to move Lermontov’s own defence of the text to the end of the novel – rather than as a foreword, as it usually stands – was an interesting, and, I felt, justified move, allowing us to experience the full text before being confronted with its criticisms.
Pechorin, Allen concludes, is a representation of “how disorienting it can be to live in a transitional time at the dusk of an era when the cultural values of that era no longer hold firm and a new era has yet to arise, leaving many people adrift.” In this respect, pure entertainment value aside, it is easy to see how the novel has resonated throughout the ages. Lermontov likened his novel to “bitter medicine” and “acrid truths”, but A Hero of our Time has more to offer than that: it is a formally inventive and engaging portrait of an age, which also poses wider questions of human nature. And perhaps, in such shifting times as our own, it may even be about to acquire new relevance.