Monday, July 18, 2016

A Hero of Our Time - Mikhail Lermontov

After a bit of a reading slump (and with a looming deadline to read something I'm not feeling terribly enthusiastic about) it's been a relief to find myself raving through a couple of books I've absolutely loved.

I picked up 'A Hero of Our Time' in Hatchards at St Pancras (there's something particularly agreeable about finding a reasonably good bookshop at a train station, it's as if the world is suddenly just as it should be for a moment) because it sounded like that rare thing; a Russian book that I might get on with.

I was right (and better yet it only took me a month to get round to reading it, rather than the usual gap of some years, but that's a matter of purely personal satisfaction) I did get on with it. The back blurb tells me it was the first major Russian novel, the forward says it's also the only Russian novel that truly belongs to the romantic movement. It seems it was both lauded and reviled upon publication (back blurb again) partly because it was suspected to be autobiographical. The hero is 25 year old Pechorin, he's "a beautiful and magnetic but nihilistic young army officer, bored by life and indifferent to his many sexual conquests". Some of the action takes place in the Caucasus (vivid in my imagination thanks to 'Samerkand') and there are brigands, smugglers, and Russian roulette (the promise of brigands and smugglers may have been the hook that sold me the book).

The introduction explains at length about how interesting this book is, how groundbreaking and influential, but it also stresses how enjoyable it is to read and on the end that's really what matters most to me on a sunny July afternoon. Neil LaBute describes Pechorin as 'One of the most vivid and persuasive portraits of the male ego ever put down on paper', he's a difficult character, both compelling and repulsive, but he's still a very young man in a book written by a very young man. Pechorin isn't allowed to grow old, and neither was Lermontov (it seems he was killed in a duel) so we'll never know what either of them might have been. Which as far as Lermentov is concerned is a shame.

'A Hero of Our Time' is cynical, ironic, funny, provocative, picturesque, and it mentions Sir Walter Scott's 'Old Mortality'. I can't offer any great insight into it, but I can wholeheartedly recommend it.


  1. 'A Russian book I might get on with' made me smile.
    Lermontov would have been under Scott's spell as was the international world.
    Someone said you can see all of Europe from the top of Scott's Monument in Princes Street.
    I often think about that when I sit by the window of Jenner's over coffee.
    (The other coffee place in Edinburgh is the National Portrait Gallery in Queen Street where Norman MacCaig's wry gaze can be seen alongside couthy Flora MacDonald.)
    Scott's Journals are easier than the novels.
    Available in one stout paperback.
    I am currently dipping into yet another Scott biography, this time by Carola Oman (1973).
    Ms Oman says she grew up in a house in Oxford with an Elizabethan wing haunted by 'the lame gentleman' - Sir Walter Scott.
    He was indeed a lad o' airts.
    A dear happy ghost. The only kind one wants to encounter.
    But getting back to what mad Ezra Pound called the 'Rooshians'.
    Most people begin with Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.
    A better start is with his own story of life in a Czarist prison, Memoirs from the House of the Dead.
    In prison he learned to trust a man by deciding if he liked his laugh.
    Oxford has issued a paperback of A Gentle Creature and Other Stories, which contains White Nights. A slim volume.
    The cover has a charming portrait of a young woman asleep in an armchair.
    Have you tried The Idiot?
    The Prince in this long novel has Christ-like qualities yet is unable to forgive sins.
    There was a stand-alone paperback of the Grand Inquisitor scene from The Brothers Karamazov.
    Again a slim volume.
    The Romish cardinal tells Christ to go away and never to return.
    He says that the church and mankind is happier without Him.
    It reminds me of volume one of Calvin's commentary on the Gospel of John (Eerdmans).
    Calvin says that 'the departure of Christ' from a life or a culture is 'greatly to be feared'.
    My agnostic sister works for an NGO in London, and sent me postcards of Calvin's statue and that of the the other Reformers in Geneva.
    She thinks my interest in Calvin is, to say the least, eccentric.
    In fact he is a force of nature as Karl Barth said.
    Like the Rooshians.
    J Haggerty

  2. Further reading.
    Penguin Books have reissued Sir Isaiah Berlin's Russian Thinkers.
    A seminal work. Copies are often to be found in secondhand bookshops.
    David Caute has written a truly fascinating book on Isaiah Berlin and his nemesis (if that's the word) Isaac Deutscher.
    Isaac and Isaiah - The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic (Yale) is one of the best books I have read in 2016.
    David Caute has an online essay, the Dishonesty of Isaiah Berlin (Guardian) which no doubt has brought down a storm of protest in academic circles.
    There is an online essay by Jonathan Sheehan, Teaching Calvin in California.
    Calvin's most famous book, the Institutes has been republished by the Banner of Truth.
    The problematic doctrine of predestination or election is only mentioned in the latter half of the Institutes.
    Yet it is this doctrine which has brought down such condemnation on Calvin.
    Calvin was troubled by the fate of those who are not 'saved'.
    Perhaps this is why he preached in Geneva two or three times a week.
    He said that election was part of the inscrutable will of God; 'for now we see through a glass darkly' in Paul's phrase.
    An old joke has it that Paul was the first Calvinist.
    There is a short book of essays on the Reformer published by Crossway - With Calvin in the Theater of God edited by John Piper and David Mathias.
    A very good read.
    Calvin said we are all bad actors on the broken stage of the world.
    John Piper has a short documentary on YouTube, Calvin's Geneva.
    It's nice to see children and tourists strolling past the rather grim granite monoliths of Calvin, Beza and John Knox.
    Our dark fathers.
    J Haggerty