A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov is a novel that divides opinion. The eponymous hero, Pechorin, is a something of an anti-hero, and most members of the book club I’m in found it difficult to enjoy the book because they didn’t like Pechorin at all. They are not alone – when the book was first published, the Tsar described it as “odious” and wrote to his wife that the book left him worrying the world was full of “people whose best actions apparently are inspired only by abominable or impure motives.”
I loved the book for taking on such a very different character. I found something refreshing about it, and I particularly enjoyed the section entitled Princess Mary. It was like reading Jane Austen from the bad boy’s point of view. Imagine Pride and Prejudice from Mr Wickham’s perspective – picture being let into the darkest recesses of his mind as he flirts with the young and silly Lydia Bennet and runs off with her as his mistress. That’s what I loved about this book. Pechorin is flawed (and he knows it!), he courts girls he has no intention of marrying, he is outwardly friendly to men he despises (while secretly plotting their downfall), and he delights in stirring up trouble. Best of all, in the sections that Pechorin himself narrates, we get to find out how this man’s mind works. And his mind and character are complex. He is quite self-reflective, he can be contradictory, he can be arrogant one minute and yet stay up all night in worry and self-doubt the next.
I also found it was a book that made me think. For all his flaws, I personally didn’t find Pechorin a wholly irredeemable character – I think you could argue that there are many young men in their twenties who are a bit arrogant, cause a bit of trouble and who are a little too carefree with the ladies! The structure of the book also provokes thought because the various sections are not in chronological order and there are three different narrators giving you differing levels of insight into Pechorin’s story. You have to do some of the leg work yourself in piecing together what Pechorin is like and working out what has made him like that – is he shaped by circumstance? Is it fate? Do we judge his actions differently because we live in the 21st century?
One of the most interesting parts of our book club discussion was about that last question. It is hard for us to view men and women in the same way as people did 200 years ago. It is particularly hard for most of us to imagine the life of a soldier in that era or to understand the customs. One thing I learnt that fascinated me [Warning! This is a bit of a plot spoiler!] is that in the Caucasus at the time, it was fairly commonplace to simply kidnap a woman you wished to marry rather than going through the western rigmarole of asking her father’s permission. That certainly put that part of the story into a whole different light for me!
Love him or hate him, Pechorin is a character that provokes debate. If other Russian novels make me think as much as this one did then I’m looking forward to reading more.
P.S. If you want to find out more about Lermontov and his own fascinating life, a couple of us from the book club did a walking tour of places in central Moscow associated with him.