Paperback review: A Hero of Our Time, By Mikhail Lermontov (Translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater)

Tolstoy thought it 'perfect'. And who am I to argue with Tolstoy?

Mikhail Lermontov's novel, published in 1840, is a classic of the “superfluous man” genre, in which a frustrated Byronic hero, for want of an outlet for his passion, lapses into gambling, womanising, and ennui.

The protagonist here is Pechorin, a Russian army officer installed in the Caucasus, where he alternates between desultory flirting with gentlewomen at picturesque spa resorts and battles with native tribes in the Georgian mountains. What is striking is Lermontov's handling of form, the way Pechorin emerges gradually in a fragmented narrative that anticipates Modernism in its perspectival shifts. As Andrew Kahn tells us in his lucid introduction, the book was hugely influential in the 19th century, and admired by Gogol, Dostoevsky and Chekhov. Tolstoy thought it “perfect”. And who am I to argue with Tolstoy?

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