Updated November 12, 2017


At another time in another place, a writer complained in the preface to his novel: “... in our country, where the reading public is still so naïve and immature that it cannot understand a fable unless the moral is given at the end, fails to see jokes, has no sense of irony, and is simply badly educated.”

He could have been talking of our contemporary reading public, which — in spite of its pretensions to being enlightened and wise, and in spite of the technological revolution that has made knowledge globally accessible — remains narrowly focused and very little advanced from a tribe of ancient barbarians.

If that sounds harsh and exaggerated, you’ve only to glance at the political scene that prevails on planet Earth, from a presumably civilised country such as the United States to any place on the globe.

There’s no nation that does not complacently believe itself to be singularly advanced, when the truth is, as with some state legislators of Texas who reject Evolution and believe in Creationism and spend time debating which toilets transgender students may use, governments are run by near imbeciles with no knowledge of the Enlightenment and little of world history.

And in the literary field, there’s many a celebrated writer and professor of literature with such gaps in their reading that you could hang a hammock full of books between them, which they’d see only as meaningless weight.

The writer of that preface, to his novel titled A Hero of Our Time (translated by Paul Foote, Penguin Classics), was Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841), and his complaint, that his readers had little appreciation of the subtle implications of his language, is not unique in literary history.

The more stylistically complex a writer, or original in his or her language, the greater the likelihood of that writer being misunderstood, for readers translate the words on the page into a language of their everyday understanding; and if that laborious unconscious exercise does not prevent them from abandoning the work, it ends by lodging a confused concept of the work in their brain that they are convinced is a sophisticated understanding of it.

By contrast, the less challenging a writer’s language and closer the speech to banal expression and journalistic reporting, together with content that mirrors the reader’s experience, the more common that work’s appreciation is by a wide public.

Thus some third-rate writers such as Ernest Hemingway and E.M. Forster are raised to eminence while their contemporaries William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf — without whom 20th century English literature would sink into mediocrity — are like those public statues one walks past knowing they must be someone important, but not stopping to read closely what they had done.

Lermontov’s novel grew from five episodic tales about his hero, Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin, and is a brilliant example of how a novel develops when a writer works without a preconceived idea, but allows his instinct, as it were, to smell out the direction the narrative must pursue, trusting his imagination to release from its store of images those which shape the necessary context of the story’s reality.

Lermontov’s prose draws upon those images to present the world apprehended by his senses so that the reader, sharing the physical sensation, receives the idea as a felt experience; thus, meaning is revealed without anything being directly stated, for language, when it is charged with vivid imagery, transmits archetypal knowledge and suggests a complex of implications.

Most importantly, the impression in every reader’s imagination duplicates the narrator’s perception.

On the very first page of Lermontov’s novel, the narrator, travelling from Tiflis in Georgia to the Caucasus, describes a beautiful valley surrounded by inaccessible mountains, “red-hued cliffs hung with green ivy and crowned with clumps of plane-trees, yellow precipices streaked with rivulets; high up above lies the golden fringe of the snow” below which is a lovely river.

At first the description looks like a familiar Byronic Romantic image of a landscape, but before the sentence ends, Lermontov takes the reader’s eye to the floor of the valley where a nameless torrent “roars out of a black, mist-filled gorge — stretches glistening like a scaly snake.”

The writer says nothing, merely shows us the beautiful world we inhabit. It is the picture of paradise, but there’s a snake there; it’s a paradise we will lose.

When the narrator leaves the valley, he looks back and sees it completely covered by a thick mist, and it is as if the human dream of inhabiting a world of serene beauty had been an illusion.

The objective description showing the “black depths of the ravine” and the absolute stillness on the road between the confining bare black rocks conveys more than a feeling of the place: without anything being told, we know we’re in a dark, menacing world “amid this deathly sleep of nature” where the only cheering sound is what we have ourselves created, the jingling of the harness bells.

Lermontov has the reader absorbed in the metaphysical mist of his narrator’s observations and it seems that the narrator, being a Russian officer who has been posted to a distant, exotic land, he will be the hero whose story we are about to hear.

However, he meets Maxim Maximych, a captain already stationed at the camp, who tells the story of another officer, Pechorin, who seduces a beautiful young Tatar girl named Bela and then, bored with her, abandons her to a grim fate.

The narrator remains in the background like an omniscient witness and it is Pechorin who is presented as a hero of our time, a self-centred individual with no feeling for others, who’s bored with each new pursuit he undertakes to gratify his ego and is indifferent to the suffering he causes.

The narrator proceeds with his journey and is overtaken by Maxim Maximych at his next station, and another coincidence brings Pechorin there, too.

Maxim Maximych tells the narrator that Pechorin is his close friend and they can expect to have a fine time together. But Pechorin remains aloof and when he does come, he shuns his presumed friend’s embrace, merely offers a cold handshake and soon resumes his journey to Persia, leaving Maxim Maximych humiliated. Pechorin had given him some notebooks and he angrily throws them to the ground, letting the narrator take them.

They comprise “Pechorin’s Journal”, which then becomes the source of the novel about Pechorin that follows, to which the narrator appends a “Foreword” stating that since Pechorin had died on his way back from Persia, he’s taking the opportunity of putting his own name to the journal of a man’s private life.

He has changed the names and the true story is being published for no other reason than “from a wish to be of service.”

Only the title, A Hero of Our Time, is his own and if the reader thinks it maliciously ironical when the details of the hero’s private life are so reprehensible, that’s none of the narrator’s fault — he’s only transcribing the truth.

We are now a third of the way into a book that, when first looked at, was by a man named Mikhail Lermontov who had called it A Hero of Our Time, arousing the anticipation of a story perhaps of another Werther or Don Juan, but by now Lermontov has long disappeared and a nameless narrator is claiming that he is giving that title to a transcription of an accidentally found journal that contains the life story of possibly a scoundrel.

And next, we become entirely absorbed in stories originally recorded by Pechorin in his journal which he then carelessly lost, and consequently are persuaded that we’re not reading a novel at all, but are reliving his experience.

And then to have a ‘Foreword’ by a fictitious narrator in the middle of a book to which the man named Mikhail Lermontov had written the ‘Preface’ further shows reality as incorrigibly distorted and elusive however hard we try to see a faithful reflection of it in the mirror of language.

The long chapter, ‘Princess Mary’, contains absorbing stories of the kind one might expect in a romantic novel, but the invisible author exploits the flexible form he has invented to quietly insert his ideas in the text.

Engaging Pechorin in a philosophical discussion with a doctor in one scene, he makes the doctor say, “I’m convinced of only one thing,” which is that “one fine day, sooner or later, I shall die,” to which Pechorin replies that he’s convinced “that one foul evening I had the misfortune to be born.”

That Lermontov wanted his novel to have a metaphysical resonance is clear from the short final chapter, ‘The Fatalist’, in which a description of the night sky leads him to say that “there were once wise men who imagined the stars took part in men’s petty squabbles”, but all that remains of their astrological pretension is that they are long dead and the stars continue to shine as before.

Lermontov goes on persuasively to suggest that it’s an indifferent universe, adding that “as our ancestors rushed from illusion to illusion, so we drift indifferently from doubt to doubt.” His hero has been “through everything” and “found it boring and disgusting, like reading a poor pastiche of a long familiar book.”

The columnist is a poet, novelist and literary critic, author of the novel The Murder of Aziz Khan and a collection of short fictions Veronica and the Góngora Passion. He is Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 12th, 2017