Classic Review: A Hero of Our Time


You may be surprised to hear this, A Hero Of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov is a Russian classic that is under 200 pages! making it an accessible introduction to the wonderful world of Russian literature (Sometimes I feel like I am an addict trying to peddle my drug to anyone who comes within earshot, “It’s just so good–you have to try it. I mean, if you’ve never even tried it you just have no idea.”). It has many of the elements of longer 19th century Russian works, just a bit more concentrated. You will thoroughly enjoy it, as an inauguration or if you’re more used to, shall we say, “more comprehensive” Russian novels.

Lermontov himself led a very interesting life. His mother died when he was very young, and his rich grandmother took custody of him, fighting to keep him away from his father, whom he never really ended up knowing. He suffered a serious illness when he was young, leaving him with bowed-legs and hunched shoulders for life. However, this did not keep him from fighting in the army as well as in two duels, the second of which proved fatal to him (after he refused to fire, saying “I’m not going to shoot that fool”). He was also considered the successor to the father of Russian literature, Alexander Pushkin, after eulogizing the latter’s death (taking jabs at Tsar Nicholas I in the same poem).

I’ll just say what you all are thinking: He was pretty f**king manly.

A Hero Of Our Time is his most famous work, and only novel. Though to call it a novel in the traditional sense is a bit misleading. The book is divided into several sections, with parts being written from the perspective of Lermontov himself, and others from the view of the book’s protagonist, Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin. Each of these sections collect together to give an impression of Pechorin, the “hero” of the (our?) time. He is actually the classic “anti-hero,” modeled somewhat off Byron’s heros (Byron was widely read in Russia at the time, though entirely in French translations), though Lermontov writes much more in the style of Pushkin than that of Byron.

Pechorin’s sketch fills in through each of the stories, drawing the reader closer into the mind and soul of our hero. This leaves the task of summary somewhat difficult and insufficient–the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. They involve scandalous affairs, duels, mysterious supernatural elements, smuggling, Russian roulette, and of course philosophical musings on things such as the nature of life and predestination (though written in an accessible way).

All the stories are very well told, though at times Lermontov’s prose is sloppy–if you read the Nabokov’s translation, he jabs at the author’s writing in several of the footnotes. There are also many humorous lines, especially in Pechorin’s rantings against women: “Women! Women! Who will understand them? Their smiles contradict their glances, their words promise and lure, while the sound of their voices drives us away. One minute they comprehend and divine our most secret thoughts, and the next, they do not understand the clearest hints.”

Overall, the collective whole of the story will stay with you long after you close the book. And to me that is what really distinguishes a book from being just another good read. Especially if you’ve never read any Russian literature before, this is a great place to start. It’s not the best of them, but it’s quite good.



About Luke

Luke learned to read at the age of two, whereupon he decided, like much of the male population, that it was a chore to be done only when absolutely necessary. Then suddenly at age nineteen, he discovered good books—he has been reading voraciously ever since, earning multiple literature and writing degrees. At any given moment you'll find him reading at least one book, smoking a cigar, up fifty feet in a tree he free-climbed.

Currently Reading:
Collected Stories by Alexander Pushkin
-Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas
The Mystery of Being by Gabriel Marcel

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