Vladimir Nabokov said he decided to translate A Hero of Our Time in order to correct what he considered to be inferior previous translations, but other attractions for him might well have been the novel’s compelling hero and its contentious literary history. Czar Nicholas I read the book soon after it was published in 1840 and, according to Lermontov scholar Emma Gershtein, pronounced “Lermontov’s composition” the work of a “pitiful talent, indicating an author with a disgusting mind.” A group of conservative critics agreed, yet the book was eagerly devoured all over Europe and later came to be called the first major Russian novel. The misadventures of an aristocratic officer, Grigoriy Pechorin, struggling to maintain order among raucous soldiers, misfits, and local residents in a mountainous wilderness between the Black and Caspian seas, reached English readers in 1854, and even the novel’s detractors have agreed that the twenty-five year-old author, Mikhail Lermontov, produced an emotionally complex and exciting work.
A Hero of Our Time unfolds as five stories. In “Bela” and “Maksim Maksimich” an unnamed narrator meets Maksimich, who describes Grigoriy Pechorin as full of confidence, wanderlust, and passion, as well as cynicism and mystery—a man reckless enough to capture and imprison a local princess. The other three stories, “Taman,” “Princess Mary,” and “The Fatalist,” are told through Pechorin’s diaries of his adventures, including love affairs and near-death skirmishes. Stylistically, Lermontov reinvigorated stale nineteenth-century travelogues, songs, and stock characters into a sophisticated narrative that, in Nabokov’s words, “surges on with great speed.”
Czar Nicholas was said to have been disappointed that Pechorin turned out to be the protagonist, and many readers have grappled to understand the character. Does idealism or boredom drive the young aristocrat to boldness? Is he motivated by a desire to bring about social reform? Is he disillusioned by the failed 1825 attempt to unseat the czar? Or is he simply looking for thrills during a time of relative stability and prosperity? The novel’s ingenious design obscures Pechorin’s characterization. In every encounter with the reader he offers bits of himself, yet he remains unknowable and fascinating.
The horses had been already hitched; now and then, the shaftbow bell would tinkle, and twice already the valet had come to Pechorin to report that all was ready, but still Maksim Maksimich had not turned up. Fortunately, Pechorin was immersed in meditation as he looked at the blue crenulations of the Caucasian range, and apparently was in no haste to set out on his journey. I went up to him. “If you care to wait a little longer,” I said, “you will have the pleasure of seeing an old comrade of yours.”
“Oh, that’s right!” he answered quickly. “They told me so last night; but where is he?” I turned toward the square and saw Maksim Maksimich running as fast as he could. A few moments later, he was near us; he could hardly breathe; sweat was trickling down his face; wet shags of gray hair, escaping from under his cap, had glued themselves to his forehead; his knees were shaking, he was about to fall on Pechorin’s neck, but the latter, rather coolly, though with a friendly smile, stretched out his hand. For a second the captain stood transfixed, but then avidly seized that hand in both of his; he was not able to speak.
“How glad I am, dear Maksim Maksimich! Well, how are you?” said Pechorin.
“And thou? . . . And you?” stammered the old man with tears in his eyes. “All those years . . . all those days . . . but where are you off to?”
“I’m going to Persia, and then further on . . .”
“Not right now? . . . Oh, but wait, my dearest friend! . . . We aren’t going to part right now, are we? We have not seen each other such a long time.”
“I have to go right now, Maksim Maksimich,” was the answer.
“Oh good Lord! What is all this hurry? I’d like to tell you so much, ask so much . . . Well, how are you? retired? how’s everything? what have you been doing with yourself?”
“I have been bored!” answered Pechorin with a smile.
“Remember our days at the fort? Fine country for hunting! You used to be a passionate sportsman . . . And remember Bela?”
Pechorin paled and slightly turned away.
“Oh yes, I remember,” he said, almost at once feigning to yawn.