A Hero of Our Time
The first thing I ever read in Russian that was an actual piece of text and not an example sentence was a story about a young Russian officer who ends up amongst a household of smugglers and gets tricked by a pretty girl who, it turns out, is in love not with him but with the main smuggler. It was an incredibly gripping yarn that also introduced me to some really, really long Russian words. That story was an abridged version of Taman, one of the stories that makes up “A Hero of Our Time.”
Russian literature has had a complicated relationship with the form of the novel, especially at the beginning. The typical explanation is that the novel was an imported form (true) and it took the Russians a little while to figure it out. But that fails to acknowledge their subversive, experimental genius. The novel is not that difficult a form to grasp; surely someone as brilliant as Pushkin or Lermontov could have figured it out. The fact that they wrote novels that weren’t really novels is probably due to something other than incompetence.
Whatever the reasons, “A Hero of Our Time” is a significant contribution to the genre of novels-that-aren’t-novels that the 19th-century Russian authors invented. Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” is a novel written entirely in sonnet-like verses, Gogol’s “Dead Souls” is an epic poem written in prose, Pavlova’s “A Double Life” is a society tale written half in prose, half in verse, and “A Hero of Our Time” is a psychological novel composed of short stories presented in non-chronological order.
Confused? Don’t be. You don’t need to know the chronology to be caught up in the story, which is exciting in the extreme. Our narrator is a Russian traveling to the Caucasus, where he first hears about, then meets, and then gets the diaries of a certain Pechorin, a hotheaded young officer who can’t seem to stop himself from seducing and/or kidnapping women and provoking duels with his friends.
There’s plenty of Romantic, meaning Byronic, action: “A Hero of Our Time” is the ultimate in fast-paced adventure stories featuring a tortured hero who can’t help but destroy the women he loves. But it’s more than that. Pechorin really is a fascinating character study, who would, along with Pushkin’s Onegin, go on to spawn a whole line of disaffected Russian heroes. Dostoevsky’s characters may have all come out from under Gogol’s Overcoat, but without the cover of Pechorin’s uniform jacket, we probably wouldn’t have Tolstoy’s Vronsky (who also brings about the destruction of both his favorite horse and his beloved woman), Sholokhov’s Grigory Melekhov (ditto), or Prilepin’s Yegor Tashevsky, the self-reflective Chechen veteran who drives away his dog and his girlfriend.
Which is to say, you can’t really understand Russian literature without reading “A Hero of Our Time,” so it needs to be right at the top of your list. Luckily it’s not a loose, baggy monster, but a lean, mean, absolutely cracking read. Go get it now. You will not be sorry.