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BOOK REVIEW

A doubtful hero, a cad, and a classic

By Ed Siegel
Globe Correspondent / June 23, 2009
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Turgenev . . . Tolstoy . . . Dostoevsky . . . Chekhov . . . Lermontov.

Unless you are more familiar with Russian literature than the average liberal-arts graduate, one of those names might sound out of place.

It shouldn’t, and Natasha Randall’s smart, spirited new translation of “A Hero of Our Time’’ aims to prove just how important this Russian writer of the mid-19th century was.

Our hero, Pechorin, it turns out, had a touch of the Byronic romantic in him, but he’s as heroic as the whole platoon of Modernist bad boys from Raskolnikov in “Crime and Punishment’’ to Tom Ripley in the Patricia Highsmith novels. He is a charismatic fellow whose company is fervently sought out by men as well as women; he is an adventurer; and he is hopelessly bored with life.

So was Mikhail Lermontov being ironic calling him a hero of his time? Not really. Perhaps the most haunting paragraph, or at least the most telling, in the book is the last one in the foreword to Pechorin’s diaries by the anonymous narrator: “Perhaps several readers will want to know my opinion of Pechorin’s character? My reply is the title of this book. ‘What vicious irony!’ they will say. I’m not so sure.’’

In what way, then, is Pechorin, a 25-year-old army officer, heroic? Not, certainly, for his bravery in battle. Ultimately, it’s for his willingness to absorb life’s often cruel twists of fate, as well as its absurdities, and to go on from there. One could even say he’s sowing the seeds of existentialism when Pechorin says, “I love to doubt everything; this inclination of mind doesn’t hinder the decisiveness of a character - on the contrary, as far as I am concerned, I am always braver going forward when I don’t know what to expect. After all, nothing can happen that is worse than death - and you can’t avoid death!’’

The clearness of the prose, though, should be proof enough that this is no philosophical tract. Lermontov rarely casts judgment, good or bad, on Pechorin’s actions. He can be almost as much of a cad as Alex in “A Clockwork Orange,’’ but his heart can swoon at a Wordsworthian nature scene, just as Alex loved his Ludwig Van. While Lermontov doesn’t judge Pechorin, he does give him the power of introspection. He’s constantly wondering what drove him to his profligacy. What cruelty from others made him amoral? Why does he flit from woman to woman?

As playwright-filmmaker Neil LaBute says in his foreword, Lermontov’s importance as a novelist was in not giving us any road map to the soul. LaBute has been criticized for much the same thing as Lermontov was in his day: for laying down the rawness of human nature without drawing any easy conclusions about that rawness.

It’s easy to be glib about human baseness. The test, which both Lermontov and LaBute pass, is for the artist to personalize his or her characters’ behavior in fresh ways that don’t bend to instant analysis.

In Lermontov’s case, he also walks a fascinating line between literary forms. Parts of “A Hero of Our Time’’ read like Arthur Conan Doyle’s relatively simple adventure tales, “Brigadier Gerard,’’ but then Lermontov subverts our expectations with glimpses into the abyss. Should we despise Pechorin, admire him, or just let the mystery be?

Pechorin does spend a fair amount of time wondering about another Modernist question, identity. Has he been master of his fate or is everything predetermined? Why does his pity for others not move him to change his behavior?

All he knows for sure is that “nothing is ever enough.’’ Lermontov knew it, too, and was able to fashion a high-spirited novel of his time, and, it turns out, of ours, from such potentially nihilistic material.

Freelance writer Ed Siegel can be reached at esiegel122@comcast.net.

A HERO OF OUR TIME By Mikhail Lermontov. Translated, from the Russian, by Natasha Randall.

Penguin, 208 pp., $14

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