You may not need to know this

John Bayley

  • A Wicked Irony: The Rhetoric of Lermontov’s ‘A Hero of Our Time’ by Andrew Barratt and A.D.P. Briggs
    Bristol Classical Press, 139 pp, £25.00, May 1989, ISBN 1 85399 020 5
  • The Battle for Childhood: Creation of a Russian Myth by Andrew Baruch Wachtel
    Stanford, 262 pp, $32.50, May 1990, ISBN 0 8047 1795 8

One of the ‘quests’ of Byronian romanticism was to find out which feelings come by nature and which ones can be cultivated as part of a personal repertoire. The relation between spontaneity and the will was found to be a complex one, and Byronic literature made the most of the fact. Byron himself is a dab hand at suggesting the real feeling that lies behind the assumed one, a ‘real feeling’ necessarily called in question by the fact that the revealer is revealing it. The Rousseau point of view – you may not need to know this but I need to tell you – is merely the converse of the darkly enigmatic self-tormentor, with his one virtue and a thousand crimes.

Good writers soon grasped that the best way to deal with this hero is to place him in the most equivocal dimension possible, by means of different narrators, or variously subtle forms of parody. Pushkin, the pioneer in Russia, wrote his Tales of Belkin in the form of stories told in the manner which expressed their different narrators’ expectations of what life was like: according, that is, to their more or less romantic preconceptions. The net effect has all the incongruity of experience, with roles, imitations and impulses all mixed up. Because humour is never mentioned, or apparently thought of, the impression is bracingly, and touchingly, funny.

This is a kind of humour that needs getting used to, however. More than a hundred years earlier Defoe had not miscalculated his method but miscalculated his audience: they took him literally, and seriously. Pushkin found the same, putting it down to the ignorance and sentimentalism of the Russian reading public; and when Lermontov in 1840 brought out A Hero of Our Time it was received with the same literalness, and read according to existing preconceptions. Indeed it still is, and probably must be: for the deconstruction of its rhetoric today itself embodies a form of preconception, like the original indignant view that this hero is surely no hero, or the Soviet expectation that Lermontov is analysing a sociological type.

The real significance of both Pushkin’s tales and Lermontov’s novel must lie in the fact that the writer needed, in some sense, the audience he got. If he could presume on a sophisticated audience the effect would be as wearisome and as knowing as films today which know they are showing off the sorts of things that films do.

As it was, the author was as free as Shakespeare in his theatre to do both what his genius sensed and wanted and what the audience expected and required. Much of the fun, as it were, in those pristine days, must have come from the freedom that has to do with knowing that the audience would not get the point, and therefore that there was not – in the modern sense – a point for them to get. His art was genuinely a kind of play, but not the kind that sets out to be ludic.

The authors of this valuable study of Lermontov’s novel rightly start with the OED definition of rhetoric as ‘the act of using language so as to persuade or influence others’. The narrator who gets hold of the notebooks of Pechorin, the hero of our time, remarks that some readers will want to know his opinion of Pechorin’s character. ‘My answer is the title of this book. “But this is wicked irony!” they will say. I wonder.’ That is about as far as the author goes in helping out his audience; and Lermontov, a sophisticated young man who had read all the books of the time, was doubtless familiar with the German concept of ‘romantic irony’, expounded by Tieck; and knew that you can look at a mountain both with awe and wonder, and with a certain amusement that you should be feeling those emotions. Goethe had pointed out that the most beautiful sunset palled after a few minutes’ watching.

And as with mountains and sunsets, so with heroes. Pechorin is one of the first, of any time, to be proffered in a genuinely throw-away spirit: his creator makes an aesthetic virtue, where the novel is concerned, out of the fact that we must be getting fed up with his hero, and he – or his narrators – are too. We learn that there is more – much more – material available in Pechorin’s journals, and the narrator gravely informs us that he may some day publish Pechorin’s own full account of his life, and the events that have made him what he is.

At the end of his novel in verse Pushkin had taken an abrupt leave of ‘my Onegin’ in a rather similar spirit, dismissing him to a hypothetical future in exotic lands. But Pushkin, in accordance with his own humorously affectionate nature, was genuinely fond of Onegin, and perhaps saw no reason why he shouldn’t carry on indefinitely, like a soap opera hero. It was only when the shape and scope of his novel were revealed to him that he became, as it were, a formalist (like his perceptive critic Shklovsky in our own time) and realised that Onegin was an aspect of the completed work of art.

Byron never needed to make that discovery about his own Don Juan, but there is nothing throwaway about his early exotic heroes, who are always presented straight, and signed off with a flourish of respect. Only seven years after A Hero of Our Time appeared, another Byronic figure was making an ambiguous impression on the English public. Heathcliff was obviously a different proposition from Mr Rochester, and yet readers thought he must be a cruder early model from the same pen. But, like Lermontov, Emily Brontë had taken the more subtle approach of presenting her hero through narrative intermediaries, two of whom are quite unimpressed by his heroic status. When Heathcliff has completed his fictional job he dies of literally having nothing more to do, a highly formalistic demise which his author skilfully naturalises as a longed-for joining-up with the dead heroine Cathy.

Pechorin by contrast has neither beginning nor end, being mediated by narrators through what seems, and probably was, a random pattern of separate stories. One narrator feels empowered to make use of some of the material because he hears that Pechorin has died on the way home from Persia. But, like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, Pechorin is disturbingly permanent: the paradox in these cases of the structural and polyphonic method is that the hero is always there because he has never existed. He is an aspect of literary sensibility.

As Barratt and Briggs observe, ‘in Pechorin Lermontov created a character whose unhealthy commitment to inauthentic “bookish” behaviour makes him the direct forebear of the Underground Man.’ This is certainly true, for heroes have always modelled themselves, or been modelled, on literary personae: only in the 19th century perhaps, and with the new self-conscious sensibilities born of Romanticism, did the hero’s debt to books come to seem a burden – one, incidentally, which an author could make subtle use of.

Briggs and Barratt might have added that Dostoevsky copied almost exactly what he must have perceived as a highly effective device for adding the anti-climax supplied by life to spontaneous and climactic feelings conditioned by literature. The Underground Man has a sudden impulse to rush out after the prostitute Lisa, whom he has insulted and rejected, to weep and throw himself on her breast and beg for communion and love. But when he gets outside, and sees the damp snow falling and nobody there, he finds that the impulse to run after her has died. It wouldn’t have been any use, he reflects: it would merely have started up the old round of feelings again. In ‘Princess Mary’, the longest story in A Hero of Our Time, Pechorin receives a letter from his old flame Vera, whom he has treated very badly and who is now married to a man she does not love, and feels a similar impulse to rush off in pursuit and throw himself at her feet. He gallops off to this end, through the picturesque Caucasian scenery, until his over-strained horse drops dead (‘a barely audible moan escaped through his clenched teeth’). He then reflects on what would be the point of another uniting, and another inevitable parting, and decides that probably ‘everything is for the best.’

The secret of both Lermontov and Pushkin (Pechorin quotes the lines from Evgeny Onegin about ‘the mind’s cold observations and the heart’s mournful comments’), and of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man after them, is to sandwich together conflicting impulses, some born of books, some in response to a real situation, so as to produce an incongruity which has something genuinely and perversely spontaneous about it. Just as Onegin only ‘falls in love’ with Tatiana because he sees her married to another, so Pechorin longs to rush to Vera after she has definitively bidden him goodbye. But in echoing Pushkin Lermontov manages to get in an extra boost from life. Literature increases its sense of being lived. And paradoxically the Underground Man lives more than the ‘normal’ man because he is a genuine creature of impulse. Dostoevsky’s purpose in creating the Underground Man was polemical: to show up the error of the young Russian rationalists. He cleverly strengthened his own demonstration of the Underground Man’s perversity by connecting the idea that books interbreed with life with the proposition that men do not act out of self-interest but out of the freedom of their dreams, their irrational impulses and desires.

Romantic irony is also what Wayne Booth called ‘unstable’ irony, which pushes the reader out of successive moral or philosophical positions and premises. It becomes a literary technique, exploited by Lermontov through the use of multiple narration, and through the many voices and viewpoints of Dostoevsky. But in the hands of a master there is nothing cynical or reductive about it: it can be the best as well as the most humorous medium for psychological investigation, and – in Dostoevsky’s case – the background for strongly-held convictions about society and the individual. The humour of A Hero of Our Time should certainly not be undervalued. It must be what appealed so strongly to Nabokov, as well as to the young Anthony Powell, who tells us that he picked up from it some of his own ideas about fictional structures.

Lermontov’s humour could be said to reveal itself in a form of separatism: each point made, each fictional ‘touch’, seems wholly free and independent of what is going on elsewhere in the narrative, even though there are all sorts of undercover connections. Thus the hero Pechorin, before his climactic duel in ‘Princess Mary’, throws himself down in his quarters and picks up Scott’s Old Mortality (in its French translation entitled Les Puritains d’Ecosse.) At first he has to force himself to read, but in a few minutes he is totally absorbed, and he reflects that Scott should be paid in heaven for every happy moment that he gives his readers. That the world-weary Pechorin should find such simple pleasure in Scott is itself engaging, but the Old Mortality theme is echoed at another level, or so it seems to me, when the stupid and conceited ‘villain’ Grushnitsky, whom Pechorin takes delight in mocking, and who has allowed himself to be used in a duel set-up to kill Pechorin, himself dies like a true hero when the plot miscarries, and in doing so shows up the deeper, colder conceit and the manipulative passions of the titular hero.

Bothwell, the villain of Old Mortality, who also dies like a hero, ‘fearing nothing’, at the hands of the puritan Covenanter Burley, seems to be in the background here. But perhaps it is more significant that when the hero returns from his fruitless chase after Vera, frustrated by the death of his horse, he flings himself down at five in the morning and sleeps ‘the sleep of Napoleon after Waterloo’. Like Hazlitt, Lermontov revered Napoleon, about whose death on St Helena he wrote an indignant and admiring poem. When the hero’s hopes and projects utterly collapse he goes to bed and sleeps the sleep of a child. The really important thing about heroes, it might be said, is maximum incongruity and their capacity to demonstrate and embody it. No man is a hero to his valet, Napoleon had said; and no hero is one to his literary creator, or to himself. The last point is one lightly but continuously stressed through the figure of Pechorin. Hegel added to Napoleon’s mot the characteristically pernickety rider that this is not because the hero is not a hero but because the valet is a valet.

To be able to appreciate the heroic, as contemporaries or as readers, increases our own self-esteem, a point tacitly made by Carlyle, who also understood the paradoxical operation of the incongruity principle. Robespierre is a hero – poor Robespierre, let us admire as well as pity him – at least partly because he died in the new sky-blue coat he was so proud of, specially made for the Festival of the Goddess of Reason! Incongruity may be touching but it is also baffling: Lermontov is a hero of the time because he baffled readers and contemporaries.

To all this play of the pretended and the true, the incongruous and the spontaneous, the 19th century could oppose the image of Childhood, when everything was different and simple, and when, as Byron put it, the freshness of the heart could fall like dew. When the world-weary Pechorin arrives at the beautiful little town of Pyatigorsk, with the blue mountains all around and white cherry-blossom at the window, he feels a simple joy, as from a child’s kiss. After the impulse to go after Vera, and the death of his horse, Pechorin ‘fell on the wet grass and began crying like a child’. Childhood is like the beginning and the end of true feeling.

The Battle for Childhood is rather oddly named, but turns out to be a fascinating book, particularly good on what Wachtel calls the myths of childhood among the Russian gentry, enshrined in Aksakov’s great ‘trilogy’: Childhood Years, A Family Chronicle and The Childhood of Bagrov’s Grandson – the titles with their repetitions are awkward in English. Aksakov wrote them at different periods of his life, reworking the same material, and the tendency was for the material to become less of a recollection and more of a novel, as the author developed it. Wachtel calls the concluding section ‘a pseudo-autobiography’, a new and involved form; and however accidental in a sense the process was, Aksakov does seem to have discovered his intention behind it. While he was doing it he realised what sort of thing he was writing. There is a possible parallel here with Lermontov, who seems to have begun the stories that make up A Hero of Our Time virtually at random, and then come to realise how significantly they revealed the various aspects of his young hero, in ways that Pechorin both intended and did not intend.

The final section of Aksakov’s work came out six years after Tolstoy’s own debut as the author of Childhood. In 1856 the two writers met and got on very well, the ageing Aksakov being one of the few writers of the time whom Tolstoy did not avoid or take against. His diary entry, ‘A reading at S.T. Aksakov’s. Childhood, wonderful!’, may suggest that they discussed each other’s work, and it seems possible that the older writer may have learned a thing or two from the younger. A feature of Tolstoy’s work, in one sense a weakness, is the absence of any information about the Irtenev family, in contrast to the epic family history of the Bagrovs. But Tolstoy was of course wholly absorbed in the specific childhood responses of the young Irtenev, whereas Aksakov is really more interested in the relations of his hero’s father and mother, and above all in the figure of the grandfather. As Wachtel acutely points out, grandfather Bagrov is presented in terms of an old Russian bogatyr, the warrior landowner who performs feats of strength and daring, even rescuing a lady from an evil enchanter, a neighbouring landlord. Old myth slipped more easily into 19th-century Russia’s world of serfs and powerful gentry than any attempt at Medieval and Arthurian revival could in industrial England. In Oblomov Goncharov turned his hero’s childhood at Oblomovka into a peculiarly compelling pastoral dream; and much later writers – Bely, Bunin and Gorky – still followed the tradition. In a glossy equivalent of Country Life or the Field, called The Capital and the Estate, which appeared between 1913 and 1917 and mixed social gossip with serious magazine pieces on big houses, a writer nostalgically reminisced on the many Russian writers who were ‘fledglings of Russian estates, and from there brought into literature something ineffably tender, virginally chaste, magically dreamy, something endlessly noble and holy’.

Well: chastity on the estate was not Tolstoy’s or Turgenev’s thing, nor is there anything ineffably tender about young Pechorin, the in many ways still childlike Hero of Our Time. As Nabokov pointed out, Lermontov combines extraordinary narrative sophistication with a sometimes adolescent disregard for ordinary facts and probabilities; and naively, or it may be cynically, mixes fashionably banal travel description with the most sensitive and delicate prose effects. As one can tell from the pictures in Laurence Kelly’s admirable biography, Lermontov’s features as a young man do seem to have been exceptionally childlike – quite different from Pushkin’s swarthy good-natured phiz – and this may have played its part in that besoin de la fatalité which made him a compulsive needler and picker of quarrels with his elders. The compulsion led to his death in a duel with Major Martynov, a duel strangely close – at least in its scenario – to the loaded encounter between Pechorin and Grushnitsky. The details of treachery are much less convincing in that encounter than they are, say, in Hamlet: a large percentage of A Hero of Our Time is devoted to a sort of fantasy one-up-manship, as in a fairy story, with cunning young boy hero always coming out on top.

Lermontov had the skill to vary the pattern brilliantly, however. In ‘Taman’, the shortest and most graphic of the tales – Chekhov thought it the best short story ever written – the hero is totally outwitted by a mysterious party of smugglers, who steal his belongings and try to get rid of him. ‘It would be absurd to complain to the authorities that I had been robbed by a blind boy, and almost drowned by an 18-year-old girl.’ The hidden lives of those he interrupts are wonderfully well suggested, but the narrator-hero has to pretend, out of amour-propre, that he cares nothing about them, ‘being a military man on the move, and holder of a pass issued to those on official business.’

The tone of that last sentence of the story catches the enigmatic economy which is the sort of floating feature of Lermontov’s style. It makes us quite forget the elementary error in the drowning episode, which no thriller writer would commit: for how could the girl have known the hero could not swim? Still, it is quite right that he could not, thus separating him from the Byronic heroes of the time, and making the best use of the incongruity principle. The most touching instance of it is Pechorin’s coldness to the gruff old staff captain who has, literally, fallen for him. Maksim Maksimych, not unlike Grushnitskty, contrives to become a hero in the novel just on the strength of the real hero’s behaviour to him, and his creator’s awareness of it.