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.

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