In a Spa Town

James Wood

When Samuel Johnson, travelling in the Highlands with James Boswell, reaches Loch Ness, he is so overwhelmed by the massiveness of the landscape that the heavy order of his prose is briefly disarrayed. On his right, there are high and steep rocks, and on his left deep water laps against the bank in ‘gentle agitation’. The rocks are ‘towering in horrid nakedness’. Occasionally, he sees a little cornfield, which only serves ‘to impress more strongly the general barrenness’. As if to silence these romantic terrors, Johnson plays the calm 18th-century surveyor, and in portly periods begins an inquiry into the loch’s dimensions:

Loch Ness is about 24 miles long and from one mile to two miles broad. It is remarkable that Boethius, in his description of Scotland, gives it 12 miles of breadth. When historians or geographers exhibit false accounts of places far distant, they may be forgiven, because they can tell but what they are told … but Boethius lived at no great distance; if he never saw the lake, he must have been very incurious, and if he had seen it, his veracity yielded to very slight temptations.

Apparently unable to banish his dread fascination, Johnson can only fixate on what he takes to be the exaggerations of the natives: ‘We were told, that it is in some places a hundred and forty fathoms deep, a profundity scarcely credible, and which probably those that relate it have never sounded.’ He scolds the Scots for their lack of knowledge, but the real interest of the passage is Dr Johnson’s obscure knowledge of himself. The Augustan rationalist is pierced by romantic awe, but appears unwilling to admit such ‘agitation’; and even as he strives to plunge into the nice shallows of data, he is really plunging, against his will, into the loch’s transfixing deeps. A good thing he didn’t know anything about the resident monster.

Mikhail Lermontov’s novel, A Hero of Our Time, which first appeared in 1839, opens in a situation and a landscape not very different from Samuel Johnson’s. A narrator is travelling through the Caucasus; he explains that he is not a novelist, but a travel writer, making notes. For a Russian soldier, the Caucasus was the warm, southern equivalent of Scott’s Highlands: an Edward Waverley from Moscow or St Petersburg might expect adventure, romance, intrigue, death. The mountains of the region were fabled (Noah’s ark was supposed to have passed through the twin peaks of Mount Elborus). Beyond the natural border of the River Terek was an alluring and dangerous landscape, where Ossetians, Georgians, Tatars and Chechens harried Russian soldiers and travellers, or offered uncertain alliances. Popular Russian literature delivered cheap bouquets of the same romantic motifs: the rivers, rocks and chasms, the dark-eyed Circassian girls, the Cossack horsemen.

The narrator of A Hero of Our Time seems to have been seduced by this southern Orientalism. ‘What a glorious place, this valley! On every side there are unassailable mountains and reddish promontories, high with green ivy and crowned with clumps of plane trees.’ He marvels at the purity of the mountain air, and the welcome sense of withdrawing from the world and being born anew. But like Dr Johnson, Lermontov’s narrator seems as much alarmed as delighted by the landscape. He refers repeatedly to the height of the ‘sombre, mysterious precipices’ and the bewildering depth of the valleys: ‘The horses fell from time to time; a deep fissure gaped to our left in which a stream flowed downhill … The wind, digging itself into the ravine, bellowed and whistled like a Nightingale-Robber.’ He meets an old Caucasus hand, a staff captain called Maxim Maximych, who has been in Chechnya for a decade and who warns him about the dangerous ways of the region’s inhabitants. ‘See, nothing is visible here,’ he tells the narrator, ‘only mist and snow, and you have to watch or we’ll fall into an abyss or get lodged in a hole … Such is Asia! Whether its people or its rivers, you can’t count on anything in any way!’

Maxim Maximych begins a ravishing tale about a young officer he met five years earlier, Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin, who is now dead. This Pechorin, transferred from Russia, seems to have had a demonic energy and a changeable temperament: he could spend all day hunting wild boar, yet another time might sit in his room, complaining of the cold and shivering. The year he spent at Maxim Maximych’s fort, near the Terek River, was eventful. A local Tatar prince has a daughter, Bela, whose beauty impresses Pechorin. At a party, she casts flirtatious looks at him and sings him a love song. Meanwhile, Pechorin hears that the prince’s young son, Azamat, is desperate to acquire the exquisite horse of a local bandit called Kazbich. For three weeks, Pechorin teases Azamat about his horse-lust, singing the animal’s praises and watching Azamat gradually pale and wither, ‘as happens to characters when love strikes in a novel’. Pechorin offers Azamat a challenge: if Azamat can deliver his sister to Pechorin, he will steal the horse for Azamat. The exchange is effected: Azamat receives Kazbich’s horse and Pechorin takes Bela captive, installing her as his wife in his quarters in the Russian fort. Before Bela’s father can do anything about it, Kazbich kills him, convinced that he arranged the horse’s theft for his son. Kazbich, the narrator supposes, was compensating himself for the loss of his horse. Maxim Maximych agrees. ‘Of course, in their terms, he was absolutely right,’ he says, which prompts the narrator to the following complacent eulogy:

I couldn’t help but be struck by the Russian’s ability to adapt to the customs of the people among whom he finds himself living. I don’t know if this characteristic of mind deserves reprimand or praise, but it does prove his incredible flexibility and the presence of that clear common sense which forgives evil where it seems unavoidable, or impossible to destroy.

About the Russian abductor Pechorin’s ‘evil’ or lack of ‘common sense’ Maxim Maximych has nothing to say, except to offer helpless reverence: ‘That’s what sort of person he was – unfathomable!’ He completes his story by telling us how Kazbich manages finally to kidnap Bela from Pechorin, how he and Pechorin give chase, how Kazbich stabs Bela and escapes, and how Bela dies at the fort two days later. But why did Kazbich want to take Bela, the narrator asks. ‘These Circassians,’ Maxim Maximych says, ‘are notoriously thieving folk. If anything is lying around, they can’t help but pinch it. Even if they don’t need it, they’ll steal it anyway.’

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