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.’

So ends the first, tremendous section of A Hero of Our Time – with Pechorin, our hero, still no more than a bright smudge on the page. The reader is quickly aware of two qualities: the 25-year-old Lermontov is a fabulously gifted storyteller (Pechorin kidnaps us, as well as Bela), and an extremely sophisticated ironist. Both Johnson and Lermontov are writing allegories about the unfathomable – about readability – but while one is flummoxed and unknowing, the other is sarcastically omniscient. Johnson represses his fear of the wild landscape, and transfers it to questions of taxonomic accuracy; yet the fear returns in the dread profundity of Loch Ness. Lermontov, by contrast, deliberately makes his traveller one of the novel’s unreliable narrators, and awards him something like Johnson’s contradictory gestures of control and anxiety. This narrator, and especially the second storyteller, Maxim Maximych, constantly demonise the unpredictable otherness of the Caucasian natives, while passing off as almost familiar the unpredictable otherness of Pechorin. The motives of a bandit like Kazbich are seen as illogical and malevolent, or logical only within a foreign system of honour and vengeance (‘Of course, in their terms, he was absolutely right’), while the motives of a Pechorin may be unknowable but are gloriously beyond judgment: ‘That’s what sort of person he was – unfathomable!’ And as in Johnson’s writing, but this time wittingly, the craggy landscape is summoned to provide its own version of unfathomability, as an analogue to the romantic mysteriousness of the novel’s hero. Some of its features are as complex as stories: ‘The ravines, full of mist and silence, diverge like branches in all directions.’ One local chasm is possibly a volcanic crater. A pointless, deadly duel will be fought on a precipice overhanging a menacing gully.

We see a good deal more of Pechorin, this extinguished volcano, but he becomes no less unfathomable, partly because Lermontov cleverly fractures his portrait: the first two sections are narrated by the nameless traveller (and by the blunter second narrator, Maxim Maximych); the last three sections are narrated by Pechorin, whose diaries have fallen into the hands of Maxim Maximych, who gives them to the traveller. There is not a reliable storyteller among them. With varying degrees of sophistication, all three men are victims of romantic grandiosity; a deliberate literariness infests the book, as it does Eugene Onegin. Characters take their cues from romantic fashions, and from writers like Scott, Pushkin, Byron, Rousseau and Marlinsky (a producer of Caucasian adventures and the most popular Russian novelist of the 1830s). This is how Pechorin is first described:

He was of medium height and well proportioned; his slim waist and broad shoulders indicated a strong physique … His dusty velvet frock coat, fastened only by its two lowest buttons, allowed a view of his blindingly white linen, indicating the habits of a proper gentleman … His gait was careless and lazy, but I noticed that he didn’t swing his arms – a clear signal of a certain secretiveness of character. However, these are my own comments, based on my own observations, and I absolutely do not want to make you take them on blind faith. When he lowered himself onto the bench, his straight figure bent as though there wasn’t a bone in his back. He sat the way Balzac’s 30-year-old coquette would sit, on a chair stuffed with down, after an exhausting ball … His skin had a sort of feminine delicacy to it; he had blond hair, wavy in nature, which outlined his pale, noble brow so picturesquely … However blond his hair was, his whiskers and eyebrows were black – the mark of breeding in a person … To complete the portrait, I will tell you that he had a slightly upturned nose.

Natasha Randall’s English, in her new translation, has exactly the right degree of loose velocity – this sounds like someone taking notes, patching it together as he goes along and unable to make up his mind. (Nabokov’s version, the best-known older translation, is a bit more demure than Randall’s, less savage.) So Pechorin, in this account, is both strongly male and slightly effeminate, bold and weak, fair and dark, finely dressed yet dusty from travel. On the one hand, the narrator is a confident 19th-century analyst, conventionally reading the body as a moral map: a man who does not swing his arms is clearly secretive. On the other, he does not want us to set any store by such observations. He is also frank about his role as a maker who touches things up: he is obviously painting a romantic ‘portrait’.

The same unnamed narrator praises the candour of Pechorin’s diaries (‘this man who so relentlessly displayed his personal weakness and defects for all to see’), comparing them favourably, in their nakedness, with Rousseau’s more wary Confessions, which were written to excite sympathy. Enthrallingly, it does at first seem that Pechorin will confess a good deal. He is easily bored, he tells us, a force of pure negation and disdain: ‘I have a congenital desire to contradict; my whole life is merely a chain of sad and unsuccessful contradictions to heart and mind. When faced with enthusiasm, I am seized by a midwinter freeze.’ He arrives at Pyatigorsk, a Caucasian spa town and resort, which becomes his perfect project, full of mediocrities in search of cheap excitement. At parties, he affects a complete lack of interest: ‘She sang: her voice was not bad, but she sings badly … though I wasn’t listening.’ He has a sharp, disillusioned eye: ‘I stood behind one fat lady … The biggest wart on her neck was covered by the clasp of her necklace.’

In the spa town, Pechorin befriends a like-minded doctor called Werner. The two men, Pechorin thinks with self-satisfaction, share a cold egotism: ‘Sad things are funny to us. Funny things are sad to us. And in general, to tell the truth, we are indifferent to everything apart from our selves.’ Pechorin delights in destroying the weak illusions of this society. All around him, people are manipulating one another but not admitting to it; at least he does so in the open.

People! They are all the same: they know all the bad aspects to a deed in advance, and they help you, advise you, even approve of it, seeing that no other way is possible – and then they wash their hands of it and turn away with indignation from the person who had the courage to take the whole burden of responsibility onto himself.

Pechorin especially disdains a fellow soldier, Grushnitsky, who strikes romantic airs, wears a heavy greatcoat (‘a particular kind of dandyism’), and has already fallen in love with one of the spa’s visitors, the young Princess Mary, the daughter of Princess Ligovsky. Grushnitsky is a victim of romantic fanaticism, Pechorin thinks: ‘His goal is to be the hero of a novel.’ Before his departure for the Caucasus, Pechorin says sneeringly, Grushnitsky was probably trying to impress some pretty girl in his village that he was going not just to serve in the army but was ‘in search of death’. Pechorin observes his feeble wooing of the princess, and sets himself the task of destroying both players in this silly love story. The plot is a society version of Pechorin’s abduction of Bela: he must weaken the young man so that the young woman is given up. First, Pechorin deliberately alienates Princess Mary by acting insolently in her presence. Then, once he has secured her angry interest, he switches sides and courts her. Far more attractive and erotically confident than Grushnitsky, he finds it easy to supplant his rival. Finally, just as the princess is his to conquer, he withdraws his affection, leaving his female victim grief-stricken and bewildered, and his male victim vengeful. The two men eventually fight an even more pointless duel than Lensky’s and Onegin’s fatal dance; Pechorin kills Grushnitsky.

Dostoevsky’s great passion for Pushkin seems odd – they are such different writers – until one considers that, literary nationalism aside, what he probably liked about Eugene Onegin was its utter absence of rational motive. There is no good reason for Onegin to reject Tatiana, and no good reason for him to flirt with Olga, and no good reason for him to kill Lensky, or to fall in love, at the end, with Tatiana. The great absences of the poem allowed Dostoevsky, I assume, to project onto it his own complicated system of egotism and abasement. Pushkin used the brevity of narrative verse to enforce this motivational opacity; Lermontov, enormously influenced by Pushkin, but working in a more capacious and explanatory form, deliberately excised information about his hero. He had originally intended to tell his readers that Pechorin was in the Caucasus as a punishment for fighting a duel, but erased a helpful sentence to this effect from his draft. Pechorin disappears from the narrative as mysteriously as he arrives. The narrator offhandedly informs us: ‘I learned not long ago that Pechorin had died upon returning from Persia.’ Again, Lermontov abbreviated what had originally been a description of Pechorin’s death in a duel.

Mikhail Lermontov is almost as opaque as Pechorin. He seems to have worked hard at making his brief life a furious enigma, written up by Lermontov. He was born in Moscow, in 1814, into a wealthy and well-connected family which traced its name back to a Scottish soldier, George Learmont, who ended up in Russia in the early 17th century. His mother died when he was three and he was raised by his maternal grandmother. She had conventional expectations, and her grandson was pushed through the respectable portals of privilege: a school for the nobility in Moscow, the Junker school in St Petersburg (for officer cadets), the Life Guards Hussars. But Lermontov was unruly. He became famous for an angry poem he wrote on the death of Pushkin in 1837. The tsar punished him by sending him to a regiment in the Caucasus – a nicely myopic decision, since the Caucasus had become something of a tour of duty for radicals. During this happy exile he spent time with the critic Vissarion Belinsky, and with Nicholas Maier, a liberal who was the model for Werner, the doctor Pechorin meets in A Hero of Our Time.

This was the first of three such punitive sentences. He returned to St Petersburg in 1838, where he wrote A Hero of Our Time and his long poem ‘The Demon’, but was sent back to the Caucasus in early 1840, after failing to report a duel with the son of the French ambassador. Once there, he fought with reckless bravery, taking part in expeditions into Chechnya and Daghestan (his unit was in search of the Chechen leader Shamyl, whose equally notorious lieutenant, Hadji Murad, became the hero of Tolstoy’s late novella). He was granted leave at the beginning of 1841, but in April was ordered back to the Caucasus, the tsar apparently irritated by the freedom of his movements in Chechnya. On the way back, Lermontov stopped at Pyatigorsk, ‘our Caucasian Monaco’, where, he wrote, ‘we are inflamed by women by day and by bedbugs at night.’ Here he provoked a man called Martinov, a contemporary he had known since childhood but who had gone native in the south, wearing kaftans and shaving his head. Lermontov mocked him – ‘Monsieur Sauvage Homme’ – and they fought a duel on 15 July. Several accounts suggest that Lermontov’s Pechorin-like air of contempt, and his refusal to fire, goaded Martinov to action. Lermontov was fatally injured.

Lermontov’s contemporaries found him slippery. His poems were politically radical; Alexander Herzen was very impressed with the poem ‘Duma’, which struck the proper radical lament (‘Sadly I contemplate our generation:/Its future is either empty or dark’). But its author seemed to lack political seriousness. He was more interested in Dada-like pranks and hoaxes than in ideological action – more Dolokhov, the duellist in War and Peace, than Levin. Laurence Kelly, one of his biographers, mentions an incident in which Lermontov appeared on a parade ground with a toy sword, to irritate his commanding officer; and another in which he announced to a group of friends that he would read from a new novel. The reading, he declared, would take four hours. Thirty people turned up, rooms were prepared, doors sealed. Lermontov read for just 15 minutes – there was no large novel. To provoke one baseless duel seems careless; to provoke two in quick succession seems almost careful, as if the second were morbidly designed to correct the luck of the first. He lived hurriedly, a bit like the German warrior described by Tacitus, who ‘thinks it tame and spiritless to accumulate slowly by the sweat of his brow what can be got quickly with the loss of a little blood’. He revered Pushkin, and perhaps shared Pushkin’s romantic tendency to see his life as a fatal fragment. He seems always to have been waiting for some kind of defeat or reversal. He wrote to a friend that he loathed society, and went to parties and balls only because the experience would arm him with weapons for use against society when it finally turned against him.

So he may well have been describing himself when he created Pechorin, as Turgenev thought, but that doesn’t really get us anywhere. Pechorin, as enigmatic as Lermontov, has been filled with meaning by influential readers. For 19th-century radicals like Belinsky, Pechorin’s disappointed nihilism was symptomatic of the drifting despair of a generation that had seen the failure of the December 1825 mutiny against Tsar Nicholas I – whose organisers, by and large liberal Petersburg aristocrats, were efficiently punished, some with death, others with exile to Siberia (from where some were later given the chance to transfer to the Caucasus). Herzen, in his memoirs, talks about the moral ‘stagnation that followed the crisis of 1825’. Young radicals discovered a ‘complete contradiction of the words they were taught with the facts of life around them’. Their university teachers, their books, spoke one language, which they agreed with, and their parents spoke another – that of the dominant political and financial interests. A young man had either to close himself off from this chasm, and ‘dehumanise himself’, Herzen says, or ask hard questions that seemed to yield no answer: ‘After that there followed for some, the weaker and more impatient, the idle existence of a cornet on the retired list, the sloth of the country, the dressing-gown, eccentricities, cards, wine; for others a time of ordeal and inner travail.’ Pechorin, both dehumanised and anguished, can be easily smoothed into this analysis.

Less ideologically, others have read Pechorin as the first ‘superfluous man’, a disaffected romantic who sees through everything but who is too aimless and enervated to turn his ability to see into radical action; or as a precursor of Flaubert’s erotic flâneur, Frédéric Moreau, or of Dostoevsky’s more savagely alienated Underground Man. Conservative readers excoriated what the radicals most liked, and attacked Pechorin for his ‘Western’ individualism and egocentrism. Nicholas I read the book in 1840, and thought it full of the ‘despicable, exaggerated characters that one finds in fashionable foreign novels’. He had hoped that the old captain, Maxim Maximych, would be the true ‘hero of our time’.

Insofar as Pechorin is now a canonical 19th-century romantic antihero, with fragments of Mr Darcy, Julien Sorel and Eugene Onegin lodged in him, probably all these different readings have intermittent validity. What is most striking nowadays, as Randall points out in her acute introduction, is the way Lermontov cunningly forecloses the possibility of terminal readings. Pechorin is constantly creating himself; he is an act of provisional theatre. He is a great analyst of his own twisted motives, but his analysis rarely succeeds in casting any illumination:

Can it be that my single purpose on this earth is to destroy the hopes of others? Since I have been living and breathing, fate has somehow always led me into the dramatic climaxes of others’ lives, as if without me no one would be able to die, or to come to despair! I have been the necessary character of the fifth act; I have played the sorry role of executioner or traitor involuntarily … Was I appointed the author of bourgeois tragedies and family novels … How could I know?

The man who mocks Grushnitsky for wanting to be the hero of a novel often sees his own role in literary terms – as a novelistic character, or better still, as a controlling author. He boasts that his greatest pleasure is ‘to subject everyone around me to my will’, but almost in the same breath presents himself as no more than fate’s grim servant. He sees through the romantic posturing of Grushnitsky, with his dandyish greatcoat, but praises his own romantic dandyism: ‘I have actually been told that on horseback, in Circassian costume, I look more Kabardin than most Kabardins. And when it comes to this noble battle attire, I am a perfect dandy.’

Of course, if it were just a matter of sorting through Pechorin’s most flagrant contradictions, his unreadability would turn out to be legible, just ironically so. But Pechorin is unfathomable because he is really a romantic parodist. He mocks Grushnitsky’s dandyism, and then reserves the right to flaunt his own, because Grushnitsky believes in it while he does not. He ridicules the idea of Grushnitsky confessing to some village girl that he is going to the Caucasus to seek death, but later in the novel stages his own bogus ‘confession’, making Princess Mary cry by prattling on about how difficult his childhood was, and the ‘despair’ that has lodged in his chest. In the course of this piece of theatre, it should be noted, Pechorin also thumbs his nose at the earnest and sympathetic political readings of critics like Belinsky and Herzen: ‘And then, despair was born in my breast – and not the kind of despair that can be cured by the bullet of a pistol, but a cold, impotent despair, masked by politeness and a good-natured smile. I became a moral cripple: one half of my soul didn’t exist; it had dried out, evaporated, died.’ (Tellingly, on becoming a soldier, Lermontov himself wrote to a woman, Maria Lopukhina, that he had wanted a literary career but was now becoming ‘a warrior’. Perhaps, he swaggered in his letter, this would be the shortest way to end his life.)

Just before his duel, Pechorin’s second asks him if there is someone for whom he would like to leave a memento. His reply is contemptuous: he declares that he has got beyond the romantic habit of those who pronounce the names of their beloved, and bequeath to their friends a lock of their pomaded or unpomaded hair. But this war against romantic affectation is itself affected and romantic, and is anyway being prosecuted amid the antique chivalric machinery of the duel. Parody, as Dostoevsky acutely understood, is an act of admiration as much as of disdain, and perhaps the best way of understanding Pechorin’s distorted histrionics is by way of Dostoevsky’s dialectic of assertion and abasement. Dostoevsky suggests that we dislike people – or elements of society – precisely because we so admire them. We often blame people because their blamelessness reminds us of our own sins; we must make them more like us. The old Karamazov patriarch, Fyodor Pavlovich, remembers being asked once why he so hated a certain neighbour, to which he replied: ‘He never did anything to me, it’s true, but I once played a most shameless nasty trick on him, and the moment I did it, I immediately hated him for it.’

Seen thus, Pechorin is much less powerful than he makes himself out to be, constantly offloading his own faults onto others. In A Wicked Irony: Rhetoric of Lermontov’s ‘A Hero of Our Time’ (1995), A.D.P Briggs and Andrew Barratt suggest that Pechorin may be in love with Princess Mary and desperate to control this unwanted weakness. Near the end of the book he tells Mary that he is leaving town. She pales and sickens before him, and Pechorin says, in an aside to the reader: ‘This was becoming unbearable – in a minute I would fall at her feet.’ Pechorin, like Grushnitsky, relentlessly denigrates women as changeable, inconstant, opaque – these being precisely the failings of Pechorin. The novel, then, encourages us to contest everything Pechorin says, and almost to invert the meaning of his statements: his hatred as a kind of love, his strength as a kind of weakness, his ‘maleness’ as really ‘femaleness’ and so on. This frailty is entirely missed in Neil LaBute’s oafish foreword to the new Penguin edition (its only blemish), which stupidly mimics Pechorin’s self-deceiving swagger, and trumpets male strength: ‘Writing is not for pussies,’ LaBute declares. ‘Anyone who creates a Pechorin doesn’t appear to worry much about what society thinks of him … Lermontov was shot in a duel … Lermontov, like his literary creation before him, took it like a man and said yes.’

But Pechorin surely cares not too little but too much about society. He is not to be trusted when he tells Dr Werner that he is indifferent to everything other than himself: the spider bridegroom drapes society in his web, and needs it to survive. In many ways a traditional machinating 18th-century French hero, Pechorin looks at once backwards to the hero of Les Liaisons dangereuses and forwards to the predatory, rather 18th-century Gilbert Osmond (who is praised by Madame Merle as ‘unfathomable’). At the same time, his anxious self-deceptions and labile confessions seem modern too, and prefigure the unreliable narrator of Thomas Bernhard’s great monologue The Loser, whose professed admiration for his pianist friend, and for the pianist Glenn Gould, is slowly revealed to hide a competitive hatred of both men.