A Bookhound first

Here's a first for Bookhound - not just my first author killed in a duel, but also my second one too. There must have been a serious problem with duelling in Russia in the mid-nineteenth century, as it saw off both Mikhail Lermontov, author of A hero of our time, and Alexander Pushkin, best known as a poet, but also, as I discovered, a great travel writer, who wrote A journey to Arzrum, which was probably, at least in part, an inspiration for A hero of our time.

Lermontov's novel is stunningly readable, and with its tale of war in the Caucasus is as relevant today as it was when it was published in 1840-41. The book divides into 5 short stories with 3 narrators. The novel's central figure is a Russian army officer, Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin. Pechorin is an impulsive, manipulative figure. Bored with life, he has affairs without love or respect with many women. Although Pechorin appears to be detached from the life he leads, he is not as unnattached as he might wish us to believe, hence the duel at the heart of the novel following the collapse of a relationship.

Pechorin is a not altogether believable figure, I felt that he wasn't quite as bad as Lermontov wanted to make him, but, rather oddly, also managed to be an over the top caricature of a villain (I bet Pechorin twirled his moustache before assaulting innocent maidens). However if I wasn't entirely convinced by the central character, I adored this book. Lermontov's tale of turmoil in the Russian East was spellbinding. Despite the (to twenty-first century eyes) historical setting, A hero of our times felt like a very modern story. Lermontov's clear writing style and Nicolas Pasternak Slater's brilliant translation equated to an absorbing and thrilling read, with some great characters. This swiftly became one of my favourite Russian novels.

In the Oxford World Classics edition in which my copy of the Lermontov was published, Pushkin's A journey to Arzrum (modern Erzerum) was also included. There were many parallels both between Pushkin and Lermontov and between the novel and the travelogue. Both authors served in the Russian Army in the Caucasus, Lermontov had been into battle (something that's plainly clear in his novel), while Pushkin had skirted more on the edge of conflict - the scenes in which he accidentally strays rather too near the field of battle in Arzrum are particularly compelling, both were influenced by the Romantic movement, and in particular by the Byronic heroic figure; they lived around the same time, and both would die while taking part in a duel.

If Hero of our time is character driven, and contrasts European Russian life against the strangeness of Asiatic Russia, Journey to Arzrum delves more deeply into this very different aspect of Russian society, as the Russian Empire rapidly expanded in the mid-nineteenth century. As a piece of travel writing Journey to Arzrum is a little-known gem - part "worst journey in the world", part pure innocent abroad, I loved this piece of travel writing, and it fitted perfectly with the Lermontov classic.

Two great reads, what a shame that both authors died so tragically young and pointlessly. I longed to be able to go out and buy more Lermontov. RIP Mikhail and Alexander.


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