Friday, July 23, 2004

Lermontov's A Hero of our time is one of those small novels I'd like to imagine romantics carried in their pockets. Ragged and dirty from overuse, passages from it were read aloud passionately in halls or coffeeshops. Here is a passage from this short but striking novel of vanity, of love, of the casual cruelties of affection. It is on my shortlist of novels I re-read every few years.

Pechorin, the hero of the title, is either loathed or loved. He seduces women to satisfy his petty vanity and yet is also acutely aware of this. The novel is full of world-weary cynics. Ultimately, at least in my reading, they do discover some path to redemption.

Pechorin, the seducer:

All these days I have not once departed from my systematic plan. The young princess is beginning to enjoy my conversation. I told her some of the strange incidents of my life, and she's beginning to regard me as an unusual person. I mock at everything under the sun, emotions in particular, and this is beginning to frighten her. She doesn't dare to launch upon sentimental debates with Grushnitsky when I'm present, and already on several occasions she's replied to his efforts with an ironical smile. Yet each time Grushnitsky approaches her, I assume a humble air and leave the two alone. The first time I did so she was glad, or tried to look pleased; the second time she lost patience with me, and the third time with Grushnitsky.

Pechorin, the fatalist, before a duel:

"Why so sad, doctor?" I said to him. "Haven't you seen people off to the next world a hundred times with the greatest indifference? Imagine that I have a bilious fever, and that I have equal chances of recovering or succumbing. Both outcomes are in the order of things. Try to regard me as a patient stricken with a disease you have not yet diagnosed--that will stimulate your curiosity to the utmost. You may now make some important physiological observations on me . . . Isn't expectation of death by violence a real illness in itself?"

This thought impressed the doctor and his spirits rose.

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