A Hero of Our Time - Paul Foote, Mikhail Lermontov The shade of Byron, or perhaps more accurately of the Byronic hero (that petulant and brooding vampiric pretty boy that has fascinated us since the days of the famous celebrity-poet), looms large, though in a decidedly ironic fashion, in Lermontov’s _A Hero of Our Time_. The titular ‘hero’ Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin, seen both from the outside and from within, displays from every angle the nearly perfect vision of the ‘tragic’ Byronic douche bag. From his ability to sway any woman with little more than a glance from his deep, sorrowful, mesmeric eyes and a healthy dose of the cold shoulder, to his barely suppressed glee at the ease with which he can manipulate the feelings and actions of those he sees as his inferiors (everyone really) with little more than a bon mot or roll of the eyes, and his long internal monologues bemoaning the tragic fate that has unfairly made him a pariah in the eyes of the world Pechorin is an exemplar of the Byronic template. Presented as several linked stories, starting out with a frame narrative that lets us see Pechorin from the outside which then moves to the personal journal of the man himself, the stories of Pechorin’s life as relayed by Lermontov are dripping with bitterness and irony.

There is a playful, maybe even precious, level of self-awareness in this novel as Lermontov gleefully fills his protagonist with all of the foibles and features of the self-loving (and loathing) Byronic hero. Pechorin is also often used as a mouthpiece for the social and intellectual issues of the day that Lermontov wants to bring front and centre. At times he displays an almost post-modern regret for the lost innocence of mankind and his earlier beliefs:
…And we, their miserable descendants, roaming over the earth, without faith, without pride, without enjoyment, and without terror – except that involuntary awe which makes the heart shrink at the thought of the inevitable end – we are no longer capable of great sacrifices…because we know the impossibility of such happiness…[and] we pass from doubt to doubt…
At others he spouts typically romantic paens to the grandeur of nature, the tininess of mankind and the greatness of his own spirit destined to be crushed by life and fate.

Ultimately when considering this novel it’s important to realize that, true to its title, it’s all about Pechorin . Whether considering the first part of the novel in which he is viewed with an almost hero-worshipping fascination by the old soldier Maksim Maksimych who relays his reminiscences to our unnamed narrator, or we read the words of the man himself in his private journals, Pechorin truly is (in his own mind at least) a hero of his time. It’s fair to say that Pechorin is a keen observer of the faults and weaknesses of others, however he pairs this with delusions of self-awareness that are monumental in their erroneousness. Indeed Lermontov playfully has his hero allude (sneeringly of course) to the manner in which an adversary acts as though his “aim is to make himself the hero of a novel. He has so often endeavoured to convince others that he is being created not for this world and doomed to certain mysterious sufferings…” This statement, once you get to know Pechorin, displays Lermontov’s liberal use of irony which is nearly dripping from the page. Of course Pechorin is also a model roué whose motto comes out as he reflects on the type of women he has been able to seduce and destroy: “I must confess that, in fact, I do not love women who possess strength of character. What business have they with such a thing?” Everything and everyone is a tool to be used, most especially to divert him and relieve his soul from its monumental ennui and dissatisfaction with daily life. He is a man whose philosophy seems to hearken back to the teaching of Machiavelli and perhaps even looks forward to those to come of Nietszche:
…ambition is nothing more nor less than a thirst for power, and my chief pleasure is to make everything that surrounds me subject to my will. To arouse the feeling of love, devotion and awe towards oneself – is not that the first sign, and the greatest triumph, of power?
After having lived this philosophy to the full and having destroyed, or nearly destroyed, the lives of numerous ‘friends’ and ‘lovers’ and things finally start to go sour Pechorin even has the audacity to wonder “Why do they all hate me?” There but for the grace of God.

I enjoyed this novel, primarily for its delicious irony, and was shocked to find that upon its release it was apparently taken as an honest tribute to the Byronic rake, so much so in fact that the author felt obliged to spell things out in a preface to the second edition. In it the author described the reading public of Russia as “like a simple-minded person from the country who, chancing to hear a conversation between two diplomatists belonging to hostile courts, comes away with the conviction that each of them has been deceiving his Government in the interest of a most affectionate private friendship”. Meow. I guess irony wasn’t in vogue then, since so far as I was concerned you couldn’t miss it. Sadly it might be said that Pechorin is as much a hero of our time as he was in his own.