Finally we get extracts from Pechorin’s diaries, written earlier and so predating both the meeting with the narrator and the story the narrator first heard in the mountains
I started reading this book in ebook form because I was so eager to get to it, prompted by the references in the notes of Sasha Sokolov’s Between Dog and Wolf which I’d just finished. So imagine the following Daddyhunt conectarse scenario: I’m reading Lermontov’s book on my kindle, I’m listening to Mussorgsky’s Night on Bare Mountain prompted by another Sokolov reference, and I’ve got a google map open on my iPad in order to follow the path Lermontov’s narrator takes northwards from Tbilisi across the bare and brutal Caucasus mountains in a post-chaise drawn by three horses while a fierce storm rages and avalanches threaten to block the mountain passes through which he travels.
As my eyes scroll the kindle screen, I highlight each place mentioned and then mark the spot on the google map, and I continue to do that as I read about the characters’ further journeys eastwards towards the Caspian Sea, and westwards towards the Black Sea, until finally the action ends somewhere in the middle near the town of Pyatigorsk, in a scene where an exhausted horse drops dead on a mountain path. A hero of his time indeed!
Back in our time, I take a screen shot of my map, and mark up the path I’d followed in the tracks of all those exhausted horses. And as I do that, I think about that extra layer of ‘record’ we all engage in every day, via selfies, food shots, travel shots, plus multiple other ways we use our always-ready-to-shoot cameras, though they contain no film, but nevertheless record the film of our lives, a documentary that will exist long after after we ourselves have left the frame.
Lermontov left the frame a long time ago, in 1841 to be exact, at the shockingly young age of 27, just slightly older than the ‘hero’ of this book, Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin. Like Pechorin, Lermontov was stationed with the Russian army in the Caucasus in the 1830s, and this book reads at times like a documentary record of his life there. Around us all was still, so still, indeed, that it was possible to follow the flight of a gnat by the buzzing of its wings. Behind it and in front of us rose the dark-blue summits of the mountains, all trenched with furrows and covered with layers of snow, and standing out against the pale horizon, which still retained the last reflections of the evening glow. The stars twinkled out in the dark sky, and in some strange way it seemed to me that they were much higher than in our own north country. On both sides of the road bare, black rocks jutted out; here and there shrubs peeped forth from under the snow; but not a single withered leaf stirred, and amid that dead sleep of nature it was cheering to hear the snorting of the three tired post-horses and the irregular tinkling of the harness bell.
The documentary feel of this book is further reinforced by the way Lermontov fills us in on the different peoples who lived in the Caucasus area during that time, the Georgians, Ossetians, Chechens and Circassians, and how those mountain tribes were viewed by the more sophisticated characters from Moscow and St Petersburg who narrate the story.
There are many passages that describe landscape in the kind of pictorial terms that allow us to see what his narrator saw, and even hear what he heard
Like a skilled film maker, Lermontov plays around with the chronology of this documentary-like story, and also with the camera angles. We first hear of Pechorin in a tale recounted to the narrator as he shelters from the storm on the bare mountain at the beginning of the book. Then later, by chance, the narrator meets Pechorin in person and gives us his own impressions of the ‘hero’. It’s a clever structure providing a very modern feel to this record of a ‘hero’ of his time.