A Hero of Our Time by Mihail Lermontov (trans. Vladimir Nabokov in collaboration with Dmitri Nabokov)
“Perhaps some readers,” Mihail Lermontov writes as his proxy-self narrator, “will want to know my opinion of Pechorin’s character. My answer is the title of this book. ‘But this is wicked irony!’ they will say. I wonder.” Vladimir Nabokov translates this version of A Hero of Our Time. I have appended to this essay some of his thoughts on translations. Edward Gorey illustrated the cover you see, making this edition something of a prized rarity. I gather that the title character, Pechorin, is or was something of a Holden Caulfield in Russia—the character with whom moody adolescents identify when they wish to cast their hormonal immaturity as the existential crisis of a Complex Personality. Even though, and also because, he is essentially a fool and a brute dressed up as a fatalist, Pechorin fascinates me.
Pechorin is the modern hero: undaunted by fear but not, of course, noble or genuinely courageous; witty and provocative; competent; equally skilled in entertaining either the ladies of society or the soldiers when he fancies; following no fancy or standard but his own; wealthy, skilled, and widely read. He is, as I say, modernly heroic, or is it heroically modern?–which is to say that pervading all his aforementioned qualities is a pathetic and empty windbag. He ruins lives on a whim and then bemoans, seemingly without irony, the cruel fate that has made him a home-wrecker. He is Jimmy McNulty (of HBO’s The Wire), serving nothing and no one but himself, and when his appetites earn him the fury of others, he asks, “…**** did I do?”
Destruction marks his coming and going. So that he can prove the superiority of his base desires he unravels the beliefs and satisfactions of others. He “destroy[s] the sweet delusions of a fellow man, in order to have the petty satisfaction of saying to him, when he asks in despair, what is it he should believe: ‘My friend, the same thing happened to me, and still, you see, I dine, I sup, I sleep in perfect peace, and hope to be able to die without cries and tears.'” Pechorin offers his idea of a self-satisfied stoic but lives not in peace but as a terror in the lives of others.
He wants what he cannot have and, having it, despises it for being had by one such as he. “If she had seemed to me to be an unconquerable belle,” he says,
then perhaps I might have been fascinated by the difficulty of the enterprise [. . .] There is boundless delight in the possession of a young, barely unfolded soul! It is like a flower whose best fragrance emanates to meet the first ray of the sun. It should be plucked that very minute and after inhaling one’s fill of it, one should throw it away on the road.
This is a hero no less monstrous than Nabokov’s own Humbert Humbert, the kind of animal for whom loyal friends and menacing fathers and violent brothers exist.
Still, paired with his fatalist excuses are startling instances of self-awareness. He possesses a kind of courage, and he excels in deflating the pretensions of others. At times his self-loathing almost makes him a sympathetic character, but then that loathing only perpetuates his passivity. Moments of actual wisdom speckle his self-serving monologues. Passions, he says, “are an attribute of the youth of the heart; and he is a fool who thinks he will be agitated by them all his life. Many a calm river begins as a turbulent waterfall, yet none hurtles and foams all the way to the sea. But that calm is often the sign of a great, though concealed, strength; the plenitude and depth of feelings and thoughts does not tolerate frantic surgings.”
Despite this proclamation he lives entirely inside his own whims, subject to no concern for others or sense of decency. He “outlived those years when people die uttering the name of their beloved and bequeathing a tuft of pomaded or unpomaded hair to a friend.” And so perhaps the heroes of our time are also its victims. Not surprisingly, Nabokov’s “Translator’s Foreword” is excellent. I do not recommend reading it before the novel, though the first few pages are helpful if chronology or narrator identity proves confusing. As in his postscript to Lolita, Nabokov here offers wonderful insight into the difficulties of language use.
The experienced hack may find it quite easy to turn Lermontov’s Russian into slick English clichés by means of judicious omission, amplification, and levigation; and he will tone down everything that might seem unfamiliar to the meek and imbecile reader visualized by the publisher. But the honest translator is faced with a different task.
In the first place, we must dismiss once and for all the conventional notion that a translation ‘should read smoothly,’ and should not sound like a translation’ (to quote the would-be compliments, addressed to vague versions, by genteel reviewers who never have and never will read the original texts). In point of fact, any translation that does not sound like a translation is bound to be inexact upon inspection; while, on the other hand, the only virtue of a good translation is faithfulness and completeness. Whether it reads smoothly or not, depends on the model, not on the mimic.
In attempting to translate Lermontov, I have gladly sacrificed to the requirements of exactness a number of important things—good taste, neat diction, and even grammar (when some characteristic solecism occurs in the Russian text). The English reader should be aware that Lermontov’s prose style in Russian is inelegant; it is dry and drab; it is the tool of an energetic, incredibly gifted, bitterly honest, but definitely inexperienced young man [. . .] And all this, the translator should faithfully render, no matter how much he may be tempted to fill out the lapse and delete the redundancy.
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