In Need of a Hero: A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov

A Hero of Our Time
Mikhail Lermontov (translated by Martin Parker and Neil Cornwell)
Alma: 217pp.: £4.99 rrp.

We’re accustomed to seeing book jackets and the opening pages adorned with quips and praise by other authors, newspapers and journals, and if you look through any bookshop, you’ll be guaranteed that 70% of those books will be described as the best thing you’ll read all year. Here, opening the pages of A Hero of Our Time, Mikhail Lermontov’s work from 1839, you’re first greeted by a vanguard of  four of the most lauded writers of all time; Gogol, Chekhov, Lessing and Nabokov (the latter of which even doing his own translation), all of them testifying to a A Hero’s… brilliance. And what is most startling about this is their range: you wouldn’t imagine Nabokov enjoying Lessing or them snugly next to each other in an anthology.

With all classic, esteemed objects or works, things that sustain the centuries, we’re asking is it justified? Is it still relevant? We’re all familiar with the feeling of bemusement and boredom at school, which probably does its best to avert you to any classic literature later in life, only disposing you to wonder what the hell sustains these archaic pursuits of love in archaic language. You’re not given time to answer, what is this going to give me now? What is Lermontov’s work going to give me, like it gave something to Gogol and Chekhov? Schooling and dictation does not allow you to consider that. Nabokov and Lessing were not in the same classroom and were allowed to take something different away.

Indeed, you’d be forbidden for feeling timid, like you probably are when you confront any classic work of literature, and the vanguard probably adds to that. But then this is a novel about timidity; a Byronic anti-hero, a swaggering exile who’s looking for a duel, and written by a man who seems to share similar traits to his character. In  fact, it’s bordering on the bullish.

For a work of realism, taking from the likes of Walter Scott’s marauding heroes, Lermontov’s work is a fragmented, layered composition, with hazy lines between fact and fiction that we’d perhaps not expect of that time. The introduction provided with this edition (worth defining as the introduction provided by Neil Cornwell, and not the author’s preface, but more about that shortly), states that “one of the most striking formal features of A Hero of Our Time is its generic mix. It is made up, prefaces apart of five short stories…”Regardless of its structure, in each section the identity of the writer and narrator is not always tangible.

James Wood in his essay on Lermontov (‘Unfathomable!’) draws analogues with Samuel Johnson’s description of the Highlands in his expedition with James Boswell: “Apparently unable to banish his dead fascination, Johnson can only fixate on the terrible depth of the loch…the real interest of the passage is Dr Johnson’s obscure knowledge of himself.” You’re on board with Wood’s hypothesis and that is certainly what pervades the reading of Pechorin and Lermontov, but it’s also what you’re feeling yourself; that here you’ve come upon a piece of work, great and mysterious, deep from the annals of literary history, something that you were not quite expecting, and ironic to its title, not of its time, beyond time.

Wood’s essay then is an attempt to reconcile the writer Lermontov and the character, Pechorin, whom is initially recounted to us by a soldier, Maxim Maximych. The first time we meet Pechorin, we already know him as dead. The last three sections we are reading Pechorin’s words but only because we’re reading his diary (there is also the attempt at another story/novel in Princess Ligovskaya which features Pechorin but is distinct from A Hero of Our Time). It’s mysterious, not in its inconclusiveness or at the expense of its narrative, but in its elusiveness. Unlike the great romanticist escapades that were so popular and fashionable at the time (and perhaps, in a different way, still are now), the mystery is at the behest of the man, not the mystery itself. The real interest, like Wood says of Johnson’s account, is the ‘obscure knowledge of himself’. This is what I think, makes it the powerful ‘literary’ novel that it is and why it has sustained such power over so many writers and readers over the centuries. Wood notes how it enamoured writers like Dostoevsky who would at first seem a very different writer to Lermontov. But like Chekhov, Gogol, Lessing, and Nabokov, what is uniting them, making them equal, is that they have all become, in the wake of the novel, writers reduced to mere readers: they submit, like we all do, to the wonder and possibility of Lermontov’s work.

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Loch Coruisk, Isle of Skye by Sidney Richard Percy (1874)


As it opens, the nameless traveller and the Captain are forced to stop in the mountains whereupon they will hear about the hero, Pechorin. Lermontov was himself exiled into the Caucassian mountains which is what you’d assume provides the material for the scenery. This isn’t all though. Perhaps it’s more like ‘screenery’ similar to what Wood described in Johnson’s fixation with the Loch, where there is a “nameless stream that noisily bursts from a black, gloom-filled gorge” and “a thick mist rolled in waves from the gorges, blanketed it completely, and not a sound reached us from the depths”. And even the people who live there might be aware of it as well:

The captain then says
“We’ll have to stay here overnight,” he said, annoyed. “You can’t get through the hills in a blizzard like this. Seen any avalanches on Krestoyava?” he asked a coachman.
“No sir,” the Ossetian replied, “But there’s a lot just waiting to come down.”

They might as well be sat at the tip of an iceberg. It is not just scenery, but as Wood talks about, that unfathomable rejection of categorisation. Lermontov here though, realises that the mystery of  humanity doesn’t mean determining who the person is, and their identity, it’s a mystery of the composition and the contradictions. You’ll see then how duality is so important in A Hero…, as it represents the dual way in which we can never truly know ourselves fully and consciously, as gaps in the narration and Pechorin’s character begin to explain one another. “I have an inborn urge to contradict,” Pechorin says in his diaries.

This sense of duality pervades not just the novel but the life of Lermontov as well, both literally and ironically, as both our characters and author died in duels. And they are duelling with one another here as to who takes precedence. The author’s preface for example could be ‘written’ by Lermontov, Pechorin, Maxim Maximych, a nameless traveller, but the word itself represents what it actually is here. The Pre-Face and the Fore-Word: the author applying the mask, the writer ready to project themselves, the jutting confrontation to the reader:

“A Hero of Our Time, my dear sirs is indeed a portrait, but not of one man; it is a portrait built up of all our generation’s vices in full bloom. You will again tell me that a human being cannot be so wicked, and I shall reply that if you can believe in the existence of all the villians of tragedy ad romance, why should you not believe that this is not Pechorin? If you could admire far more terrifying and repulsive types, why are you not more merciful to this character even if it is fictitious?

Go on then, come and have a go, but be prepared for the duel. Our heroes are often projections of our unreal fantasies, and whilst Lermontov on some level is parodising the ‘hero’ fashionable at the time (and parody as Wood remarks, is often loaded with admiration), our ‘hero’ is actually, lost, exiled, probably scared and ready for battle. The romanticist’s dreams were often caught up in nationalism, but this hero isn’t even wanted by his native land. And we’re hard on him as well because he’s hard on the reader, and perhaps he’s giving us a warning: identify with this hero at your peril, but it might be a peril you’ll need to make at some point. You discover things about yourself that you did not want to discover. You will want to defeat the part of yourself that wants to defeat you.

It carries into ‘Princess Ligovskaya’, an unfinished piece included as an appendix in this edition. It is equally as sublime so don’t let the fact it’s an appendix make it seem any less superior. There is more duelling; weaponry leaks into descriptions of the tears of women, described as both“offensive and defensive” weapons and it seems that to fall in love, to be at the abeyance of your own emotions, is either to be conquered or conquer them:

“Pechorin, throughout the campaign, distinguished himself, just as every Russian officer distinguished himself, and fought boldy as did every Russian soldier. He paid his compliments to many Polish misses, but the instant of his last farewell and the image of Verochka invariably alarmed his imagination. How strange this was! He had gone away with the set intention of forgetting her, and the contrary happened (which is almost always the way it works in such matters). What is more, Pechorin was possessed of a most unfortunate disposition: impressions which at first might seem insignificant would little by little push themselves ever deeper and deeper into his mind. Thus as time unfolded, this love assumed the right of longest-standing over his heart – the most sacrosanct of the rights of humanity.”

It’s interesting that the paragraph following this is relaying Pechorin’s role in the “taking of Warsaw”. But there is even a duel there in how her love “assumed the longest-standing over his heart”. And also, does not the way he pushes those impressions deeper and deeper into the mind sound like the deep and dark gorges we were greeted with at the start of A Hero…? There is so much intent to do something and then realising that the mastery is not always possible, realisations that culminate in the awareness that humanity is not even capable at being at one with its own failings and contradictions, that Pechorin, in his inborn urge to contradict is upon the only way of understanding oneself. Through the duel, where one aspect will fail, at the hope the prevailing truth or nature will show itself.

Lermontov does make this about the obscure knowledge of himself, but there is an extra dimension to it. The character of Pechorin is so elusive that we’re always searching for him, and often like the dual, where the battle may seem to be between two very opposing sides, it is, in itself, over a very similar rejection: what is seen in the other that is seen in the self. Lermontov, like his hero, died in a duel. To stare into the abyss was what Lermontov did, and he may not have won the duel over himself, but he did win one over his readers. That is a battle you’ll be more than happy to lose. Great literature wins every time.

James Wood’s essay ‘Unfathomable’ was originally printed as ‘In a Spa Town’ (February, 2010) in the London Review of Books and reprinted in his essay collection, The Fun Stuff, published by Vintage.

The Nest of Ivan Turgenev

The Nest of the Gentry
Ivan Turgenev (translated by Michael Pursglove)
Alma: 224pp.: £7.99 rrp.

The home, the nest: are the lessons we learn there healthy? We leave and we retreat to it, sometimes wisely sometimes not. There’s a time in life when we’re confronted with the fact that we’re going to leave the nest, and we can choose either to really leave and create our new nest and trust our own nature, or not. This, at least for me, has been a difficult quandary. Sometimes consciously, sometimes not, we can go on recreating the nest we’ve left, and enter into the same, sometimes, debilitating patterns. It is the latter of these that can tell us the best stories.

Admittedly, this could be a narcissistic statement from a man who has read too many books about self-defeating narcissistic males. I immediately think of Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom from Updike’s Rabbit novels, or even though Saul Bellow had different protagonists each time, there’s not much separating Joseph from Dangling Man and the later, exemplary Moses Herzog, of which the novel gave its name (one suspects that there is not much to separate them from Bellow either). Although a slightly different texture here – early nineteenth century Russia – and where the omniscient narrator reigns supreme, The Nest of the Gentry suggests a place where the Rabbit might return: but are the lessons learnt there positive ones?

It is amiable Lavretsky who has returned home. Turning his back, according to the book’s jacket, on his European lifestyle and unfaithful wife, he is going back to the town he was born in, O-. The notes suggest that this is Orlyo, Turgenev’s own birthplace, and like Lavretsky, one wonders if Turgenev was returning to his own nest and indeed, why? Some expected home-spun wisdom and recuperation? A re-setting of the morals and reminder of what matters in life? The nest is a powerful metaphor for Turgenev clearly, who according to the introduction (my first reading of Turgenev, so we’ll have to trust it), frequently used imagery from the natural world. Familial, security, simple naturalness in nature certainly broods in the idea of the nest, but the first few pages suggest that this isn’t such a simple matter.

Whilst Lavretsky might have spent some time in the socialite (and infidel) Europa, the different ways that might have been learnt there, don’t seem to count for much in Turgenev’s novel, yet there’s not a plenitude of honesty in the naturalistic settings of the country either it seems. What is acute then is that sense of rigidity and almost a fear. With Lavretsky coming back, we’re poised with a person who is on the outside-looking in but at the same time, not.

Feelings for his cousin, Lizaveta, percolate. She already has two suitors in in the dandyish Panshin, and the brooding Lemm. This is a short novel though, and with a cast befitting of a Russian epic (no character list supplied in this edition from Alma: I think character lists should be compulsory in every Russian novel), there is a sense that the nest is purposefully crowded. You think of the chicks fighting for the mother’s rations on the return to the nest and slowly secreting is the idea that within the nest, as homely as it is, it can be quite a vicious place, as people battle for love and affection. The ones that are battling though, are the men for the affection and approval of the Mrs Bennett figure of Marya Dmitriyevna; the sage, yet wry, Marya Timofeyevna; and the aforementioned Lizaveta, Bathsheba Everdene-like with her triumvirate of suitors. But unlike Hardy’s novel also set in the country, and what perhaps makes Turgenev’s more accomplished than it, is that she will not get as much agency as Bathsheba.

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Film poster from the 1969 adaptation of the film by Andrei Konchalovsky

As Lizaveta and Lavretsky’s feelings develop for one another, the stricture of which they’re in becomes apparent. It’s intense and muddled, reaching its epitome when Panshin proposes to Lizaveta, and attains subsequent approval of the elders in the nest. It’s around the same time Lavretsky has heard about the fate of his wife. Love isn’t possible, yet they feel it.

Turgenev constructs a masterful scene at this point. The six page chapter is almost entirely dialogue and it comes down to the steady accumulation of affects by Turgenev, the repression of the powers that lie beneath the two characters and their inability to confront it.

Laveretsky “does not know what he is feeling at the news” and would have felt more upset if’ he’d found out two weeks earlier. A tear holds in his eye as he speaks about it, a recurring image, that suggests what? Restraint? The need or necessity for them to withhold their emotions to the rest of their families and themselves?

“I learnt what a pure womanly soul means, and my past fell away from me even more”. At the news Lizaveta retreats, but Lavretsky follows her and feels he owed something as honest from her. Frankness, decides Lizaveta then, is the only way.
“Did you know I got a letter today?”
“From Panshin?”
“Yes, from him…how did you know?”
“He asked for your hand?”
“Yes,” said Liza, looking directly and seriously into Lavretsky’s eyes.
Lavretsky, in his turn, looked seriously at Liza.
“Well, and what reply did you give him?” he said finally.
“I don’t know how to reply,” returned Liza, unfolding and lowering her arms.
“What? You love him, don’t you?”
“Yes, I like him. He seems to be a nice man.”
“You said the same thing in the same terms three days ago. I want to know whether you love him with that powerful, passionate feeling which we’re accustomed to call love?”
“As you understand it – no.”
“You’re not in love with him?”
“No. Is that really necessary?” [Author’s emphasis].

It’s going to be tough for Lavretsky, especially when Lizaveta’s mother approves of Panshin as well. This mattered back then, but we’d foolish to say that it didn’t matter now; it just works in different ways. Or is it just a case of Lavretsky’s European ways imdebting him with ridiculous conceptions of love? If that’s the case, he’s not quitting on those ways now: “Obey your heart: it will alone tell you the truth,” Lavretsky interposed. “Experience, reason – that’s all dust and ashes! Don’t deprive yourself of the best, the only happiness on earth.”

Hopeless romantic or an unashamed truth? Much too fancifully French for these rural Russians? But there is that pertinent feeling within that pervades the novel and is leaked out in that admonishment of experience and reason, as ‘dust and ashes’. Death and dust, something that we’re all fated for, whether we’re religious or not. One can see why somebody like Hemingway admired the novel so much; the way Turgenev keeps the surface bubbling, direct and honest, yet that thing that cannot be named (that even the most manly of Hemingway’s characters cannot confront) unavoidably influences that. It’s almost so restrained, yet so desperate, that they appear to be speaking to themselves through one another – “you said the same thing, in the same terms, three days ago.”

Lizaveta cannot comprehend the fact that Lavretsky has ‘loved’ before and indeed this is the question she appears to be battling with. There’s a reason that they want to keep Lizaveta at the nest and there’s a reason that she is sceptical of Lavretsky’s proclamations of love. Perhaps this is Turgenev’s scepticism and he has returned to the nest to write this story.

“Bitterness filled her soul: she had not deserved such humiliation. Love had not made itself felt as happiness: for the second time since the previous evening she wept. This new and unexpected feeling had only just been engendered in her heart, but already how heavy the price she had paid for it, how crude the touch of the alien hands on her cherished secret!…As long as she had lacked understanding of herself she had hesitated, but after that meeting, after that kiss, she could no longer hesitate: she knew she was in love, that she had fallen in love honourably and seriously, had committed herself firmly and for life, and was not afraid of threats – she felt that this union could be broken by force.”

This would seem a tone of valedictory from Lizaveta, but in the passage quoted prior to that, Lizaveta also embodies a feeling “akin to terror [that] had taken her breath away.” There’s not many moments of seclusion in the novel, but this is one of them, and it feels like something is falling through, giving away, in this acute moment of privacy.

Who knows what made Lavretsky and indeed, Turgenev, go back to the nest. But although the force may feel like a return to safety, it could in fact be the force that bred there in the first place. As Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom is drying his wife’s hair for her, he notices “Nature is full of nests”. There’s a reason he’s called Rabbit.

Oleg Zaionchkovsky – Happiness is Possible

Happiness is Possible
Oleg Zaionchkovsky (translated by Andrew Bromfield)
And Other Stories: £10.00rrp.: 303pp.


We live in a society now where we are expected to give our lives meaning. We never truly step out of work, and we’re led to believe that we can be ‘happy at work’ or that work can be a meaningful endeavour. This no longer feels like a choice, and as Boris Groys notes in In the Flow (2016) “In earlier times, recreation meant passive contemplation. But today’s society is unlike that spectacular society. In their free time, people work – they travel, play sports, and exercise. They don’t read books; they write for Facebook, Twitter and other social media.” It is what I am doing here is it not writing this post? But the ways we make meaning or understanding meaning in our lives has changed. Happiness is Possible by Oleg Zaionchkovsky is about a narrator constantly struggling with the difference between his work and his writing and ultimately how he finds meaning.

The nameless narrator is a writer and the impetus, drive, or energy for his novel, appears to have deserted him. Indeed, he even appears to have been deserted by those he love. He has no inspiration for characters and only his dog remains. We watch him visit parts of Moscow, pick up on threads of conversations and glimpses of lives to try and turn them into stories and narratives, but as A.D. Miller writes in the introduction to the book “the urge to find and keep a place to live in Moscow dictates where and how people choose to work”. There it is: work. We are watching a novelist at work. What is the work that leads to meaning and what is its worth?

He is given an assignment to write about a restaurant. He goes with his ex-wife and his new partner (of course these are the ‘characters of the novel he is not-writing-but-is-writing), who is an important figure in his life as he lends him money to keep him afloat: ““when my indebtedness exceeds my creditworthiness Dmitry Pavlovich doesn’t write it off, he restructures it.” Surely it is the writers job to write it off?

But at the restaurant we, as the reader, see the narrator’s personal reflections and realise how difficult a task this is going to be for him

“What an array of dishes we sampled at his insistence – I can’t recall them all now!”, which is slightly worrying for a writer.

Can he not make it up? Dmitry, noticing his struggle says to him,

“Ah what a Joe Blow you are,” Dmitry Pavlovich put in unexpectedly. “Write something beautiful about all this…about the way destinies are defined. The establishment gets a boost for its image and you, you fool, get paid a fee. There’s a balance for you.”

People know more about the act of writing than the writer himself. The writer who is now at the behest of other forces than his own creations, or than any power of personal inspiration. Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (2005) was one of the finest and recent novels to challenge this idea of creation and meaning in our postmodern age, and particularly the financial forces that Groys suggested above, are caught up in this messy conception of work. The work of the novel and the work of labor are the same thing to Zaionchonsky’s narrator in this postmodern world. Its progenitor is somebody like McCarthy’s narrator, even though  unlike McCarthy’s character he doesn’t have any money, the pressure is still the same, rich or poor: one must find meaning.

That image of a writer in his flat that we see often in Happiness… was reminiscent of Camus’ The Outsider (1942). Although Camus’ novel is not about a writer, it does seem to ask, what is an outsider but a person struggling to find meaning? Camus’ outsider is a man who is struggling to find feeling, meaning, in the death of a loved one: and why? Because he has to? There is a chapter in which Meursault, after seeing his dead mother, retreats to his flat, where he idly sits looking out of his window, observing the world below him. Like Meursault, the narrator of the Happiness… is often ‘boxed in’. Even when he is not in his flat, he carries this image of him being disconnected, of him trying to reach, connect and configure with the outside world. Instead, moments and events stream or filter through his vision and perception, and not in a stream-of-consciousness manner, but as phenomena, gone before he can comprehend it. At the opening he is saying how his air vent functions like an ‘old wired-in Soviet radio speaker'(that important mention of history as well), and he hears other people’s arguments filter into his flat.

“I don’t know their names, I don’t know what they look like but I think about them a lot. When my own text – the one that’s my vocation , the one I’m paid money for – when that text betrays me, then my weary thought mingles with my cigarette smoke and streams out through the air vent.”

Is it the death of the author? A couple of pages later he says “I am mute: my own soap opera has been a silent one since my wife left me.” The author might not be dead, but he is rendered mute. The sole, individual creator seems archaic in this society. This would hint toward Russia’s history of suppressing and incarcerating writers in one or way or another, but this sense of the individual being able, at least, to turn something into a personal, reflective experience is gone. McCarthy’s narrator in Remainder did wield a dictatorial power, but it seemed only meaningful in his life, in a purely solipsistic sense. It is inherently paradoxical, and like Meursault, no matter how much the narrator tries to enter the world, he takes the box with him. He needs others, but others don’t need him. Perhaps this then is The Insider?

Maybe it becomes more about feeling. It stretched beyond tired postmodern debates for me. Where Meursault was given the one, weighty event, in the form of his mother’s death, the world in which Happiness… is, there is a fecundity of meaning, or least potential for creation like in Remainder. Of course the reputability of these creations is the question. The political and ideological criticism is obvious, and in the ways that Groys talks above and in his book, it is how this work is turned into something of artistic value. When the narrator of Happiness…is at the restaurant and cannot find anything to say about the food, is it because he has nothing to say or because he doesn’t want to say anything (the juvenile use of the exclamation mark would suggest the latter to me)? He is under pressure to find something meaningful, something real out of his experience. As McCarthy demonstrates though, no amount, or lack of money can help re-create the real.

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From Rogier van der Weyden’s (c.1435) The Descent from the Cross

Happiness…is ultimately about art in such an unpretentious way, in a way that would initially be seen as pretentious (self-referential narrator) that you can miss how profound this book is at times. It is primarily concerned with the gaze; that of the gaze outward by the artist and the gaze returned to the artist. Here is Groys again as he talks about the development of art and its practice:

“the division between artists and spectators seemed to be clear cut and firmly established socially: spectators were subjects of an aesthetic attitude, and works produced by artists were objects of aesthetic contemplation. But from the beginning of the twentieth century this simple dichotomy began to collapse” (Groys’ work is timely for this work as he references Soviet art frequently. But his discussions of the art and the avant-garde now in the age of the internet means its a book you should consider visiting if I haven’t persuaded you enough yet).

And what has it collapsed into? As I sit here writing this blog there is perhaps a clue there. The quest you follow in Happiness…is how this narrator can turn himself and his art into something that is worth the gaze of others, and is worthy of spectators. This is of course what all novels are, but you’re in the process and the pursuit, you the reader become the voyeur of the voyeur in Happiness…. For this reason it reminded me of Ben Lerner’s (2012) Leaving the Atocha Station. The similarities are not just startling with each other but with their precursors, as we’ve mentioned here, like Remainder and the The Outsider, as well as one another. For a start Lerner’s and Zaionchkovsky’s work were both published in 2012 and feature nameless narrators. Happiness…unlike Lerner’s work, is not by a debut novelist (yet only Zaionchkovsky’s second), but they are both narrators who have been given a capital to produce something (in Lerner’s; a thesis on the poet John Ashbery). And then, when you open the pages you get both narrators in their apartments, in a cosmopolitan city with the noises filtering, meaning to go out and have an artistic experience. Lerner’s endeavour appears much more of a crisis though; his narrator looks upon somebody else having a meaningful experience of art in a gallery looking at Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross. I urge you to visit or re-visit that opening, but after looking at this person, Lerner’s narrator verges on panic and says, “I had long worried that I as incapable of having a profound experience of art and I had trouble believing that anyone had, at least anyone I knew.”

The narrator, whether he knows it or not has received something from his experience, but not from the art. He has ‘discovered’ something, and all that might be, is a lack of an ability to have a profound experience by looking at somebody else. The Other has gotten in the way. The narrator in Happiness…tries to use others to develop his novel by recreating their stories, but it must ultimately come from one-self.

Happiness…is a self-conscious novel; the anxiety doesn’t seem as palpable as something like Leaving the Atocha Station but there is an acute awareness of the self and its lacking – the art is not making him whole. Ultimately, Happiness…like the other novels of its time, is about how do I create meaning from myself? How do I strip the societal, capital investments and pressures to produce something from myself? A question posed but not necessarily created by Woolf: how do I find a room of one’s own?

There is a lesson to be taken from Old Salamano in Camus’ work when his dog escapes. But when does it escape? When the old man is distracted by watching the stalls at the fair, and a performance of “The Escape King”. So, the thing that you are watching could in fact be the thing that is happening to you without you knowing it. In Lerner’s and Zaionchkovsky’s work, we have become the spectator of the dog disappearing, watching the watcher, but the gaze now may also be upon you. Art is not something that renders you entirely unconscious like it did to Old Salamano; art is more than a distraction, it requires somebody to pay attention to your attention.

And so with that in mind I’ll leave you with this passage from Zaionchkovsky’s novel.

“It seems to me that the image of Moscow only exists in the minds of the provincials. It’s the same with a whale for example: look at it from the outside and you see a certain image, but when it swallows you and you end up in its belly, the image disappears.”

Readers of Smith’s essay will have an advantage at seeing the strong claim in Zaionchkovsky’s novel to settle in with some of notable works of recent times, even if, as the narrator continually worries that he is a mute in his own soliloquy, even if he worries, as Prospero foretold, of being but a spirit and melting into thin air.

The Adolescent by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Adolescent
Fyodor Dostoevsky (translated by Dora O’Brien)
Alma Classics: £8.99 rrp.: 654pp.

The adolescent holds a precarious position in western culture, perhaps because of the precariousness of its subjects. It’s a time when a person’s values from political, to relational, to sexual are never so intensely questioned by a person. Teen movies and sitcoms have probably done the demographic a disservice, and the idea of rebellion doesn’t necessarily have to be a loud and an anarchic affair but there is some truth in it – at some point in one’s life, you must try and understand the world in your own terms. The time for realising that you can’t understand everything comes later.  The Bildungsroman is affectively the novel of adolescence and becoming. But every novel is arguably a process of realisation, a multitude of anxieties in figuring out what works and makes sense for the times that it is being written in whilst also figuring how it relates to the past and future. It is no surprise then how much cultural interest there is in the adolescent or the person ‘coming of age’.

Dostoevsky’s characters were not all adolescents, but a lot of them seemed to be in a similar position to one; discovering this new consciousness and in a situation of trying to understand how that conscious really influenced their world and in turn influenced them. Ironically, The Adolescent is not held as in high regard as his other works, and has not just been neglected but maligned by some critics, so is a new translation justified? Dostoevsky is eternally interesting even when he’s ‘bad’. You could argue that The Adolescent resembles an adolescent; unruly, rejecting form, concealing information, and trying to understand and comprehend ideas beyond comprehension. And like an adolescent trying to find a moniker, a sign of individuality, the novel has had many names and titles; ‘The Raw Youth’, ‘An Accidental Family’ and ‘Discord’, but Alma have chosen to settle on The Adolescent, which I think was the wisest choice.

In the 19th century bildungsroman there was an important trait: the protagonist of one was usually fatherless or parentless. Dickens of course provided many examples of this, but the young man or woman (as it unfortunately was most often a male), needs to educate oneself and has to find their own way of life away from the home. Arkady then is the illegitmate son of Versilov who married beneath his class in his serf Mother. He is fatherless in the biological sense and his ‘real’ father is absent. Ironically Arkady shares his surname with the founder of Moscow, Prince Dolguruky and is repeatedly mistaken as an heir of. He is in name but not in person: this is something that novel continually questions the philosophical implications of.

But to consider the times in which we’re in, here is Arkady at an auction:

“There were those who got excited and those who remained silent and waited, and there were those who bought and then regretted it. I didn’t have any sympathy for a certain gentleman who hadn’t listened carefully ad had by mistake bought a milk jug made of German silver instead of sterling silver, paying five roubles instead of two for it.”

This illuminates the tension that is central to the novel and the jugs represent this idea of similarities being completely different. So what is the difference? Like the jugs, Arkady is stumped in battling and raging against Versilov, a man who isn’t really his father, only something that resembles and represents him. The novel was published in 1875; around that time Marx was reconfiguring the way people understood what money was, or for that matter wasn’t, and this question of what the essence of a thing is, was transcending culture western culture. Dominant Kantian thought for a long time had posited that essence was elusive and unobtainable, but for Hegel who was influential on the thought of Marx, there was a difference between something’s Being and its Essence, or what lies behind the thing that looks like the thing it’s supposed to look like. For Hegel, “the truth of being is essence.” In Logic Hegel went on to write: “In the sphere of Being, when somewhat becomes another, the somewhat has vanished. Not so in Essence: here there is no real other, but only diversity, reference of the one to its other.” (Author’s emphasis)

I’m not saying that The Adolescent is imbued in Hegelian philosophy (it might be, but I don’t know enough about Hegel, or philosophy for that matter), but I think that the passage above provides some of the backdrop, and the important way in which Dostoevsky is using the Bildungsroman form: there is no real other for Arkady, only a man representing himself as the other. It is the opposite of when Stephen Dedalus would try and leave both the family and the strict Catholic environment he had grown up in (Arkady recounts in the first few pages what it is like at school that both invokes Madame Bovary and the school days of Stephen Dedalus), but Arkady is instead returning to his surroundings that would otherwise prevent or obscure the journey of self-education.

The Adolescent is arguably paradoxical then in its approach to the form. If anything, it’s the opposite of self-discovery or education, or is at least mostly an unconscious process, because Arkady already has, what he calls his “idea” of living. Part of the problem for Arkady is to get over this “idea”, but as the novel goes on, it becomes apparent that this idea is not as enlightening or constant as it seems:

“The most frenzied dreams escorted me right up till the discovery of the “idea”, when all the those foolish fantasies turned sensible and went from the dreamy realm of fiction to a rational form of reality.”

The idea is elusive as the portrait he is painting of himself, but although the novel may be a form of self-discovery for Arkady, it is up to us to see through him whilst also being enveloped in his viewpoint. This after all is Dostoevsky writing this novel and Arkady like most of Dostoevsky’s characters has been thrust into a world where he is making choices and decisions that he does not necessarily understand the implications of, even when he thinks he does. And so the adolescent is the perfect medium for Dostoevsky, because who else represents the world better than an age group that is stereotypically thought to know more than it already does?

Image result for dazed and confused

Characters from Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993)

What’s remarkable about the The Adolescent is how a lot of it appears to be caught in a direct tension conscious and unconscious. Arkady knows that he has to discover something but he does not know what he will become as a result. Something is truly compelling Arkady to write this; you lose count of the times Arkady refers to feelings and urges that can’t be ‘controlled’ or are not comprehensible. The opening words for instance are “Unable to hold back…”. What then is the reason for him not being able to do so any more, even though he knows to write an autobiography “a man must be all too miserably enamoured with his own self to write about himself without shame”?

Is it Arkady’s idea? As you read on, you’ll see it become an occlusion, but also does represent part of Arkady’s journey at hand, knowing that it must be broken down or parsed to see the deeper meaning of. Look for instance around the constant references to ‘seemliness’. It is a novel about seemliness after all; people seem like his father but are not; people seem to be princes but are not; ideas seem to represent things but they don’t; instead, it is a constant case of abstraction, resembling and mirroring reality. And in a way, it is a novel that seems to be a novel yet takes from fictional memoir or at times drama, never fully whole and rounded, like the adolescent who sometimes seems to be an adult and sometimes seems to be the youth.

As a result, nobody knows. Things only ‘seem’, or as Hegel stated, “there is only the diversity and reference to an other”. Arkady doesn’t even know what his “idea” is that he persistently reminds us of. He is aware of these new different codes of reference like dreams, and knows that what he is not entirely aware of is a powerful thing:

“Let the reader remember my dream! If there was such a dream, if it could burst out of my heart and express itself that way, it means that I not so much knew as had a premonition of an awful lot of what I’ve just explained, though I only actually truly discovered it “after it was all over”. There was no knowledge as such, but my heart was throbbing with premonitions and evil spirits had taken over my dreams.” (Author’s emphasis)

The passage shows how many different levels and directions of thought Arkady is trying to comprehend. There’s the references to the dream and its symbolic powers which would of course be taken upon by Freud, but the narrator describes it as been taking over with ‘evil spirits’ which would signify a much more religious inclination. Yet it is his heart that throbs like a romantic, and then he seems to also rail against ‘true’ knowledge. It’s ironic because it appears that the Arkady is fully aware that he is writing for the audience, yet we as the reader not entirely sure who that the audience is us.

We’re frequently reminded of Hamlet in The Adolescent (as we are in most bildungsroman’s: think of Stephen Dedalus and his ‘Hamlet hat’);  the sense of a father being replaced by somebody who isn’t the father, but having to live, not only domestically, but politically under him as well (Versilov and Arkady regularly exchange political ideas, but it’s that sense of abstraction in who Versilov represents, or for that matter, doesn’t represent and in the sense an element of King Lear; the constant sense occlusion and particularly the recurring motif of a letter). Arkady and Hamlet both wanted to conscientise themselves to become that person who was in their father’s place and Hamlet showed the tragedies that can occur in trying to do so. But Arkady is constantly aware of his excess unlike Hamlet was. He is aware of the excess of knowledge that is to be had about the self, but not sure what the knowledge is (he is “unable to hold back” remember). There are frequent references to ‘blushing’ and ‘crying’, these excessive displays of emotion that signify more for the observer than for the person in question. Perhaps that is all that matters, the act that represents it. In Robert Brownings ‘My Last Duchess’ (1842: a dramatic monologue which The Adolescent verges on at times) the Duke in question constantly refers to the blush of his Duchesss even when he doesn’t appear to be describing her as ‘blushing’ (“She had/ A heart – how shall I say? – too soon made glad”): obviously what we perceive the blushing to be, may different to the Duke’s perception, but arguably the Duke is effectively blushing to the reader – revealing more than he intended to.

The TLS suggested that the reason for the novel’s failure was that it had similarities or elements to most, if not all, of Dostoevsky’s novels. Unfortunately this is a lesson learn in adolescence; nothing is original. But there are lessons to be taken from that; the new edition of this novel comes at a time when the world we’re in appears to be clinging onto old ideas of how the world should work from economics to ecology. In the same way that we ignore the lessons of youth, we ignore Dostoevsky at our peril.

Thanks to Alma for providing a review copy