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18th February
2009
written by Tony
Not the edition I read, but the best image I could find

Not the edition I read, but the best image I could find

Steph picked this book up on a whim during one of our many famous book gathering expeditions at McKay’s recently, and I was immediately interested. I’ve read some of the Russian classics and thought it would be interesting to read something billed as the forefather of great Russian prose and fiction. It is also, for many reasons, worth noting that this particular translation was penned by none other than Vladimir Nabokov himself. This enhanced my interest in the volume even more, as I know that Nabokov was an eminent scholar who taught himself perfect English, so the translation would not only be accurate but would contain more of the essence of the original intent and linguistic subtleties inherent in such a complex language as Russian. First, let me state for the record, that if footnotes drive you crazy, you may have a hard time with this book, because reading Nabokov’s footnotes is almost half the fun (though they aren’t anything like the multiple page books within a book that passed for footnotes in Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrel). Most of the footnotes Nabokov includes are largely irrelevant to the actual story, but serve more as background information and foster a greater understanding of some of the more obscure items Lermontov touches on. Honestly, you could read this book without ever turning to the footnotes (of which there are many) but you would miss so much. Nabokov is not shy about stating his opinion, and at times is downright catty in his annotations to authors and items mentioned in the text. This treatment of the story is wonderful and more than once I found myself laughing out loud at something ridiculous that Nabokov said in response to Lermontov’s writing. Sometimes Nabokov decides to trash a thoroughly famous author. Sometimes he gives precise geographical locations of places in the story. Several footnotes actually give away something in the story that is coming up, citing a specific page and all. Some of his footnotes are simply not helpful at all, such as the footnote for a French passage that Lermontov includes, untranslated, during a conversation. In turning to Nabokov’s footnote what do we find but more, different French, and nothing at all translated. Thank God Steph speaks French, because, seriously. Naturally Nabokov’s footnote was, as usual, irrelevant, but still, how ridiculous! I love it! The book is a series of five short stories and is written to imply that the stories were collected and told by Lermontov himself. The main focus of the book is the actions of a fellow named Perchorin, and he is presumably the Hero of Our Time. This turns out to be a bit of a biting social commentary, as he is generally a cad. He is catty, misogynistic, bored by life, crass, melancholic, petty, cruel, and has a dagger for a tongue. Conversely he can be sensitive, caring, intelligent, and passionate. In short, he is the embodiment of the Byronic hero and certainly not the type of person a society would want as an emblem for their collective psyche. In general Lermontov’s writing reminds me of a cross between Wilde and Austen, both in tone and characterization. This book is entirely too satirical to really bear a direct parallel to any Austen I’ve read, but it certainly smacks of that same ability to take superficially dull and generally small interpersonal events and make them seem grand and ultimately captivating. Perchorin’s seemingly shallow and disaffected nature reminds me vividly of Oscar Wilde’s pantheon of gentlemen posing as assholes posing as gentlemen while the societal intrigue and will she or won’t she (or he) romantic entanglements and verbal witticisms echo of Austen. Overall the wordplay is often lyrical and engaging, and makes this already short book seem to fly by. At times I almost felt like I was reading four authors, not one, and really didn’t mind this at all. Nabokov’s snide and tangential interjections, Wilde’s scoundrels, Austen’s social concerns and pithy linguistics, and over it all Lermontov’s satirical critique of contemporary Russian society all add up to a pleasurable read. 4 out of 5

8 Comments

  1. 02/20/2009

    This sounds very interesting. I have only read a few books by Russian authors, but I tend to agree with you that sometimes the subtleties and complexities get lost in the translation. I like the fact that the author is so fluent in the English language that this book doesn’t have those issues. I am putting this one on my list. Thanks!

  2. 02/20/2009

    Oh! I forgot to mention this earlier, but if you are in the mood for more Russian literature, you might want to try The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. There are a few translations out there, but the Mirra Ginsburg translation is reputed to be the best and most faithful. It is one of my favorite books, filled with really rich allegory and a ton of wordplay, which is something that I am growing to appreciate more and more over time. If you do end up reading it, I would be really curious as to what you think about it. It is not really as widely read as I think it should be.

  3. 02/20/2009

    Thanks! The Master and Margarita (not sure which translation) is in one of our to be read piles around the house and it has certainly been on my list for a while, I’ll definitely post a review whenever I get to reading it. I started Steppenwolf (Hermann Hesse) after Hero, so we’ll see how that goes (I liked Siddhatrtha quite a lot, and Steppenwolfe had been on my list for as long as Master et al).

    I really think the Nabokov translation of Hero is superb, and I think you’ll enjoy it.

  4. 02/21/2009

    I have never read Lermontov, but your comparison of him to Wilde and Austen really piques my interest! During his time, Lermontov was considered a minor author, just like Mikhail Bulgakov, who was persecuted that his works were never published during his lifetime. Cumbersome footnotes don’t turn me off as much as untranslated French passages do!

    The Master and Margarita is my all-time favorite novel. The novel itself is nearly impossible to describe. It consists of three separate plots. On the surface is the visit to Moscow, of the Devil in the guise of a professor named Woland, and his henchmen, two grotesque disfigured men, a naked woman and a cat who plays chess among other things. The group proceeds to essentially terrorize the city’s intellectual community, mostly by exposing each character’s inner hypocracy. The satire of communist society in this section is quite biting, and uproariously funny. Embedded in this story is a “novel within a novel” …the story of Pontius Pilate and his encounter with the itinerant spiritual man, Yeshua. Finally, there is the story of the separated lovers, the Master and Margarita, who interweave between the other two stories. They live in the present day Moscow, but the Master ostensibly wrote the manuscript which told the story of Pontius Pilate.

  5. 02/23/2009

    @Matt: I wouldn’t describe the footnotes as cumbersome (most are quite brief), just numerous. I suppose that is cumbersome in its own way, but oh well. Fortunately the lack of translation only occurs once or twice. Thanks for the insight in to The Master and Margarita, based on your input as well as zibilee’s I’m looking forward to it. I like a story with some layered allegory. Thanks!

  6. Eva
    02/22/2009

    I enjoyed reading this book, with Nabokov’s translation, and parts in the original. BUT when I was in Russia, I lived in Krasnodar, and our uni department organised a four-day trip to Taman arranged around the book. Well, Taman is in the middle of nowhere, and except for the awesome winery, the tiny little place is built around Lermontov. Four days was too much, and by the end we all thoroughly hated everything to do with the book, lol.

  7. 02/23/2009

    @ Eva Ha! I can easily see how that is possible, it’s a nice book but not something I would ever want to live and breathe. What an experience though, I would love to travel around Russia someday, it sounds like a vastly beautiful and fascinating country.

  8. […] Tony actually read and reviewed this book at some point last year (so you can read his review if you want a synopsis of the book), and he really enjoyed it and […]

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