A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
No, I am not Byron, but another,
A chosen one as yet unknown,
Like him a wanderer, an outcast,
Only with a Russian soul.
I started soon, shall finish sooner,
My mind’s achievements will be few;
In my soul, like in the ocean,
A heap of broken hopes lie drowned.
Oh gloomy ocean, tell me who
Can know your secrets? Who can tell
The masses of my thoughts?
I – or God – or no man!
DISCLAIMER: The following post, like the Russian series as a whole, is a partisan account and is visceral, impressionistic and often outright unfair. I can’t emphasise this enough, particularly if you are or have ever been my academic supervisor. I swear, I wouldn’t write like this for you, honest guv.
I’m always glad that when I picked my specialism within Russian studies, I didn’t pick Lermontov. The man attracts such fantastic stories that I should be very sorry to have to take them apart and find out if they were true. The following brief biographical sketch incorporates every one of them I can cram in. Don’t go citing it.
Mikhail Iur’evich Lermontov was born in Moscow in 1814 to a noble family with connections. His father Iurii was descended from a Scottish soldier-adventurer by the name of George Learmont – a Fifer, no less – who came to Russia in the 17th century, serving under the very famous Prince Pozharskii (of Minin and Pozharskii, Defenders of the Motherland Ltd.). This justifies Lermontov’s presence in this themed week. Our Mishenka was a precocious boy, and composed verses as a teenager that would put many established poets to shame. Of course, they were full of angst, self-importance and navel-gazing; but that’s no different from the rest of his work. The poem at the head of this piece (Net, ya ne Bairon) was composed at age 18 while he was a student at Moscow University. The bad and somewhat free translation is mine; I tried to preserve the metre but couldn’t keep the rhymes. Sorry. Being quite pretty and good at turning out quick and easy rhymes, Lermontov became very popular in Moscow high society. Of course, he hated every minute, devoting a good portion of his literary output to decrying the decadence and hypocrisy of it all. So outraged was he that he went to every party he could find. Research? Perhaps. He also worked very hard at having love affairs, not one of which worked out. At a guess and without wishing to fall into the morass of psycho-history, this may have been because he blatantly really disliked women. This has led to speculation about his sexuality by later generations of readers and critics, who have read Freud, or at least Freud for Beginners.
Lermontov was kicked out of Moscow University in 1832 for bad behaviour, and went to St. Petersburg to be a Hussar and carry on “researching” high society. He graduated from cadet school in 1834 and was stationed in Tsarskoe Selo, where his hero Pushkin went to school. Pushkin’s death in a duel in 1837 prompted Lermontov to write his Death of a Poet (Smert’ Poeta), of which more below. This led to his first Caucasian exile, a very productive period in which he wrote, among other things, the stories that would later become his most famous prose work, A Hero of our Time. By sheer coincidence, he was un-exiled after writing a nice patriotic poem about the battle of Borodino, but his behaviour back in the capital was enough to get him exiled again in 1840. Apparently he insulted two of the Tsar’s daughters; I have always wanted to know how. Back in the Caucasus, Lermontov fought recklessly, lived recklessly and was killed in a duel in 1841 at the age of 27, beating Pushkin by a whole 11 years. It was a bravura death. In the tradition described in A Hero of our Time, the opponents took turns; the target standing on the edge of a ravine so that even a flesh wound could send him to his death. According to one story, Lermontov fired his pistol in the air and cried “I will not fire upon that fool!”, so enraging his opponent Martynov (who had not intended to fire) that he took him out. There is even a second gunman theory involving a grassy knoll. Seriously.
When I was younger I thought Lermontov must have been a wonderful creature; misguided, but salvageable. He was second only to Pushkin in my pantheon of great literary crushes. Now I’m fairly sure that if I met him I would find him unbearable. He has all of Pushkin’s recklessness with none of his good nature; all of his dissolution with none of his sensuality; all of his political estrangement with none of his political engagement. Pushkin is often rather silly about women (and heaven knows you wouldn’t want to be involved with him); Lermontov often seems to despise them. As a result I still have a soft spot the size of Red Square for Pushkin, and Lermontov is an author whose work I love in spite of his personality. No small feat because – again, unlike Pushkin – Lermontov places his emphasis firmly on the internal, the individual and to some extent (careful now!) the autobiographical. He is a champion of the first-person narrative, filtering events and personalities through his own particular sense of irony. Not humorous irony, like Gogol, but serious, existential, doom-laden irony. Lermontov is a man with a world-view, and he’s not about to let the reader get away from it easily.
This is possibly why, when I went back to read A Hero of Our Time in preparation for this piece, I found that I was much less engaged with it this time round. While the language and imagery still thrilled me – especially the descriptions of the Caucasus, and Gud-Mountain with its smoke staining the sky – I knew exactly what the narrative had in store, having read it many more times than is healthy, and I felt… unenthused. Instead, I went to play on the internet and found a treasure-trove; an online library of Lermontov’s poetry in Russian. (Most of my books are in my parents’ attic on the other side of the world, waiting to be shipped to me, so online libraries are my friend). And among all those familiar titles one stood out for me: Death of a Poet. You can see an excellent literary translation of it here, alongside the original (if you can’t read the original, please listen to the sound recording; no translation can convey Lermontov’s extraordinary sense for the sound of his own language). The translations below are mine and are literal.
Death of a Poet stands out in all of Lermontov’s oeuvre as a moment of sheer righteous anger. There’s no irony or detachment or affected world-weariness from this youth of 23 whose hero has been murdered. I do not know whether he knew for certain that the duel in which Pushkin died had been orchestrated at Court, although it is common knowledge now. At any rate, his reaction was to write and circulate a blistering indictment of the people he perceived to have martyred the poet even as they sang his praises. I have seen it prefaced, in Russian editions, with a note asking the Tsar to “be just and punish the murderer/ So that in later centuries his punishment/ Will restore the legacy of your righteous judgement/ So that wrongdoers will see an example in him.” Of course, when it did reach the Tsar, he didn’t take this little piece of advice to heart. And no wonder.
The body of the poem is inflammatory, passionate, visceral and vitriolic; it’s an unapologetic challenge to an entire layer of Russian society. The Poet is dead, cries Lermontov, and you murdered him!
The poet’s soul could not endure/ The disgrace of petty insults/ He rose up against society’s opinion/ Alone, as before… and he is slain!
The courageous Poet, who “laughing, impudently scorned” the customs of Russian society is brought down by a “cold-blooded” murderer whose gun hand doesn’t so much as tremble. But the moral schema isn’t as simple as you might expect. Although he was not personally close to Pushkin, Lermontov presents a complex and believable portrait of his hero. The man he depicts is one who deliberately mocked the customs of Russian society but who “could not understand in that bloody moment/ against what he had raised his hand”; a victim who was murdered not only by rumour and conspiracy but by his own pride. A man who understood human nature but who was too given to believing flattery and trusting those who praised him. In this sense, we can see clearly that Pushkin was not innocent in his own downfall. Nonetheless, to Lermontov, there is only one real guilty party and that is the social class responsible for exploiting the poet in all his weakness and annihilating him, physically and morally. In a gut-twisting few lines, he elevates Pushkin to the status of Christ:
And once they had taken off his wreath, a crown of thorns/ Wound round with laurels they placed upon him/ But the hidden spikes cruelly/ Tore his glorious brow…
Whether or not this is a believable role for Pushkin – and I would say that it is not, if only because of the gonorrhea and the naughty verses – the pain and grief of this stanza brings a tear to the eye. That sounds like a cliché, but in my case at least it is literal, because I am a soppy creature and it’s about my hero too.
But it is in the final stanza that Lermontov really pulls out all the stops, accusing those who “stand in a greedy crowd around the throne” of murdering freedom itself. You can hide behind the law in this life, he tells the conspirators, but God will judge you and He cannot be bought. And when that final judgment comes:
Then you will turn, in vain, to slander/ But it will no longer help you/ And all your black blood will not wash away/ The righteous blood of the Poet.
Excuse me for a moment while I compose myself. And do you know, I think that my next piece is going to be about Pushkin.