A Hero of Our Time

James Wood writes:

The reader is quickly aware of two qualities: the 25-year-old Lermontov is a fabulously gifted storyteller (Pechorin kidnaps us, as well as Bela), and an extremely sophisticated ironist. Both Johnson and Lermontov are writing allegories about the unfathomable – about readability – but while one is flummoxed and unknowing, the other is sarcastically omniscient. Johnson represses his fear of the wild landscape, and transfers it to questions of taxonomic accuracy; yet the fear returns in the dread profundity of Loch Ness. Lermontov, by contrast, deliberately makes his traveller one of the novel’s unreliable narrators, and awards him something like Johnson’s contradictory gestures of control and anxiety. This narrator, and especially the second storyteller, Maxim Maximych, constantly demonise the unpredictable otherness of the Caucasian natives, while passing off as almost familiar the unpredictable otherness of Pechorin.

(LRB 11 February 2010)