Friday, September 18, 2015

"Princess Mary" by Mikhail Lermontov (trans. Nabokov & Nabokov)

Back cover
Russian literature has a lot of boosters--even comedian Norm MacDonald is on the "you gotta read the Great Russians" bandwagon.  My own experience of Russian literature has not been extensive.  Recently I was flipping through a library copy of Penguin's The Portable Nineteenth-Century Russian Reader, and noticed that the included translation of "Princess Mary," an 1840 novella by Mikhail Lermontov and a component of his novel A Hero of Our Time, had been done in 1958 by Vladimir Nabokov and his son Dmitri.  I'm a Nabokov fan, so I decided to give "Princess Mary" a shot.

Wikipedia says that the hero of A Hero of Our Time is "the embodiment of the Byronic hero."  So here was a chance for me to learn a little about Romanticism, another literary movement or period with which I am woefully unfamiliar.

"Princess Mary" is one of those stories in which fashionable witty people meet at resorts, "taking the waters," and have intrigues, some sincerely falling in love, others callously manipulating others for their amusement.  The story, like 60 pages in this edition, is in the form of the diary of Pechorin, whom Lermontov apparently intends to be an exemplar of the vices of his generation.  Pechorin is a master at seducing women and manipulating men, and considers "to subjugate to my will all that surrounds me, and to excite the emotions of love, devotion, and fear in relation to me" to be the primary source of happiness in his life.  At one point, savoring the knowledge that a woman is weeping over him, he compares himself to a vampire!

At one of those towns at the foot of a mountain where people go to enjoy the alleged benefits of "sulphurous" springs, Pechorin runs into several acquaintances of his, including a Grushnitsky and a Werner.  Pechorin is quick to point out to us that he has no friends: "I am not capable of true friendship.  One of the two friends is always the slave of the other, although, often, neither of the two admits this to himself." Grushnitsky he dislikes, but they hang around together because they met in the army. Werner, a doctor, and Pechorin are like two birds of a feather, both learned, cynical, witty.
"Consider: here we are, two intelligent people, we know beforehand that one can argue endlessly about anything, and therefore we do not argue; we know almost all the secret thoughts of each other; one word is a whole story for us....Sad things seem to us funny, funny things seem to us melancholy, and generally we are, to tell the truth, rather indifferent to everything except our own selves."       
Pechorin's wit reminded me of the kind of paradoxes I associate with Oscar Wilde--"platonic love is the most troublesome kind," "[I had] no charitable action on my conscience," "Women only love those whom they do not know," are representative specimens of his bon mots.

Also at the town is Vera, a woman Pechorin had an affair with in the past.  Vera is married to some old guy, but still aches with love for Pechorin.

Grushnitsky falls in love with a Princess Mary, a friend of Vera's who is in town, and Pechorin, for fun, encourages Grushnitsky to pursue her while he seduces the princess himself.  At the same time he is charming the princess Pechorin toys with Vera, breaking her heart.  After a climactic scene of humiliation, Grushnitsky, pursues revenge against Pechorin.  Despite Werner and others trying to stop them, Grushnitsky and Pechorin fight a duel--Grushnitsky tries to cheat, but is found out and is killed.  Vera, stressed out over the duel, can't hide her love for Pechorin from her husband, and her marriage and life are ruined; she is forced to depart, never to see Pechorin again.  Pechorin has a chance to marry the princess and live an easy life, but doesn't take it; he doesn't love the princess, in a final letter Vera begged him not to marry her friend ("you must make this sacrifice to me: for you I have lost everything in the world"), and Pechorin is a restless soul, irrationally unable to accept marriage and give up the freedom he doesn't even enjoy.  In the last paragraph Pechorin writes
I am like a sailor born and bred on the deck of a pirate brig.  His soul is used to storms and battles, and, when cast out onshore, he feels bored and oppressed, no matter how the shady grove lures him, no matter how the peaceful sunshines on him.   
Front cover; that's Tolstoy on the horse
As we expect from Romanticism, there's a lot of descriptions of natural beauty and sublimity: cliffs, gorges, sunrises, sunsets, rivers.  Pechorin describes his ride through a gorge to the location of the duel, dewdrops falling from leaves and refracting sunlight and all that, and tells us "more than ever before, I was in love with nature."  At one point Princess Mary looks down at the water while they are fording a river on horseback and she is hypnotized, almost falling off her mount.  One of my favorite passages of the story is when Pechorin describes the jagged rocks three hundred feet below the ledge where the duel will take place, rocks upon which Grushnitsky is about to fall to his death, as "dark and cold as the tomb...awaiting their prey."  In the final pages of the book Pechorin's horse dies underneath him while he is galloping in pursuit of Vera--"Everything would have been saved had my horse's strength lasted another ten minutes."

People in "Princess Mary" are at the mercy of the natural world, just as they are at the mercy of their own passions (which, of course, are part of the natural world--at one point Pechorin makes the materialist argument that the "soul is dependent on the body").  Pechorin, despite the fact that he is so clever and carefully plans all his moves, is driven by irrational feelings and succeeds or fails in his endeavours due to luck or "destiny," this is a repudiation of reason and rationality that, I am told, is one of the essential characteristics of Romanticism.

I enjoyed "Princess Mary."  Even though we are expected to see Pechorin as a creep, I found it easy to identify with his skepticism about friendship and his irrational fear of marriage, attitudes I have shared.  (I got over my fear of marriage.)  I liked how Pechorin and Werner were always referring to Cicero or Tasso or some other literary luminary; I wish I knew people who would say interesting things like that.  People I run into just talk about the weather, or, even worse, "the game."  When they whip out references it is usually to Saturday Night Live ("We're going to pump you up" or "More cowbell!") or Seinfeld ("He's a low talker" or "Not that there is anything wrong with that.")  Even the college professors I meet talk just like working class people, the men about sports or video games or some girl's ass, the women about shopping, gossip, and their "crafts."  

The style is good, of course, Nabokov having had a hand in it, and the character of Pechorin is engaging.  The plot isn't surprising, but is acceptable (except for the tragic ending it actually reminded me a little of a Wodehouse plot, people sneaking around and trying to outwit each other.)  The characters besides Pechorin are sort of just there to be acted upon by Pechorin, to show how superior but also what a jerk he is.  

There is at least one sizable problem with the story.  In a way that somewhat strains credulity, the plot is driven by the fact that Pechorin and Werner are always sneaking up behind people to listen to their conversations, or just by chance coming upon people, unnoticed, so they can hear critical information.  I suppose fiction, especially first-person narratives, wouldn't really work without these sorts of devices, and this goes for high literature as well as popular fiction: I can think of two pivotal scenes from Proust in which Marcel fortuitously finds himself in the position of observing, undetected, the exotic and secretive behaviors of homosexuals, as well as other scenes in which he observes people who are unaware he is watching them.  The reader of fiction has to be willing to suspend disbelief, even if what he is reading isn't full of nonsense like hyperspace and psionic powers.

So, a thumbs up for Mikhail Lermontov and the Nabokov family; "Princess Mary," a little excursion into Russian Romanticism, was certainly worth my time.

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