Monthly Archives: March 2014

Lermontov and Coetzee

Over the week, I finally knocked off two books that have been near the top of my reading list for a long time: Lermontov’s A Hero of our Time and Coetzee’s Disgrace. They are both classics, and have been thoroughly analyzed over the years, so I don’t feel I can add anything very new, but here are some fleeting impressions:

A Hero of our Time

– I don’t agree with this repeated characterization I’ve seen equating Pechorin to Byron, and to the “Byronic (anti-)hero more generally. That is not, of course, to deny Byron’s tremendous influence upon Lermontov – Lermontov wrote a poem called Not Byron, if I recall correctly, and Byron is referred to at a couple of points in the book. It is not even to deny that Pechorin shares certain characteristics with your typical Byronic protagonist. But for me, what sets Pechorin apart – and makes him, indeed, a more interesting character than, say, a Manfred or a Childe Harold – is a sense of self-awareness and self-critique. Pechorin explicitly calls himself a “moral cripple”. You can’t imagine Byron’s characters being that frank about themselves (quite possibly because they aren’t at the cripple stage yet, but that is another matter)

Another way of looking at it: Yes, Manfred and Childe Harold are bitter, brooding, disillusioned and all the rest – and what’s more, they take their disillusionment rather earnestly and seriously. Pechorin refuses to take himself seriously, and indeed, consistently mocks himself in a manner that Byron’s men don’t. This is specifically evident when it comes to love. Both Manfred and Childe Harold are suffering because of some great love in their youth that they lost, and much of their bitterness is due to that. Pechorin at times hints at something similar, but refuses to take love seriously either. In short, Pechorin is almost a nihilist at times, he’s like a precursor in many ways to Camus’ Outsider more than he is a successor or Byron.

– This, on the other hand, is very Byronic. Reminiscent of the roving, roving poem:

“I am a mariner born and bred on board a buccaneer brig whose soul has become so inured to storm and strife that if cast ashore he would weary and languish no matter how alluring the shady groves and how bright and gentle the sun. All day long he paces the sandy beach, hearkening to the monotonous roar of the breakers and gazing into the hazy distance to catch in the pale strip dividing the deep blue from the grey clouds the flash of the long-awaited sail that at first is like the wing of a seagull and then gradually stands out from the white of the spray as it steadily makes for its lonely anchorage… “

– Lermontov does descriptions spectacularly. Consider:

All around, wrapped in the golden mist of morning, the mountain peaks clustered like a numberless herd, while in the south Elbrus loomed white, bringing up the rear of a chain of icy summits among which roamed the feathery clouds blown in from the east.

Disgrace

– Coetzee’s story of the mental and moral degradation of an individual, serving as a synecdoche for a rapidly disintegrating society is, of course, a brilliantly powerful book, raising a whole host of questions about aging, morality, personal and structural violence, and the rest. I was particularly drawn to how language plays its part, always in the background, always unmistakable. I don’t mean here the rather conscious and deliberate irony in the protagonist teaching a class on “communication”, while the entire book is about a breakdown in mutual communication in society. I mean the sense that at any given time, language is meant to – roughly – represent reality, and also mask some of its more unpalatable aspects, the relations of domination and subordination (see, e.g., James Scott). There are times, however, when language can’t keep up with life, when it no longer serves to cast that veneer upon reality, when there are fractures and slippages – and Disgrace is an account of one such time. Coetzee captures that sentiment perfectly, when he writes:

The language he draws on with such aplomb is, if he only knew it, tired, friable, eaten from the inside as if by termites. Only the monosyllables can still be relied on, and not even all of them.

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Filed under J.M. Coetzee, Lermontov, Romanticism, South Africa