A Hero Of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov
The stars shone placidly in the dark-blue firmament, and I was amused at the thought that there once were sages who believed the heavenly bodies have a share in our wretched squabbles over a tiny territory or some other imaginary rights. Yet these lamps, which they thought had been lighted only to illuminate their battles and triumphs, still burn with undiminished brilliance, while their passions and hopes have long since died out together with them like a campfire left burning on the fringe of a forest by a careless wayfarer. But what strength of will they drew from the certainty that all the heavens with their numberless inhabitants looked down on them with constant though mute sympathy! Whereas we, their wretched descendants, who roam the earth without convictions or pride, without joys or fear other than the nameless dread that constricts the heart at the thought of the inevitable end, we are no longer capable of great sacrifices either for the good of mankind or even for our personal happiness, since we know that happiness is impossible; and we pass indifferently from one doubt to another just as our forebears floundered from one delusion to another, without the hopes they had and without even that vague but potent sense of joy the soul derives from any struggle with man or destiny …
Most of what I learned from reading this book happened before I ever cracked the cover. Before I picked it up I had never even heard of the first great Russian novel. After actually reading it, all I really learned is that even two hundred years ago, nobody does nihilism like those in their twenties. Pechorin is not a hero of his time, even ironically, he is only a hero of his age group.
The real tragedy of nihilism is that it attracts those who are smarter than the contented crowd, but not capable enough to beget change. Like Frank and April Wheeler one hundred years later in Revolutionary Road, Pechorin is caught in the valley of nihilism that runs between the two peaks of happiness: conformity and achievement. If the author and his main character hadn’t died so young of ennui and regret, they might have learned to become great men. If not, their intelligence would have lost its sharp edge over time, and they would have come to enjoy the life of the herd like everyone else who once meant to shape their own deeds and alter the world a little.
Against the romantic backdrop of the Caucasian mountains in the 1830s, a travelling reporter unveils the colourful wartime history and ironic confessions of Pechorin, a deliberate rake. Whether involved in abducting a tribal chieftain’s daughter, escaping the wiles of a female smuggler, testing fate in duels and Russian roulette or orchestrating intrigue and seduction at a fashionable spa, Pechorin the existentialist has his own disarming explanation.