Archive | Literature RSS feed for this section

Beauty in the Everyday – Turner and Okyo (Natsume Soseki’s The Three-Cornered World)

22 Mar

“We owe our humble gratitude to all practitioners of the arts, for they mellow the harshness of our human world and enrich the human heart.”

(Soseki, The Three-Cornered World)

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844

One of my all time favourite novels is Natsume Soseki’s “The Three-Cornered World” originally published in 1906. It is an oasis of calmness, wisdom and meditative thoughts on nature and art. The story is told in the first person by the main character, a nameless thirty-year old artist, a poet and a painter, who one day sets out on a journey to the mountains, in search of Beauty and the true meaning of art. He stays at a hot spring resort where he is the only guest. One moonlit night he hears a woman singing in the garden. This mysterious beauty, called Nami, captures his imagination, not in a romantic but in an artistic way. The simple plot where nothing much happens is great because the true beauty of the novel can shine through: the poetic, zen-like writing which transports the viewer in a meditative state. The original title of the book is “Kusamakura” which literally means “Grass Pillow”, and the term in Japanese carries a symbolic meaning, implying a journey without a specific destination. Instead of dynamic events and exciting adventures, the narrator ponders on what it actually means to be an artist and the bliss of being in the state of inspiration:

I suppose you could say that the artist is one who lives in a three-cornered world, in which the corner that the average person would call “common sense” has been sheared off from the ordinary four-square world that the normal inhabit. For this reason, be it in nature or in human affairs, the artist will see the glitter of priceless jewels of art in places where the common herd fears to tread. The vulgar mind terms it “romanticizing,” but it is no such thing. In fact, the phenomenal world has always contained that scintillating radiance that artists find there. It’s just that eyes blinded by worldly passions cannot see the true nature of reality. Inextricable entanglements bind us to everyday success and failure and by ardent hopes – and so we pass by unheeding, until a Turner reveals for us in his paintings the splendour of the steam train, or an Okyo gives us the beauty of the ghost.

Kobayashi Kiyochika, View of Takanawa Ushimachi under a Shrouded Moon, 1879

The narrator portrays the artist, himself included, as a person who is here to show others the beauty around them which they would otherwise be unaware of. The artist is the one who, through his art, tells people to stop and take a look at the wondrous, whimsical and beautiful things in the world around us. The narrator chose two interesting artists to illustrate his point; British Romanticist Turner and an eighteenth century Japanese Ukiyo-e artist Maruyama Okyo. I love it when novels reference other things, it’s like a springboard from one source of inspiration to another. Turner’s grandiose and awe-inspiring canvases, filled with golden lightness and dreamy mists, usually portray sunsets or historical events, but in the painting referenced by the narrator, Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway”, painted in 1844, near the very end of the painter’s life, the subject is something completely modern and everyday; a train. Just imagine the excitement, awe and fear with which the Victorians looked at trains. I dare say I look at them at the same way too, even today. Trains are fascinatingly fast and frightening in their speed and yet they also seem vintage in some way because it seems more romantical to travel by train than by bus. Turner captured the train’s speed and cloud of fog with the same brilliance that he had previously devoted himself to historical scenes, which shows that he approached two very different motifs with the same ardour and with the same patient search for beauty that any artist has. Soseki lived in England for two years, just before this novel was published and it’s very likely he had seen this painting in person. I’ve also included here a Japanese artist Kiyochika’s exploration of the train-motif in a more direct way than Turner, but still carrying its own beauty.

Maruyama Ōkyo (1733–1795), The Ghost of Oyuki, 1750

Another example the narrator gives is a painting of a ghost by the artist Maruyama Okyo. The narrator doesn’t mention a specific painting, but with a little research makes it clear that Soseki is referring to Okyo’s famous ink on silk painting which shows the female yurei or the traditional Japanese ghost of his lover Oyuki. It is a poignant portrait of a dead beloved which came from intense sadness and longing, almost a century before Poe wrote of similar themes in his poems and short stories. The ghost-girl Oyuki was Okyo’s mistress who worked in the Tominaga Geisha house and died young. Looking at the dates, I see now that Okyo was just seventeen years old at the time, wow, what a deep, profound and melancholy gesture… This sad event must have shaped his life in one way or another, and it has certainly shaped the way the Japanese, even today, see a female ghost, as a creature in white clothes, pale face, dark hair falling like weeping willow branches and ending in faint, thin lines, and lower body and feet disappearing. So simple, yet so poignant and sweetly melancholy.

Vincent van Gogh, Shoes, 1888

Another example which isn’t mentioned in the novel, but goes with the narrator’s idea; Vincent van Gogh’s “portrait” of his old, dirty, worn out shoes. The motif, when spoken out loud, seems laughable and not even remotely worthy of being painted, but van Gogh painted this pair of shoes with the same passionate approach that he had for his landscape, wheat fields and sunflowers, look at the careful brushwork and wild patches of colour. If Van Gogh didn’t paint his old shoes as his artist mission to show us beauty around us, we would never have known just what beauty lies in them.

Peter Ilsted and Hamsun’s Hunger: Ylajali Looking Out the Window

4 Feb

I recently wrote about the turn of the century Danish painter Peter Ilsted and his delightful, sunny and cozy interior scenes with girls playing or reading books and I mentioned Knut Hamsun’s novel “Hunger”, well today I want to focus exclusively on Hamsun’s novel and the painting which reminds me of one scene from the novel.

Peter Vilhelm Ilsted (Danish artist, 1861-1933), Looking Out the Window, 1908

In “Looking Out of the Window”, a pretty young girl in a black dress and two long braids is looking out of the window. As usual with these Northern painter such as Hammershoi and Ilsted, the girl’s face is not seen, but still I know that she is pretty because she must be and I want her to be because I see her as the Ylajali from Knut Hamsun’s novel “Hunger”; the sweet-scented, pretty and mysterious girl that the narrator meets one day by chance in the street and later he has a very interesting conversation with her one night. In this painting Ilsted offers a somewhat voyeuristic view of the girl looking out of the window because she is in the other room, and she left the doors behind her open and that’s why we see her through the corridor. If the white doors were closed, the girl would be a mystery and all that would remain on the canvas would be the little table, a painting with shadowy figures and the door. The interior would seem cold and uninviting, but the girl with the braids adds a mysterious touch to it.

What is she looking at? Or should I say, on what strange gentleman are her eyes set? The answer lies in Hamsun novel “Hunger”; written in the first person in the stream of consciousness style, the unnamed narrator is a young aspiring journalist who, poor and hungry, wanders the streets and encounters many things on his way. This is how the novel begins: “It was during the time I wandered about and starved in Christiania: Christiania, this singular city, from which no man departs without carrying away the traces of his sojourn there.” Hungry, half-desperate and half-hopeful in a mad way, with frail nerves, empty stomach and a thin coat, he leaves his attic room in search of….something to fill his day. While on a walk in the beginning of the novel, he sees two ladies walking with their parasols, and accidentally brushes one, turning around to apologise, he sees her pale face and cheeks blushing and she is instantly lovely to him; “I feel myself seized with an odd desire to make this lady afraid; to follow her, and annoy her in some way. I overtake her again, pass her by, turn quickly round, and meet her face-to-face in order to observe her well. I stand and gaze into her eyes, and hit, on the spur of the moment, on a name which I have never heard before–a name with a gliding, nervous sound–Ylajali!

The mysterious girl whose pale face hidden under the veil cannot leave his mind is named Ylajali and he follows her to the bookstore and then to the house where she apparently lives and here is that part of the novel which reminds me of Ilsted’s painting:

Outside No. 2, a large four-storeyed house, they turned again before going in. I leant against a lamp-post near the fountain and listened for their footsteps on the stairs. They died away on the second floor.

I advanced from the lamp-post and looked up at the house. Then something odd happened. The curtains above were stirred, and a second after a window opened, a head popped out, and two singular-looking eyes dwelt on me. “Ylajali!” I muttered, half-aloud, and I felt I grew red.

Why does she not call for help, or push over one of these flower-pots and strike me on the head, or send some one down to drive me away? We stand and look into one another’s eyes without moving; it lasts a minute. Thoughts dart between the window and the street, and not a word is spoken. She turns round, I feel a wrench in me, a delicate shock through my senses; I see a shoulder that turns, a back that disappears across the floor. That reluctant turning from the window, the accentuation in that movement of the shoulders was like a nod to me. My blood was sensible of all the delicate, dainty greeting, and I felt all at once rarely glad. Then I wheeled round and went down the street.

I dared not look back, and knew not if she had returned to the window. The more I considered this question the more nervous and restless I became. Probably at this very moment she was standing watching closely all my movements. It is by no means comfortable to know that you are being watched from behind your back. I pulled myself together as well as I could and proceeded on my way; my legs began to jerk under me, my gait became unsteady just because I purposely tried to make it look well. In order to appear at ease and indifferent, I flung my arms about, spat out, and threw my head well back–all without avail, for I continually felt the pursuing eyes on my neck, and a cold shiver ran down my back. At length I escaped down a side street, from which I took the road to Pyle Street to get my pencil.

Ylajali, what a beautiful and exotic name to my ears! This scene from “Hunger” lingered in my mind for some time after finishing the novel.

Vilhelm Hammershoi, Interior, Strandgade 30, 1901

And just for comparison, here is Vilhelm Hammershoi’s painting with a similar theme, again a lady is looking out the window, her back turned against us, her face hidden, but this version of the same scene doesn’t speak to me as much as Ilsted’s version does. Hammershoi does have a mystery and a certain magic, but this strictness of elements, minimalism, and the palette of greys is painfully oppressive and I just wanna die when I gaze it for a long time.

Clarice Lispector – Passively Enacting the Role of Being (The Hour of the Star)

29 Jan

“And when she woke up? When she woke up, she no longer knew her own identity. Only later did she reflect with satisfaction: I am a typist and a virgin, and I like coca-cola. Only then did she get dressed, spend the rest of the day passively enacting the role of being.”

“She meditated while she was typing and that’s why she made even more mistakes.”

Last summer I read Clarice Lispector’s novel “Agua Viva” (“The Stream of Life”) and I was quite smitten with her writing style, it was so unique, flowing and unrestrained, feminine and strange. I knew even then that another novel by this wonderful Brasilian author would find its way in my hands soon, and last week it did. I read her novella “The Hour of the Star” (A hora da estrela). Lispector died on 9th December 1977, a day before her 57th birthday, and this novella was published soon after the author’s death. The narrator, or the “writer” of the novella is Roderigo S.M. who says about himself “I write because I have nothing better to do in this world: I am superfluous and last in the world of men. I write because I am desperate and weary. I can no longer bear the routine of my existence and, were it not for the constant novelty of writing, I should die symbolically each day.

The novella tells a tale of a poor, very poor girl called Macabéa who moves from the rural Northwest area of Brazil to Rio de Janeiro and gets a job as typist, shares a room with four other girls and lives on hot-dogs because she is that poor. Roderigo writes that “She scarcely has a body to sell, nobody wants her, she’s a virgin and harmless, nobody would miss her. Moreover – I realize now – nobody would miss me either.” The first five pages bored me a little bit because it was Roderigo writing, but then when the focus shifts to Macabéa, Lispector’s flowing style of writing shines and draws you into the story. The writer said about her novel that it was: “the story of a girl who was so poor that all she ate was hot dogs. That’s not the story, though. The story is about a crushed innocence, about an anonymous misery.” Tales of sad, poor individuals, crushed innocence and gloomy ending touch the strings of my heart and naturally I was very soon emotionally invested in the book, turning page after page, breathless. It felt like I was inside of Macabéa’s mind, inside her emptiness, basking in its sweetness because it is zen-like, meditative emptiness, no desires, nothing. Macabéa is timid, passive, lost in her thoughts…

A contrasting character is a guy called Olimpicus that Macabéa meets one day; he is aggressive, dominant, chasing money and success, he wants to be rich and he wants to be a butcher because he likes knives. Only in the moment of her death, Macabéa inner emptiness becomes inner freedom. She reminded me of Jack Kerouac’s character based on a real person, a morphine addict called Tristessa, from the novel of the same name. Tristessa, like Macabéa, is sad but hopeful, empty but also serene, makes us readers envy her emptiness, as if it is something sweet and unattainable. Velvet Underground’s song “Sweet Nothing” also came to my mind when I thought of Macabéa. When I finished reading the book, I thought it was a good book, but as hours and days passed, the story, the words I had read were intensifying in my mind and I grew to love it more and more.

(Photo by Magdalena Lutek (Nishe)

“And when she woke up? When she woke up, she no longer knew her own identity…”

And now some beautiful quotes:

“She recalled her childhood with nostalgia – dried mandioca – and believed that she had been happy. In truth, no matter how bad one’s childhood may have been, it always sounds enchanted in recollection – how awful.”

“Her life was duller than plain bread and butter.”

I am alone in the world and I don’t believe in anyone, everyone lies, sometimes even when making love, I don’t think one being speaks to another, the truth only comes to me when I’m alone.

“Una furtiva lacrima” had been the only really beautiful thing in her life. Wiping away her own tears she tried to sing what she heard. But her voice was as crude and out of tune as she was. When she heard it she started to cry. It was the first time she’d ever cried, she didn’t know she had so much water in her eyes. She cried, blew her nose no longer knowing what she was crying about. She wasn’t crying because of the life she led: because, never having led any other, she’d accepted that with her that was just the way things were. But I also think she was crying because, through the music, she might have guessed there were other ways of feeling, there were more delicate existences and even a certain luxury of soul.”

She had no idea how to cope with life and she was only vaguely aware of her own inner emptiness. Were she capable of explaining herself, she might well confide: the world stands outside me. I stand outside myself.”

“So she repented. Since she wasn’t quite sure for what, she repented entirely and for everything.”

“if she was dumb enough to ask herself ‘who am I?’ she would fall flat on her face…[She is] so dumb that she sometimes smiles at other people on the street. Nobody smiles back because they don’t even see her.”

“She had what’s known as inner life and didn’t know it. She lived off herself as if eating her own entrails. When she went to work she looked like a gentle lunatic because as the bus went along she daydreamed in loud and dazzling dreams. These dreams, because of all that interiority, were empty because they lacked the essential nucelus of—of ecstasy, let’s say. Most of the time she had without realizing it the void that fills the souls of the saints. Was she a saint? So it seems. She didn’t know what she was meditating because she didn’t know what the word meant. But it seems to me that her life was a long meditation on the nothing. Except she needed others in order to believe in herself, otherwise she’d get lost in the successive and round emptiness inside her. She meditated while she was typing and that’s why she made even more mistakes.”

“On the pavement tiny blades of grass sprouted between the flagstones — Macabéa noticed them because she always noticed things that were tiny and insignificant. She thought dreamily, as she rang the doorbell: grass is so easy and simple. Her thoughts were gratuitous and unconnected because, however erratic, she possessed vast reserves of inner freedom.”

My Favourite Books of 2019

9 Jan

I looked back at the books I had read in 2019 and I found a dozen titles which I felt like sharing with you all, in hope that perhaps one day you might read some of these books too. I wasn’t too pleased with what I’ve read in the previous year, there weren’t that many books which I adored. I am eager to read more, but I am struggling to find something to occupy me completely. So, if you have some suggestions, please, do not hesitate to tell them! A book must transform me completely, leave me breathless as I close it… if I feel the same after 200 pages then what’s the point really?

Casey Child, The Bookstore

1 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey; a wonderful novel about a wild, free-spirited individualist Randal McMurphy who tries to exploit the system but eventually gets trapped by it. The book starts out in a very amusing, witty way but things start taking a darker turn and the protagonist’s eventual defeat was immensely saddening to read.

2 The Shrouded Woman (La Amortajada) by María Luisa Bombal; is a wonderful short novel or a novella by a Chilean author published in 1938 and it tells a story of a dead woman remembering her life, from her youth, her first loves, the cheerful vibrant days of her childhood, her marriage and her children, her regrets. Reading it felt very poignant and very eerie; she’s not on her deathbed, she is dead. Only through the eyes of a woman dead who talks about her life in the past tense, did I truly feel the joy of my life lived now. I still have time to love! I still have time to not have regrets, to turn wrongs to rights, and in this way it was inspiring and felt like a catharsis.

3 The Final Mist by María Luisa Bombal; I loved “The Shrouded Woman” so much that I just had to read another short-novel by Bombal and it did not fail my expectations. “The Final Mist” begins with newlyweds, Daniel and Regina, arriving into a decaying mansion. It’s raining, and they are not very in love. The main character’s first wife had not been in the grave so long and he had already remarried. Regina is bored and dissatisfied, one day on a walk she wanders into a fog… finds a house… and has a life-transforming encounter with a strong, handsome man, but is he real or not?

4 The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson; with this book it was the film starring Johnny Depp which captivated me immensely. It’s set in Puerto Rico in the late 1950s, the main character is a journalist who comes to the Caribbean from New York. And the best part of all is that all the events were taken from Thompson’s life and experiences. Writing and the protagonist’s lifestyle reminded me of Kerouac’s and I also enjoyed the vibrant descriptions of the Caribbean; the ocean, the palms, the drinking and the politics.

5 Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami; yet another fabolous novel by Murakami, about a twenty-two year old girl called Sumire who falls in love for the first time in her short life and she wants to become a writer, she loves Kerouac and tends to start writing a novel but never finishes it. Sumire was relatable, though her love life was certainly not. And also, as much as I adored the beginning, it’s very easy to enjoy Murakami’s writing, I was slightly disappointed with the ending because it seemed less mysterious, as I think the writer intended it to be, it felt like not even Murakami knew just quite how to finish the novel.

6 Shanghai Baby by Wei Hui; this was a book which I repeatedly kept seeing on the bookshelf and the cover intrigued me a lot, and also the fact it was written by a Chinese person. I do enjoy reading books from other countries and continents and thus expanding my horizons. Similar to “Sputnik Sweetheart”, the main character is also a struggling aspiring writer who lives with her boyfriend; a gentle person and a talented artist who is also impotent and an opium addict. China’s opening to the Western culture and the clash of the changes goes hand in hand with the heroine’s personal changes and growth.

7 Marble Skin by Slavenka Drakulić; a novel written in the first person by a now grown up woman who is a sculptor and alarmed by her mother’s attempt of suicide, she returns to her hometown and a tale of her childhood, filled with mother’s coldness and a step-father’s sexual abuse, unravels before the reader. Her love of marble, who coldness she connects with her mother’s character, is woven through the novel.

8 I’m with the band by Pamela des Barres; I’ve known about this book written by a very famous sixties and seventies groupie for a few years now, but it was only last summer that I was so curious and felt like reading it. It was fun seeing the other side of the seemingly glamorous groupie lifestyle; the heartbreaks, the betrayals, the loneliness, and I do feel very differently about it than I had years ago. I am glad I read the book but I do not envy Miss Pamela’s position anymore.

9 Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole; a very dramatic and romantical Gothic novel. I very much enjoyed the drama and the pompous language as well as the black and white characters. And most of all I loved the love-scenes, so subtle yet so over the top in that special Romantic way.

10 Pre-Raphaelites in Love by Gay Dely; this was a book that someone very special recommended to me a few years ago and I finally got my hands on it in 2019. It was just beautiful! Just so beautifully written, loaded with information about the Pre-Raphaelites, comments on their work and most of all, as the title suggests, on their love-life.

11 I Patridge, We Need to Talk About Alan by Steve Coogan; this wasn’t a serious read, naturally, and it wasn’t really a read because it was an audio-book which is available on Youtube, but this was just too funny and too memorable not to include it, specially since I am a fan of Alan Partridge and his sense of humour.

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Love’s Philosophy is 200 Years Old

22 Dec

My favourite poem by the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Love’s Philosophy”, was published on the 22nd December 1819. I cannot believe that this gem of a poem is 200 years old, yet it feels so youthful and fresh, like the first clear skies in spring. English critic and poet Leigh Hunt published the poem in the 22nd December 1819 issue of the newspapers “The Indicator”, which he edited from 1819 to 1821. Then later, in 1824, Mary Shelley published the poem again in the “Posthumous Poems”. The beautiful, innocent mood of the poem was inspired by the poems of the Greek poet Anacreon which celebrated love. The second generation of Romantic poets; Shelley, John Keats and Lord Byron, looked up to the Classical world, the Romans and the Greeks, for inspiration, wisdom and Beauty.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard is well-known for his paintings of stolen kisses, secret meetings, coquetry, indolence and frivolities in romantic garden settings, but this painting here, called “The Souvenir” is announcing the Romantic vibes which took over the European art in the late eighteenth century. The girl is alone in the woods, carving the name of her Beloved in the tree so every living creature in the nature can know the secret of her heart. Her pet dog, usually seen as a symbol of fidelity in art, is observing her. Look how pretty her pink dress is, and how delicate the whole scene is. I can imagine this girl would love Percy Shelley’s poem.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Souvenir, 1776-8

Love’s Philosophy

The fountains mingle with the river,
And the rivers with the ocean;
The winds of heaven mix forever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine
In one another’s being mingle-
Why not I with thine?

See, the mountains kiss high heaven,
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister flower could be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth,
And the moonbeams kiss the sea; –
What are all these kissings worth,
If thou kiss not me?

Lermontov – Happiness is…. being in a cornfield

28 Nov

Autumn is passing, never to return… at least not this year, and December’s cold fingers are touching the landscape, transforming the fields of corn and wheat which shone in gold to desolate spaces where silence resides, save for the moments when the crows hold ominous yet chatty meetings. Today, this little poem by the Russian Romantic poet Mikhail Lermontov, called “When, in the cornfield” is on my mind. It was written in 1837, when the poet was in his twenty-third year and is an example of a Romantic poet’s love of nature, which seems to be the only place a Byronic hero such as Lermontov can find joy and calmness which people and society do not offer. I don’t think one necessarily has to visit a corn field and walk about it seeking joy, but really any place in nature will surely evoke such sweet, serene feelings. Life seems easier when we see how effortless and slow everything is in nature, yet everything is accomplished. “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” (Lao Tzu) If nature can take things slow and be beautiful in every season, so can we, be it sadness or joy, flowers or snow….

“My heart is losing troubles and distress  —

And I can apprehend the happiness on earth…”

George Clausen (1852-1944) View of a lady in Pink standing in a cornfield, 1881

When, in the Cornfield…

When, in the cornfield, yellow waves are rising,

The wood is rustling at the sound of soft wind,

And, in the garden, crimson plums are hiding

In pleasant shade of leaves, so shining ones and green;

 

When, spilled with fragrant dew in calmness of the alley,

In morning of a gold or evening of a red,

Under the bush, the lily of a valley,

Is gladly nodding me with silver of her head;

 

When the icy brook in the ravine is playing,

And, sinking thoughts in somewhat misty dreams,

In bubbling tones secretly tale-telling

Of those peaceful lands from which it gaily streams  —

 

Then wrinkles are smoothing on my knitted brow,

My heart is losing troubles and distress  —

And I can apprehend the happiness on earth,

And see Almighty in the heavens now…

Picture found here.

Picture by Julia Starr.

Mikhail Lermontov – A Hero of Our Time

19 Nov

“I was prepared to love the whole world, but no one understood me, and I learned to hate.”

Christina Robertson, Grand-Duchesses Olga and Alexandra, Daughters of Nicholas I, 1840

I first read Mikhail Lermontov’s fascinating novel “A Hero of Our Time” a few years ago and absolutely loved it and had so much fun reading it, especially the part called “Princess Mary”. The main character, a young man called Pechorin is very witty and his comments and remarks about the world, love, people around him are very amusing, and I can agree with him to some extent. I was literally laughing whilst reading it, some dialogues are just hysterical.

Lermontov wrote the novel in 1839 and it was published in 1840. A year later, Lermontov was dead. At the age of twenty-seven. How romantical!? To die in a duel at that age. The novel is divided into five parts, not in chronological order, and the part I love the most, called “Princess Mary”, is from Pechorin’s diary and it starts with his arrival to Pyatigorsk one beautiful day early in May. It starts with a lyrical description of nature in Caucasus and its effect on Pechorin’s state of mind and soul: “YESTERDAY I arrived at Pyatigorsk. I have engaged lodgings at the extreme end of the town, the highest part, at the foot of Mount Mashuk: during a storm the clouds will descend on to the roof of my dwelling. This morning at five o’clock, when I opened my window, the room was filled with the fragrance of the flowers growing in the modest little front-garden. Branches of bloom-laden bird-cherry trees peep in at my window, and now and again the breeze bestrews my writing-table with their white petals. The view which meets my gaze on three sides is wonderful (….) A feeling akin to rapture is diffused through all my veins. The air is pure and fresh, like the kiss of a child; the sun is bright, the sky is blue—what more could one possibly wish for? What need, in such a place as this, of passions, desires, regrets?

Grigory Gagarin, Ball, 1832

But very quickly Pechorin goes into society and the reader is introduced to other characters of whom Pechorin writes candidly; a fake sentimental cavalier Grushnitski, young, handsome and shallow emotions. This is how Pechorin describes him: “he has no knowledge of men and of their foibles, because all his life he has been interested in nobody but himself. His aim is to make himself the hero of a novel. He has so often endeavoured to convince others that he is a being created not for this world and doomed to certain mysterious sufferings, that he has almost convinced himself that such he is in reality. Hence the pride with which he wears his thick soldier’s cloak. I have seen through him, and he dislikes me for that reason, although to outward appearance we are on the friendliest of terms.” Grushnitski is therefore the opposite of Pechorin; the feelings of the former are shallow, while the latter hides the depth of his emotions and keeps them to himself. There is a clear similarity between Pushkin’s characters of Eugene Onegin who is a superflous man and Pechorin who is one also, and their counterparts: Pushkin’s character Vladimir Lensky is a naive romantic and is similar to Grushnitski.

Karl Bryullov, Horsewoman, 1832

A superflous man is a Russian version of a Byronic hero; Lermontov even mentions Lord Byron in his poetry and throughout the novel. Just like Byronic Hero, a superflous man is full of contradictions; he feels superior to his surroundings, yet he does nothing to put his talents and intelligence to good use, he is profound and has deep emotions but the society’s shallowness and superficiality has forced him to hide these deeper feelings because the world wouldn’t understand them. Prone to self-destruction, plagued by boredom, and possessing a sense that life in its core has no real meaning; all these things drive superflous men such as Eugene Onegin and Pechorin to travel aimlessly or indulge in flirtations that mean nothing to them. As long as the afternoon is pleasantly spent, true intentions of the heart don’t matter.

Duels, flirtations, gossips; this novel has these things in abundance and Pechorin simultaneously sees the emptiness of such a life, but nonetheless indulges in it because his cynical worldviews prevent him from believing in sincerity and love.

Ah, love, yes! What would a Romantic novel be without it. Pechorin gives women little reason to love him, and yet they do, but he gives a clear cynical justification for that: “Women love only the men they don’t know.” That is certainly true for these kind of novels; it’s the mystery of a man which is alluring to sweet, naive maidens because they then attribute all sorts of noble qualities to noblemen they’ve only seen from afar, and spoken maybe a few sentences with. Pechorin is led by the same selfish desire as Eugene Onegin was when he gave poor Tatyana false hopes and that is because to Pechorin nothing has meaning, he cherishes nothing, so how could he apprehend that things do matter to other people:

I often ask myself why I am so obstinately endeavouring to win the love of a young girl whom I do not wish to deceive, and whom I will never marry. Why this woman-like coquetry? Vera loves me more than Princess Mary ever will. (…) There is, in sooth, a boundless enjoyment in the possession of a young, scarce-budded soul! It is like a floweret which exhales its best perfume at the kiss of the first ray of the sun. You should pluck the flower at that moment, and, breathing its fragrance to the full, cast it upon the road: perchance someone will pick it up! I feel within me that insatiate hunger which devours everything it meets upon the way….

Princess Mary Ligovski doesn’t have a soul as deep and pure as Pushkin’s Tatyana, for after all, she is a haughty and well-educated young lady from Moscow who read Lord Byron’s work in English and knows algebra. Such a girl is not to messed with. It’s interesting to note that Pechorin started flirting with her only after Grushnitski admitted to him his secret affections for her. A superfluous man isn’t satisfied until he ruins and taints someone else’s prospects for happiness. And is he truly satisfied then? No, sadly, he is never satisfied, for to him life is but a pointless string of events, each more dull and less meaningful than the previous one, until sweet death comes. In one discussion in French with Grushnitski, Pechorin says “My friend, I despise women to avoid loving them because otherwise, life would become too ridiculous a melodrama.

Karl Bryullov, The Shishmareva Sisters, 1839

In contrast to Princess Mary’s blind, youthful infatuation with Pechorin, it is another woman, Vera, a faithful beauty from Pechorin’s past who absolutely adores him. Mary fell for Pechorin because he is “tall, dark and handsome”, mysterious, alluring – and he doesn’t seem to be captivated by her which serves only as a motivation for her to win him over. He is the romantic hero that she has only read of, in dreary winter afternoons in Moscow. But Vera loves him deeply, even though their paths in life went differently, and even though she is married…. for the second time and not to him. Though she might be someone else’s wife on paper, her heart belongs to Pechorin only. She tells him, blushing, as they sit together in nature: “You know that I am your slave: I have never been able to resist you… and I shall be punished for it, you will cease to love me! At least, I want to preserve my reputation… not for myself—that you know very well!… Oh! I beseech you: do not torture me, as before, with idle doubts and feigned coldness! It may be that I shall die soon; I feel that I am growing weaker from day to day… And, yet, I cannot think of the future life, I think only of you… You men do not understand the delights of a glance, of a pressure of the hand… but as for me, I swear to you that, when I listen to your voice, I feel such a deep, strange bliss that the most passionate kisses could not take its place.

And Pechorin later praises Vera’s depth of character: “Vera did not make me swear fidelity, or ask whether I had loved others since we had parted… She trusted in me anew with all her former unconcern, and I will not deceive her: she is the only woman in the world whom it would never be within my power to deceive. I know that we shall soon have to part again, and perchance for ever. We will both go by different ways to the grave, but her memory will remain inviolable within my soul. I have always repeated this to her, and she believes me, although she says she does not.

Naive, silly goose, that is what Mary Ligovska is, to think that this dark and mysterious man will give up his cynicism and freedom to marry her. Pechorin makes his views on marriage quite clear: “…over me the word “marry” has a kind of magical power. However passionately I love a woman, if she only gives me to feel that I have to marry her—then farewell, love! My heart is turned to stone, and nothing will warm it anew. I am prepared for any other sacrifice but that; my life twenty times over, nay, my honour I would stake on the fortune of a card… but my freedom I will never sell. Why do I prize it so highly? What is there in it to me? For what am I preparing myself? What do I hope for from the future?… In truth, absolutely nothing.

Natalia Pushkina, Portrait by Alexander Brullov, 1831

Here is a conversation between Pechorin and Vera which amused me so:

She gazed into my face with her deep, calm eyes. Mistrust and something in the nature of reproach were expressed in her glance.

“We have not seen each other for a long time,” I said.

“A long time, and we have both changed in many ways.”

“Consequently you love me no longer?”…

“I am married!”… she said.

“Again? A few years ago, however, that reason also existed, but, nevertheless”…

She plucked her hand away from mine and her cheeks flamed.

“Perhaps you love your second husband?”…

She made no answer and turned her head away.

“Or is he very jealous?”

She remained silent.

Mikhail Lermontov, Self-portrait, 1837

And to end, here is my favourite passage from the novel which I find totally relatable:

Everyone saw in my face evil traits that I didn’t possess. But they assumed I did, and so they developed. I was modest, and was accused of being deceitful: I became secretive. I had a strong sense of good and evil; instead of kindness I received nothing but insults, so I grew resentful. I was gloomy, other children were merry and talkative. I felt myself superior to them, but was considered inferior: I became envious. I was ready to love the whole world, but no one understood me, so I learned to hate. My colorless youth was spent in a struggle with myself and with the world. Fearing mockery, I buried my best feelings at the bottom of my heart: there they died.”