A Russian Romantic

A Lermontov Reader

edited and translated by Guy Daniels
Macmillan, 303 pp., $7.50

Mikhail Lermontov
Mikhail Lermontov; drawing by David Levine

Russian literature, passing rapidly from Classicism to Realism, never had a romantic period comparable to those of France, England and Germany, but it has had its Romantic poets and the greatest of these is Lermontov. He was born in 1814, when Pushkin was fifteen years old, and he died in 1841, four years after Pushkin, and like him, killed in a duel. Fearless and outspoken, reckless and idealistic, he was always angry and he died young, which makes him understandable and appealing to our own tempestuous world. It is these qualities, certainly, that have attracted Mr. Daniels; and yet it is not bitterness and rebelliousness, but something else, that made him the poet he was: a feeling for the music of words, a sharp sense for the pictorial details of line, motion, and color, and an unsentimental capacity for introspection. He wrote some of the most melodious lyrics in the Russian language. Some of its most striking descriptions, and one of the world’s finest psychological novels, A Hero of Our Time, by which he is almost exclusively known in the West. But he was also the author of a good deal of blatant rhetoric, passionate, unpolished verse, and several stilted, poorly constructed plays and melodramatic stories—inferior compositions, which he himself recognized as such and did not want to publish. Unlike Pushkin, he was not endowed with a perfect ear and an absolute sense of rightness, but he aimed at perfection and had he lived longer, would doubtless have established the canon of his work.

These distinctions Mr. Daniels disregards. Intent, commendably, on making available such pieces as are hard to come by in English and some that have not been hitherto translated, he throws in the bad with the good and persuades himself that the bad is good. The greater part of his Reader—more than two-thirds of it—is taken up with a poor play, A Strange One, and a disjointed, unfinished story, The Princess Ligovskaya. They are interesting as early sketches of better things, A Strange One of Masquerade, The Princess Ligovskaya of A Hero of Our Time; but while recognizing their faults, “the mawkishness and inflated rhetoric” of the one and “the purple patches and clumsiness” of the other, Mr. Daniels insists perversely on their excellence. In the play, the work of an unhappy, chaotic sixteen-year-old boy, he detects “éclairs en profondeur,” and in the story, qualities of realistic observation that place it higher than the “unrealistic” A Hero of Our Time. These judgments are as preposterous as certain other remarks of his in the introduction, where he hints at Lermontov’s superiority to Pushkin as thinker and poet and discusses, quite absurdly, the relative “masculinity” of their work. One can but wonder at the astonishing blindness to artistic values and human characteristics which is here displayed. Is Mr. Daniels really unperceptive or just modishly original and brash? His facts are correct,…

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