Mikhail Lermontov - Two Biographies

Mikhail Lermontov left a unique legacy in Russian literature and his poetic reputation is second in his native country only to Pushkin’s.

Lermontov was born on October 15, 1814, in Moscow. His father, Yuri, was an impoverished army officer, while his mother, Maria Arsenyeva, was a wealthy young heiress from a prominent aristocratic family. Lermontov’s maternal grandmother, Elizaveta Arsenyeva, regarded their marriage as a clear mismatch and deeply disliked her son-in-law.

The union turned out to be ill-suited and the couple soon grew apart. Lermontov’s mother died three years later, aged 21, a disappointed and melancholic figure. After her death, her rich and authoritative mother, Elizaveta, launched a formidable battle for her beloved grandson, promising to disinherit him if his father took the boy away.

The father and son were eventually separated and, at the age of three, Lermontov began a spoilt and luxurious life with his doting grandmother, at her family estate of Tarkhany, in the Penza region in Central Russia.

No expense was spared to provide Lermontov with the best schooling and lifestyle his grandmother’s money could buy. He received an extensive home education, becoming fluent in French and German, playing several music instruments and proving a gifted painter.

Since he suffered from poor health, Arsenyeva undertook several trips to the sunny Caucasus for a better climate and treatment at the mineral springs. The Caucasus greatly impressed Lermontov, inspiring a passion for its mountains and stirring beauty.

Yet fearing Lermontov’s father would eventually claim his right to bring up his son, Arsenyeva strictly limited contact between the two, causing young Lermontov much pain and remorse. Despite all the pampering lavished upon him, and torn by the family feud, he grew up lonely and withdrawn.

At the age of 14 Lermontov was taken to Moscow to continue his education. He enrolled at Moscow University, one of Russia’s best, in 1830. He started writing poetry, with much of his early verse greatly influenced by the works of British poet Lord Byron.

A year into his university studies, the final, tragic act of the family drama played out. Having been deeply hurt by his son’s alienation, Lermontov’s father died. For Mikhail it was a terrible loss, plunging the young man into depression.

Lermontov’s career at the university proved short-lived. He rarely took part in student life and showed little interest in lectures, often bringing books from home instead. He eventually left university without completing his course and seriously reconsidered his options. ...

Mikhail Lermontov was born in Moscow. His mother, Maria Mikhailovna Lermontova, an heiress to rich estates, belonged to the prominent Stolypin family. She died of consumption in 1817. Yuri Petrovich Lermontov, his father, was a poor army officer. After the death of Maria Mihkailovna, he left his son's upbringing to Yelizaveta Alexeyevna Arsenyeva, his wealthy grandmother. In the new home Mikhail became the subject of family disputes between his grandmother and father, who was not allowed to participate in the upbringing. Lermontov received an extensive education at home, but it included doubtful aspects: in his childhood he was dressed in a girl's frock to act as a model for a painter.

At the age of fourteen Lermontov moved to Moscow, where he entered a boarding school for the sons of the nobility. At the Moscow University he started to write poetry under the influence of Lord Byron, adapting the Byronic cult of personality. One of Lermontov's first loves during this period was Ekaterina Sushkova, who did not reciprocate his feelings. Seventeen years later Lermontov revenged by courting her publicly and then dropping her suddenly.

Lermontov studied ethics, politics, and literature, but was expelled in 1832 for disciplinary reasons. He then went to St. Petersburg and graduated from the cadet school in 1834 with the lowest officer's rank of cornet. He was stationed in the same town with a Husser regiment of the Imperial Guards.

From his position in the Hussars and with his early devotion to writing, Lermontov observed the social life of the wealthy. By 1832 he had already written two hundred lyric poems, ten long poems and three plays. His first verse narrative, KHADZHI ABREK, appeared in 1835. MASKARAD (1836), considered Lermontov's best drama, centers around a bracelet, mistaken identities, and jealousy. At the end a faithful wife is poisoned with ice cream by her husband. The play was first produced by V.E. Meyerhold in St. Petersburg on the eve of the Revolution in 1917. Later Lermontov's melodrama inspired Aram Khachaturian's Masquerade Suite (1944).

In 1837 Lermontov gained wider recognition as a writer. After Alexandr Pushkin was killed in a duel, he published an elegy, SMERT POETA. In it he finds, behind the blind tool of destiny, arrogant descendants "of fathers famed for their base infamies / Who, with a slavish heel, have spurned the remnants / Of nobler but less favoured families!" And Lermontov continues prophetically: "Before this seat your slanders will not sway / That Judge both just and good... / Nor all your black blood serve to wash away / The poet's righteous blood." The poem was enthusiastically received in liberal circles, but annoyed the autocratic Tsar Nicholas I. Lermontov was arrested and exiled to the Caucasus, where he with several of the members of the Decembrist anti-Nicholas I revolt.

Due to the influence of his grandmother, Lermontov was permitted to return to Petersburg. However, Lermontov's attitude toward contemporary state of affairs did not become less critical. "There was something ominous and tragic in Lermontov's appearance," said Ivan Turgenev later, "his swarthy face and large, motionless dark eyes excluded a sort of somer and evil strength, a sort of pensive scornfulness and passion." . . . . The words, "His eyes did not laugh when he laughed," from A Hero of Our Time, etc., could really have been applied to himself."

Also in 1837 there appeared the poem About Czar Ivan Vasiliyevich, His Young Bodyguard, and the Valiant Merchant Kalashnokov. The scenery of the Caucaus, the wild tribesmen, and the company of ordinary soldiers inspired Lermontov. He produced a series of tales, later collected under the title A Hero of Our Times, one of the great classics of 19th-century Russian literature. The Caucasus had also inspired Puskin, and later Tolstoy depicted this wild and colorful frontier and its people in Hadzi-Murat. Politically the Russian Empire gained control of the Caucasus in the 1860s, but it has been ever since a constant source of conflicts, lately in the Checheno-Ingush region.

A Hero of Our Time has been characterized as the first Russian novel of psychological realism. It consists of five separate stories linked by a common hero, Grigorii Pechorin, who is young, intelligent and feels his life empty. In the foreword Lermontov writes: "A Hero of Our Time, my dear sirs, is indeed a portrait, but not of one man; it is a portrait built up of all our generation's vices in full bloom." The book involves three narrative levels, which do not follow chronological order. The first tale, 'Bela,' introduces an unnamed narrator. He tells a story, in which Pechorin steals a Circassian princess, Bela. She loves Pechorin, who after some time starts to spent his time on hunting trips. Finally she is murdered by a vengeful Circassian. In 'Maksim Maksimych' the narrator acquires Pechorin's papers. Pechorin starts his journey to Persia, tells that "I doubt whether I shall return, nor is there any reason why I should." He dies upon his return. In 'Taman' Pechorin is nearly drowned in a wretched provincial town. He has witnessed at night strange doings of local smugglers and a young girl, working for them, tries to kill him in a boat. Pectorin manages to hurl the girl into the sea. In 'Princess Mary' Pechorin asks "why it is that I so persistently seek to win the love of a young girl whom I do not wish to seduce and whom I shall never marry. Why this feminine coquetery? Vera loves me better than Princess Mary ever will. Were she an unconquerable beauty, the difficulty of the undertaking might serve as an inducement..." Pechorin has no desire to marry the Princess. In a duell he kills Grushnitsky, who has been his friend and loves the Princess. The last story, 'Fatalist' has Pechorin speculating on whether fate or change rules human existence. One of Pechorin's friends, Vulic, had earlier played Russian roulette; he survives the game but bets are made was the pistol loaded - it was. Vulic is killed on his way to home by a drunken Cossack by a sabre. "After all this, one might think, how could one help becoming a fatalist?" ...


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