Lermontov

Jul 11, 2006

I didn’t mention it here at the time because it was during one of my extended posting lacunae, but after 12 years the Borders Classics Reading Group was forced to find a new home when the eponymous location in Framingham decided to close at the end of last year. Laura researched a few alternatives and we ended up across the street at Barnes and Noble, where they won’t discount the books but seemed happy to have us, and even insist on having an employee sit in, just like a real bookstore should. I went to the inaugural event there in January and haven’t been back since, some of the books weren’t that exciting, and now that I’m back on the board of my chorus, they decided to schedule their meetings for the exact same day.

That was a potential disaster I barely averted. For the last year, Beth had been going to a girl Scout leader meeting the first Wednesday of the month, and the reading group was the second Wednesday of the month. Then I was coerced into joining the board again last summer, and they had their meetings on the first Wednesday of the month. Now Beth was mad and I was in the doghouse because she’d need to find a babysitter for that night on a regular basis. But it ended up they moved her meeting to some completely different night of the week. Problem solved, no? No, because then Borders decided to close, and B&N said they could take us, but they already had a reading group meeting on our long-standing 2nd Wednesday of the month, so we voted and decided to move it to the 1st Wednesday of the month, so now I was in conflict with myself (although the other option was the 2nd Tuesday of the month, which would have been worse because it would conflict with rehearsals in perpetuity, unlike board meetings which are more fluid and I don’t intend to stay on the board more than my initial two-year stint anyway). Life is complicated.

Last month we had a board retreat scheduled for a Saturday, so we didn’t have a regular meeting on the first Wednesday. Ah, but the reading group was doing Emma, which I had no desire to read again, so I stayed home that night.

This month, Steven, our new conductor (more about him some other time), couldn’t do Wednesday so we changed it to Thursday. So I could do both since the book was Lermontov’s “A Hero of our Time”, which I last read 20 years ago and really wanted to read again (and it’s short). These two nights were immediately followed by Readercon, so I was out four nights in a row, which I normally would avoid like the plague, but Beth and the kids managed to console themselves by going to the ocean two days in a row, and then the pool at the health club the day after that.

So anyway, Laura weaseled out of providing her usual synopsis of the discussion, so here I’m left holding the bag. We had about 10 people, including most of the regulars, and the book was so short that everyone had finished it. Evan and Roger both liked it, which is fairly unusual in and of itself. The discussion covered the structure of the book, split into five sections told from different points of view and out of sequence, chronicling isolated events in the life of the protagonist Pechorin, the “hero” of the title. Some time was spent on the relative irony of the title “A Hero of our Time”, since he’s not the least bit heroic in the Byronic sense, does this mean that Lermontov is saying this is the best we (Russia) can do at that point in history? Lermontov himself is an interesting figure, having written quite a bit of poetry and this book, considered the archetypal Russian novel, he strove to emulate his hero Pushkin but only outlived him by six years before losing a duel (just like Pushkin) at the age of 27.

The edition I and a few others had read was translated by Nabokov, and the footnotes and introduction he provided were almost more entertaining than the novel itself. Nabokov begins by asserting that his is the first real translation of the book, all those that came before were “paraphrases”, and he spends considerable effort in explaining how a good translation should sound like a translation in order to be faithful to the original text, and how Lermontov was not a very good writer (being largely self-taught and pretty green, too). He then completely goes against this rant and produces a translation that contains fluent if not florid prose, maybe devoid of the usual Nabokovisms you’d find in his own writing, but still very readable. One passage towards the end he footnotes as being a particularly good example of bad writing because it uses the word “separating” twice in the same sentence. We did our usual duelling translations, reading that section aloud to see how different translators handled this supposedly thorny syntax. Nabokov was the only one who didn’t change the verb between the two usages, and he even borrows a couple of alliterative phrases “monotonous murmur” and “misty distance” from one of the same “paraphrases” he just trashed in his introduction. Made you wonder if the whole screed was meant to be a bit tongue in cheek.

If I get ambitious, I can go on a little more tomorrow about “A Hero of our Time” and how it reaches back to 20 years ago this month when I read it as part of the class at Tufts where Beth and I first met.

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