(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Mikhail Lermontov, perhaps Russia’s greatest poet after Pushkin, was an enormously talented and thoroughly unpleasant person whose life was cut short in an unnecessary duel, which bordered on suicide. He had cast himself in the role of the morose and black humored Byronic hero at odds with society and had succeeded in getting himself exiled to the Caucasus, where he died at the age of twenty-six.

In this well-researched work, the first major biography of Lermontov in English, Laurence Kelly covers the whole of the poet’s life, incorporating considerable background on the political and intellectual life of the time. His descriptions range from the court at St. Petersburg to the frontier life of the Caucasus, which appealed especially to that fiercely independent side of Lermontov that expressed itself in political opposition to the Czar and the autocratic regime. In addition to poetic genius, Lermontov was a gifted artist, and one of the more interesting features of this work is a collection of his drawings and sketches of scenes of villages, landscapes, battles, and native types, as well as other contemporary drawings that give a picture of the world that was so important in shaping Lermontov’s poetic work.

In his Preface, Kelly recounts the conception of this book on his own journey to the Caucasus and Georgia in 1971, retracing Lermontov’s steps. He has a strong feeling for this area, and some of the better parts of his book are those dealing with this little-known part of the world. This firsthand experience, along with exhaustive research, gives the work an important place in Lermontov scholarship. Among other finds, most important is the exhaustive account of the final duel, complete with eyewitness accounts, and a never before published report of Lermontov’s last words—an insult to his opponent that almost surely was responsible for the fatal outcome.

To be sure, this exhaustive research is at times exhausting to the reader, as Kelly shows a fascination with detailed accounts of the most minor matters, such as details of military life and weaponry—which, though they picture the life Lermontov knew, deflect attention from the poet himself. The book runs the danger of focusing more on the man of action than the poet, and thus reversing the actual values for which Lermontov is remembered. This is all the more the case, since the poetry itself is so difficult to translate, and the versions presented in an appendix in most cases fall short of the music and power of the originals, a fact which Kelly himself recognizes and regrets.

Even without really significant literary criticism, however, the book is valuable, and certainly the drama of Lermontov’s life should make him of interest to many who have no specific interest in Russian literature. The poet lived during a time of turmoil in Russia, as first Czar Alexander I and then Nicholas I attempted to clamp a lid on political expression in the years immediately following the invasion of Russia by Napoleon, years which throughout Europe were marked by an attempt to turn back the hands of the clock, to undo the liberalizing tendencies of the French Revolution. The Congress of Vienna, which ended in 1815, had attempted to restore toppled monarchies along with the privileges of the aristocracy, and throughout Europe the young generation of poets became spokesmen for nationalism and liberalism. They united political sentiment with the literary movement of Romanticism that had come to prominence in the “Storm and Stress” writers of Germany in the 1770’s, and in England with Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, and, above all, Byron. Byron’s European reputation was enormous, and his persona, that of the moody outsider, satiric, mocking, feeding on his own emotions, became a model for a younger generation. Byron died in Greece in 1824, helping the cause of Greek liberty against the Turks. His work was already known in Russia and had cast a spell over Pushkin. The government, alarmed by the revolutionary sentiments of many of Byron’s works, which often celebrated outlaws and brigands while attacking conventional society, attempted to impose censorship. In Russia Byron became a political figure, since literature in general was a forum for the expression of political thought; Romanticism in Europe became equated with political liberalism.

It was into this world that Mikhail Lermontov was born. His young mother died of consumption in 1817, and his father, a member of the minor gentry, turned to a life of dissipation. Mikhail’s upbringing was therefore taken over by his grandmother, a woman of great determination. During his youth she took him three times to the Caucasus, and thus began the lifelong connection of Lermontov with what Kelly calls “the wild east.” He describes...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

New Statesman. XCIV, November 25, 1977, p. 731.

New York Times Book Review. March 5, 1978, p. 10.

New Yorker. LIV, March 20, 1978, p. 152.

Times Literary Supplement. December 2, 1977, p. 1402.