Friday, August 22, 2014

A Hero of Our Time

This novel is constructed in a manner we associate with Conrad -: narrators tell long stories within stories.  Unlike Conrad's typical practice, the narrations are not organized into a single nested, Russian doll.  Roughly the first half is a series of stories by a wise and likable non-com Russian officer told to a point-of-view character about the figure who turns out to be the hero of our time, Pechorin, a disillusioned St. Petersburg aristocrat.  The varying outlooks of the narrations within the narration provide us with more perspective and identification than is typical for Conrad.  They enrich the reader's emotional involvement in the book.  Although this novel is about a man who is desperately cold at heart, the reader comes away with a warm feeling,

Roughly the second half of the book consists of Pechorin's diaries, which fortuitously fall into the hands of the POV, after Pechorin, with his characteristic heartlessness, has snubbed his old friend the likable non-com.  Typically of Pechorin, he is arbitrary and mendacious with others, but focused and clear-minded about himself.  Lermontov came from his world, and this clear-eye self-criticism dramatizes Lermontov’s feeling about his own class.  Pechorin is described in the book and by critics, as Byronic, which means not so much that he was like Lord Byron, as he is like Lord Byron's alter ego Childe Herald (in the poem of the same name), who, like Pechorin, wanders through foreign lands drive by his disillusion with the pleasures of society, by cynicism, and by depression.  Like Childe Harold, this novel finds richness in nature and in people distant from fashionable society.

Like Tolstoy, Lermontov knew where the bodies were buried.  Recall what Karenin’s job was -: he was head of the committee on indigenous peoples.  Lermontov's novel is set in the Caucasus and is awash in the casual contempt of the Russian overlords for the Circassians, Ossetians, Chechens and the like, and their corresponding alienation and hostility from the Russians.  For example, in one story Pechorin casually abducts an Ossetian girl, keeps her as his mistress for a while, and then casts her aside.  For him, this is a kind of self-indulgent attempt to recapture caring, but it is to Lermontov's credit that we sympathize with him, as we sympathize with her hopeless predicament.

Despite the implied social criticism, part of the attractiveness of this novel is its picturesque setting.  Descriptions of the Caucasus are thrilling and ingratiating and the subjugated people are, despite all, interesting and picaresque.  In Martin Parker's translation, the prose is flexible, and supple, grand when it needs to be, folksy when it needs to be.

Pechorin and some of the figures involved with him, such as the likable non-com, are fully and warmly drawn.  Parts of the novel have plots.  The abduction and fate of the Circassian girl, for example, is plotty.  So is a long tale about Circassians stealing horses that might have been taken from local folk epics.  But the source of engagement for novel as a whole is the build up of the reader's understanding and involvement with Pechorin, who despite his sense of his own emptiness, indeed partly because of it, is full of meaning for us.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Notes from the ICU

Recently, I had elective heart surgery.  Briefly, the background is this: I have a painfully arthritic right hip, which demands replacement.  Some years ago I had my left hip replaced highly successfully.  But in the intervening time, I had developed stenosis of a heart valve, which did not permit the hip operation until the partially dysfunctional valve (of which I had no symptoms) was replaced.  I did that about a month ago.  Don't panic as you read this, it is a much more common operation than it sounds, has a very high success rate, and I'm doing fine.

Anyway, following protocol I spent roughly the first 24 hours after the operation in the ICU of a prominent teaching hospital.  I was full of painkillers and other drugs so my sense of time and reality was distorted.  In fact, perhaps none of what I'm about to report occurred, but here are some memories that stuck with me.

I was lying in a hospital bed partitioned away from others partly by a curtain, which could be drawn and undrawn, and partly by glass.  What I could see best when it was light (sunlight or artificial light?) was a similar bed kitty corner from me in a similar compartment.  I remember staring woefully at the occupant.  She was a woman whom I would describe as a very frail 60-year-old.  She almost never stirred and remained slumped under a light grey blanket with her head fallen to one side and her eyes closed.  Of course, like me, she was hooked up to various tubes.  The most I remember seeing at that stage was occasional movement of her left foot.  A vigorous man of about her age visited some time(s?) carrying magazines, popular mechanics type magazines.  I thought I heard him described as her brother, or maybe I made that up because he looked like her, the same grizzled grey hair.  At times he would just sit beside her, at times talk to her, although she did not respond, and at times read to her from a magazine.  After one of the undetermined intervals I experienced in those hours, I heard loud and desperate lamentations.  They seemed to me the outcries of traditional keening.  There was commotion in the semi dark.  I sadly assumed she had died.  I heard some talk about something like, “He’s having convulsions.”  Then silence.

After a while I saw a robust man with very short hair wearing a red sweater go into the cubicle where the lamentation had subsided, which was now curtained off.  I think again I heard some one say he was the brother of the man whom had had convulsions.

To pick pup another thread -: Some time later, in complete darkness I heard the sound of crowded voices shouting and exclaiming.  The locus of sound moved into the cubicle to my left.  It was noisy and excited, seeming chaotic but with a sense of inner order.  I thought of movies I have seen of crews on sailing vessels raising sails.  Loudest of all was a violent banging.  I assumed it was defibrillator paddles and that some one had had a critical heart attack and the violent commotion was the response.  After a time, the commotion diminished, moved out of the space next to me and away to my right in the darkness.  A short time later (?)  I heard a voice speak outside my curtain.  How shall I describe this voice?  It as a man’s voice, baritone, arrogant, yet its arrogance was somehow warm.  It declared, “We won.”  I took that to mean the team had saved the patient.  Some time later (?), a sweet young thing, one of he lower-level members of the sharply hierarchical staff, passed by and drew my curtain shut.  I asked her, “ What happened?”  She replied brightly, “Nothing.”  At the time, I took her to mean, “This is the sort of thing we do all the time.”  But perhaps hours had passed, and nothing had recently happened.

When it was next light enough, and the curtains were open, I peered at the bed kitty corner from me expecting to find it empty or holding a new patient.  But the woman was still lying there, and I immediately sensed she was more animated.  Her arms and trunk sometimes stirred under the light blanket.  The man with the grizzled hair and the magazines was again with her.  Some times, he spoke to her and she quietly replied.  He again read to her from the popular mechanics magazines.