The first time I read A Hero of Our Time was under glamorous circumstances. I on a barge riding down the Seine. Some old guy (I was 20, and he had gray hair, which meant to me back then that he was very, very old) came up to me and blathered on and on how Hero was a great book. He apologized for his enthusiasm and then sat back down, no doubt regretting his outburst.
I had no social skills so I said nothing, but his enthusiasm made me want to finish the book. We then glided under some glorious bridge. I was all very ridiculous, like some tripe from the good but silly Before Sunrise/Sunset films.
I bought the book at Shakespeare & Co and inside it, it had some sort of a pompous stamp that said it was from that store. I read the book in the whorehouse-hotel where I was staying, and thought of Hero night and day. I can still remember dreaming about the Caucasian mountains where the book took place, while wandering the narrow streets of Paris. My girlfriend remained in London. When I got back to London, I lost the book somewhere, probably in that filthy dive where we were staying.
I bought a second copy, translated by Vladimir Nabakov, at some used bookstore a few months later. Nabakov’s footnotes are almost in Pale Fire territory. He wants you to know, he could have written a better book.
And maybe the same story in Nabokov’s hands would have been better. It’s a damn good book, a major influence on the Russians who followed, but it isn’t the greatest book ever. But nonetheless, I can understand why that gray-haired man was enthusiastic.
I’ll always be grateful to that guy for giving me this tip before he sat down: read Dead Souls.
THAT, I tell people to read. Sullen young faces look at me (but in less glamorous places than in Paris). But so what. Deal with it. Years later, the kids will be grateful.
(My copy has a cover illustration by Edward Gorey. He did a number of them for Anchor. I collected a few and then gave up.)