Ivan Turgenev’s First Love (first published in 1860), is a masterpiece of presenting the emotions involved in young, immature love. Who has not experienced the wild fluctuations in mood, the awakening and death of one’s heart and soul, when enraptured within the discovery of falling in love; followed by the torment of such love being unrequited; or worse yet, followed by the yet more important discovery of love’s loss? Turgenev perfectly captures that time and the angst that goes with it, though hopefully not many have gained wisdom in the nature of love in the same manner as the protagonist in First Love.
Similar to my recent review of The Turn of the Screw, First Love is structured as a story within a story. Guests at a party take turns recounting the story of their first love. Vladimir Petrovich, the protagonist, writes his story in a notebook, from which the rest of the story is told.
The notebook starts out with Vladimir being 16 and living at his parent’s house in the country. Vladimir has teen passion, similar to most sixteen year olds today, captured nicely in excellent romantic writing by Turgenev:
My blood was in a ferment within me, my heart was full of longing, sweetly and foolishly; I was all expectancy and wonder; I was tremulous and waiting; my fancy fluttered and circled about the same images like martins round a bell-tower at dawn; I dreamed and was sad and sometime cried. But through the tears and the melancholy, inspired by the music of verse or the beauty of the evening, there always rose upwards, like the grasses of early spring, shoots of happy feeling, or young and surging life…in every thought, in every sensation, there lay hidden a half-conscious, shy, timid awareness of something new, inexpressibly sweet, feminine…This presentiment, this sense of expectancy, penetrated my whole being; I breathed it, it was in every drop of blood that flowed through my veins…
Vladimir falls in love with a 21 year old neighbor named Zinaida. The first time meeting her, Vladimir thinks to himself “I have met her; I know her. God, what happiness!”. Zinaida is a beautiful young lady and, though poor, has many suitors at her pleasure. After a first evening hanging out with her and these other suitors, Vladimir writes:
Oh, gentle feelings, soft sounds, the goodness and the gradual stilling of a soul that has been moved; the melting happiness of the first tender, touching joys of love — where are you? Where are you?
Vladimir also talks about his admiration for his father, his being a mentor and a wise friend, though often abandoning Vladimir emotionally (done “kindly and gently”, but done none-the-less). Vladimir says:
I came to the conclusion that he cared nothing for me nor for family life; it was something very different he loved, which wholly satisfied his desire for pleasure. ‘Take what you can yourself, and don’t let others get you into their hands; to belong to oneself, that is the whole thing in life,’ he said to me once…’Will, your own will, and it gives power which is better than liberty. Know how to want, and you’ll be free, and you’ll be master too.’ Before and above everything, my father wanted to live…
Of course, his father is to play a more important role, mostly off-stage, later in the story and this background allows the reader to understand Vladimir’s reaction when his father’s role comes to light.
Zinaida is a flirt with all, somewhat selfish and coquettish in nature, which just brings her all the more attention, causing much pain, mixed in with moments of extreme pleasure, to Vladimir. From Valdimir’s notebook:
From that day my ‘passion’ began. What I experienced then, I remember, was something similar to what a man must feel when first given an official post. I had ceased to be simply a young boy; I was someone in love. I say that my passion began from that day; and I might add that my suffering began on that day too. In Zinaida’s absence I pined: I could not concentrate: I could not do the simplest thing. For whole days I did nothing but think intensely about her. I pined away but her presence brought no relief. I was jealous and felt conscious of my worthlessness. I was stupidly sulky, and stupidly abject; yet an irresistible force drew me towards her…
Zinaida ultimately finds her own love, an object of affection which changes her actions and relations to all her suitors. It becomes obvious that something has changed, Vladimir thinking “My God, she has fallen in love!’ Of course, Vladimir is sad, spending most of his time sulking, with emotions jumping all over the place.
For a long time I wandered over the hills and in the woods. I did not feel happy — I had started with the set purpose of giving myself up to gloomy reflections. But youth, the beauty of the day, the freshness of the air, the pleasure which comes from rapid walking, the delicious sensation of lying in the thick grass far away from everyone, alone — all of these proved too strong. The memory of those unforgettable words, of those kisses, once more pierced into my soul.
Unfortunately for Vladimir, it turns out it is his own father whom Zinaida had fallen for. Vladimir hides out, waiting to see who Zinaida is meeting for a rendezvous in the garden. Seeing her in the garden, “–a man appeared — O God, it was my father!” He now fully realizes the truth. Vladimir writes, “Jealous Othello, ready for murder, was suddenly transformed into a schoolboy.” Later, he goes on to say:
I should find it difficult if someone asked me to give a detailed account of what went on within me during the week which followed my unlucky venture into the garden. It was a queer, feverish period; the most violently conflicting feelings, thoughts, suspicions, hopes, joys, pains, tossed and whirled within me in a kind of mad chaos…I simply tried to get through the day as fast as I could, from morning till night: but then, at night, I slept…
Vladimir stills loves Zinaida, as you can see:
I didn’t want to know whether I was loved, and I didn’t want to admit to myself that I was not…Her presence seared me like a flame…but what did I care what kind of fire this was in which I burned and melted, when it was bliss to burn and to melt? I gave myself freely to my sensations as they came, telling myself lies and hiding from my own memories, and closed my eyes to what I sensed was coming.
He tells her, as he and his family are about to move away:
…whatever you did, however much you make me suffer, I shall love you and adore you to the end of my days.
Strangely, Vladimir is not angry at his father.
We moved back to town. It was a long time before I could shake off the past…My wound healed slowly, but towards my father I actually bore no ill-feeling. On the contrary, he somehow seemed even to have grown in my eyes. Let psychologists explain this contradiction if they can.
His father’s last words, on a letter written immediately before his death, was “beware of the love of women; beware of that ecstasy–that slow poison.” A few years later, Vladimir finds out about Zinaida’s death, causing contemplation on the promise of youth washed away by the wisdom of age:
The past suddenly rose and stood before me, So that was the final answer to it all. So that was the final goal towards which this young life, all glitter and ardor and excitement, went hurrying along…O youth! youth! you go your way heedless, uncaring — as if you owned all the treasures of the world; even grief elates you, even sorrow sits well on your brow. You are self-confident and insolent and you say ‘I alone am alive — behold!’ even while your own days fly past and vanish without trace and without number, and everything within you melts away like wax in the sun…like snow…and perhaps the whole secret of your enchantment lies not, indeed, in your power to think that there is nothing you will not do: it is this that you scatter to the winds — gifts which you could never have used to any other purpose. Each of us feels most deeply convinced that he has been too prodigal of his gifts — that he has a right to cry, ‘Oh, what could I not have done, if only I had not wasted my time.’
How many of us try, and try again, to impart that wisdom to our own kids? To embrace your youth, to act, to accomplish while you can. To understand that youth itself is fleeting. To understand that your days are numbered.
I enjoyed the book immensely. It flows well, the story keeps the reader focused and involved, and there are bits of wisdom throughout. Mostly, however, it brings recollections of youth itself, of one experiencing the emotions of our own first love. What makes Turgenev capture this rite of passage in youth so well? As Robert Dessaix says in the introduction to this edition, Turgenev spent most of his life:
…being in love, not loving. After all, love has little narrative, the emotion event being largely eventless. It is falling in love that produces narrative: it has a beginning, a middle and always an end.
It is certainly a case of art following life, a realism attained by living it.
Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883) is among the pantheon of great Russian writers of the 19th century (along with Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gogal and Pushkin). His best known work, considered a classic in the Western Canon is Fathers and Sons. Torrents of Spring is another famous work, with similar topics as in First Love, one in which I personally really enjoyed. Turgenev was influential on many acclaimed writers, such as Henry James and Joseph Conrad. He focused on many of the same themes as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, but with much less focus on morality and religious matters.
For a ‘regular’ Folio Society edition, this book looks and feels very nice. The cover cloth with its reds and golds is quite pretty, and is perfectly matched with the gold slipcase and endpapers. The paper is thick (and smells nice!), with the text very crisp. The illustrations are truly nice, both aesthetically and in a tactile manner. The feel is almost of canvas in high reproduction quality.
About this Edition:
- Translated by Isaiah Berlin
- Introduced by Robert Dessaix
- Frontispiece and 5 colour illustrations by Anna and Elena Balbusso
- Set in Goudy at The Folio Society
- Printed on Abbey Pure Rough paper at Grafos S.A., Barcelona
- Bound, also at at Grafos S.A., Barcelona, in full cloth blocked with a design by the artists
- 96 pages, Size: 11″ × 7¼”
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