‘First Love’ by Ivan Turgenev

FirstLove

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Classics; 102 pages; 2007. Translated from the Russian by Isaiah Berlin.

First Love is Russian writer Ivan Turgenev’s most famous novella. First published in 1860, it has been beautifully repackaged and republished as part of Penguin’s Great Love series.

At just over 100 pages, this is a book that can quickly be read in one sitting (I achieved it via two 20-minute train journeys), although its brevity should not be mistaken for shallowness. First Love is exactly what the title suggests: a man looks back on his first love. “I was sixteen at the time,” he writes. “It happened in the summer of 1833.”

His name is Vladimir Petrovich. He is 40 now, but he recalls the time he stayed in a holiday house – “a wooden building with pillars and two small, low lodges” — in the country with his parents. He would spend his days studying, horse riding and strolling through the Neskootchny Park, but when he notices a “tall, slender girl in a striped pink dress with a white kerchief on her head” in the garden next door he is immediately smitten.

[…] there was in the girl’s movements (I saw her in profile) something so enchanting, imperious and caressing, so mocking and charming, that I nearly cried out with wonder and delight. […] My rifle slipped to the grass; I forgot everything: my eyes devoured the graceful figure, the lovely neck, the beautiful arms, the slightly dishevelled fair hair under the white kerchief –- and the half-closed perceptive eyes, the lashes, the soft cheek beneath them…

Eventually he gets to meet the young woman, Princess Zasyekin, who is five years his senior, and
falls into her circle of friends –- a quintet of suitors comprising a count, doctor, poet, captain and soldier. The suitors belittle him, but he is too in love with the princess to care.

For whole days I did nothing but think intensely about her. I pined away, but her presence brought me no relief. I was jealous and felt conscious of my worthlessness. I was stupidly sulky, and stupidly abject; yet an irrestible force drew me towards her, and it was always with an involuntary shiver of happiness that I went through the door of her room.

Despite the princess’s almost penniless existence — her father had gambled all their property away and then scandalously married the daughter of a minor official — Vladimir continues to fawn at her feet, knowing full well she is in love with someone else.

As a reader I found it almost unbearable to follow Vladimir as he tries to figure out who the princess has given her heart to, because, for me at least, it was painfully obvious. But, in many ways, this is what makes this book tick so beautifully: as much as you want to protect the youthful, inexperienced narrator from having his heart broken, you want to see how he will react when the penny finally drops and so you keep turning the pages.

While First Love seems strangely naive in this day and age, it has a quiet, restrained beauty that makes it a delightful read. But be warned: this story is not just about falling in love for the first time, it’s also about betrayal and cruelty of the finest order.

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4 thoughts on “‘First Love’ by Ivan Turgenev

  1. Interesting review – I think there often is a sort of emotinal naivety about Russian writers. as if terrible things keep happening as a matter of course and yet no one knows why, no one ever sees it coming. It tends to dig the knife in deeper when tragedy arrives. I, too, have this set from the Book People and you are certainly making me want to find some time for it, very soon!

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  2. I wouldn’t call it “emotional naivette”; but you are right — there’s something very distinctive about the Russians. If I could keep only one country’s literature, I would keep Russia’s, for it is this that has taught me most, and the one I love best.
    And if you like “First Love”, then there’s so much great literature ahead of you still! For a start, all the rest of Turgenev, including his sketches, prose poems and short stories. “House of the Gentry” has always had a very special place in my heart. Good luck!

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  3. I’m a great fan of Turgenev. He seems to be almost like a French writer who writes sensuous somewhat frivolous stories compared to those two Russian heavyweights Dostoeyevsky and Tolstoy. There is such a love of life in Turgenev that makes his writing hard to resist. A modern writer who also has that love of life is Cynthia Ozick. I’m currently reading “Dictation”, a book of four stories. There’s no great overriding theme or cause in these stories, but there is a playfulness that to me is more precious than depth. That’s why I’ve read everything Cynthia Ozick has written.

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  4. I see a very clear continuation between authors like Lermontov, Turgenev, Chekhov, Bunin, Bely, L. Andreyev. It’s also interesting to remember the European and American literature that resulted from this tradition: George Eliot, for example, was a friend of Turgenev’s, as was Henry James (it’s easy to see many parallels between Turgenev’s and James’s short stories — eg. “Four Meetings”); George Gissing and George Moore were both heavily influenced by Turgenev. Chekhov meanwhile made his mark on George Bernard Shaw, Eugene O’Neill, Ford Madox Ford, William Gerhardie, and — later — Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Alastair Macleod, etc.
    Goethe’s influence shouldn’t be underestimated though — and neither should Shakespeare’s — upon Turgenev himself.

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