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.