First Love

Ivan Turgenev (1860)

The exemplars of the world’s greatest literature are The Great Russians – Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Chekov, and Pasternak, among others, and, of course, not to be overlooked, the iconic Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883). Turgenev reveals Russia as it was from the 1830’s through the 1870’s, the era immediately preceding the collapse of the Russian monarchy. While known for his six novels, his novella, First Love, may be his greatest triumph. Penguin Books (bless it) continues to republish classics, including this 100-page masterpiece, more of a novella than a novel, the version translated by Isaiah Berlin in 1950 screams for you to read it. Do not miss it.

First Love, written reflectively, when the author was forty, is true to its title, depicting a teenage-boy’s first experience with love. Few among us have failed to experience most of the haunting emotions so revealingly, introspectively and lovingly exposed. Turgenev’s greatest gift may have been his ability to swallow his readers into his prose, making them feel that they are more than “reading”; rather, they seem to be traveling, side-by-side, with his characters, overhearing their words and living their experiences, somehow at one with them and reluctant to accept an end to the book and bid farewell to those whom the reader had grown to love as family – and as self.

Vladimir Petrovich, the 16-year-old lead-character, falls as madly in love as can anyone that age and does so with a 21-year-old beauty, “Princess” Zinaida Alexandrovna Zasyekin, the beautiful scion of an aristocratic family, whose only remaining evidence of nobility was its titles and the precocious, entertaining and harmlessly mischievous Zinaida. In Vladimir’s first encounter with Zinaida, she conquers him, totally, with her beauty and matriarchal spirit, admonishing him, “I like your face…I have a feeling that we shall be friends…I am older than you…That’s why you must always tell me the truth…and do what I tell you…Look at me…” Thus disarmed, Vladimir never recovers. He willingly becomes her minion, her “page”! Zinaida has many young suitors, all marching to the beat of her playful inquisitions and dominated by her every caprice. Vladimir passively concedes, “Zinaida’s face swam gently before me in the darkness, floating, her lips wearing the same mysterious smile, filling my entire being…What I felt was so new, so sweet…I sat for a long time, as if under a spell…I was in love – it was here – this was love…Oh, gentle feelings, soft sounds, the goodness and 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 now?” He continued, “My passion began that day, and my suffering began on that day, too. For whole days I think intensely about her…but her presence brought me no relief…I was stupidly abject; yet, an irresistible force drew me towards her…with an involuntary shiver of happiness…My passion amused her...I didn’t want to know if I was loved or to admit to myself that I was not; her presence seared me like a flame…it was bliss to burn and to melt again and again…Like a beetle tied by the leg, I circled constantly round her adored lodge…filled with a nameless sensation which had everything in it: sorrow and joy, a premonition of the future, and desire, and fear of life…I understood none of this…I called it all by one name, Zinaida.”

It was all to no avail, of course, as Zinaida craved someone who, as she said, “would himself master me…” She asked one of her other suitors, “Supposing I were your wife, what would you do?” The suitor replied, “I would kill myself,” evoking Zinaida’s laughter. Yet, when Zinaida found someone who could “master” her, she suffered. When Vladimir realized that Zinaida loved another, he was crushed, broken, his feelings shattered and scattered. “I cannot convey my feelings…but I should count it a misfortune never to have had them at all.” This, of course, captures the essence of “first love”, and threads of all romantic loves.

Turgenev renders our simplest feelings immemorial. He wrings our hearts and chokes the breath from our chests. Yet, he cannot be forgotten. If memories of your first love sometimes haunt you, treat yourself to First Love. If you do, Turgenev is a name that you’ll never forget.