Ivan Turgenev's 'First Love'

I have no intention of being mistaken for a feminist, but this short story has stirred a few different things in me.

One is that being famous as a writer isn’t simply a matter of skill. I really enjoy Russian realist writers – Dickens was a great admirer of them, and they of him – because I think they achieved the pinnacle of what is essentially storytelling in the novel form. Writers like Doestoyevsky, Tolstoy and Chekov really understood how to draw you into a tale about real people, and give you pellucid insight into the business of living.

That said, I was disappointed in First Love. It has a set-up which is interesting enough; a group of gents sit down after dinner to regale one another with stories of their first loves. One of their number, Vladimir Petrovich, doesn’t think he can do it justice so he holds off, goes home and writes it out that week. When the group reconvenes, he sits them down and reads out his tale.

A down-at-heel Princess, Princess Zayeskin, moves into the house next door to our narrator. She has a beautiful daughter named Zinaida, who enjoys holding little soirees for a number of young suitors. She has the young gentlemen sit around her so she can torment and humiliate them through a succession of parlour games and witty conversations. Naturally, they are all desperate clowns and make fools of themselves. Young Vladimir is too young to be a suitor proper but he is both male and smitten, and therefore accepted into the fold.

Weird things happen over the next year or so, and it turns out that Vladimir’s father has had an affair with Zinaida. There are some strange scenes, namely, one where Vladimir and his father go out riding to some disused cottage. Petrovich Snr leaves the boy standing in the rain to mind the horses for an extended period of time. When boredom, cold and curiosity become too much,Vladimir goes looking for his father. He spies him through a window, speaking to Zinaida. He suddenly strikes her a vicious blow across the palm of the hand with his riding crop. She accepts it in a tame, submissive way.

The book finishes up something like L.P. Hartley’s wonderful The Go-Between. Vladimir gives us a recounting of the dissolution of his family, once the affair becomes known to his mother; the old man dies of a stroke shortly after his son enters university. The morning of his death, he begins to compose a letter to his son: ‘My son, beware of the love of women; beware of that ecstasy – that slow poison.’  

Of course, because we’re reading ‘literature’, the mature Petrovich Jnr has been hopelessly stunted as a result of this horrendous experience. He effuses his grandiose, eloquent misery in the final pages;

‘And here I am… what did I hope – what did I expect? What rich promise did the future seem to hold out to me, when with scarcely a sigh – only a bleak sense of utter desolation – I took my leave from the brief phantom, risen for a fleeting instant, of my first love? What has come of it all – of all that I had hoped for? And now when the shades of evening are beginning to close in upon my life, what have I left that is fresher, dearer to me that the memories of that brief storm that came and went so swiftly one morning in the spring?’

–          p.106

Oh, Turgenev – fuck off.

I hope this isn’t too boring, but I wish to give my own opinion. The fact is, these shrinking, besuited weaklings like Vladimir Petrovich Snr and Jnr have weak hearts and, of course, like the worst fighters, are always going to try and blame a loss on their opponent, rather than take on the responsibility themselves. And, of course, they resolve that the loss was too great and they can never bring themselves to get back into the ring.

It’s always the woman’s fault. I mean, give me a break.

The truth is, straight or gay, we love because we need to. We need it like food and water and sleep. It’s almost a psychological excretion, like fingernails, hair and skin. Love is something we extend from us the way light is extended from the sun and as it stretches, it will find its object. A wise man once told me that as long as you can keep rising, life will rise to meet you. And the world is crowded with wonderful women.

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2 Responses to “Ivan Turgenev's 'First Love'”

  1. You are a romantic fellow indeed! Long may you snort words such as ‘besuited’ and ‘pellucid’. Dont think i didnt notice. I enjoy these posts. Keep them coming.

  2. What being a feminist has to do with the price of eggs here mystifies me. Woman and man – we both need love and affection, more honesty and less of the waffling and actually meeting life with honesty. But then this chap is of the tortured soul variety I think, so what more would one expect?

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