First Love

(Первая любовь)

Ivan Turgenev

1860

(A young man is thrown into the sweet agony of unrequited love for his beautiful new neighbor.)

KonstantinMakovsky_RussianBeauty Russian Beauty, by Konstantin Makovsky (1839-1915).  This painting appears to be in a private collection.  See Makovsky's paintings at Wikiart.

 

Woldemar, a young man of sixteen, experiences the whirlwind of love descending on him for the first time, as he becomes acquainted with the beautiful and elegant Zinaida, the daughter of a princess, who has moved in next door.  She enjoys a crop of suitors, and in her charming and carefree way pits them against each other.  They make fools of themselves competing for her attention and smiles; but Woldemar is different, so awed he is in her presence.  She is very kind towards him, and eventually gives him more attention than any other.  He is enraptured, able to think of nothing else, obsessed with thoughts and dreams of her.  He is overcome with the pain of his unrequited feelings, and is blissful when with her, sent into reverie with every careless touch or soft look.  In this experience he realizes the power of love, and the strong—even dangerous—grip it can have on a person.  Meanwhile, although he pays little attention to it, his home life is unsettled, with his parents often arguing.

Download this SPOILER if you want the ending revealed.

FirstLoveTitlePage

This small book is precious, a sweet draught of literature that conveys the joy and pain of young love so effectively that anyone who has experienced it cannot help but be tenderly stirred.  Zinaida may be familiar to some.  She represents another welcome attempt in literature to capture that archetypal woman for which a man would kill, or die—that Helen, Isolde, Juliet.  In fact Zinaida goes beyond these three in the degree to which the author raises her (as young men will raise such a woman) as an untouchable goddess.  She is a woman who drives all rationality from a man at a glance, and at whose feet the suitors writhe obsequiously while she herself is soft but noncommittal, as if her beauty had elevated her like a monarch to a position where pleasant indifference were her responsibility.  A male reader aware of the possibility of such women is easily convinced that the object of Woldemar’s deep affection is worthy of it, despite Zinaida’s blithe unconcern for the hearts of her victims.  How a sexless extraterrestrial would marvel at such devotion!

This monument to first love is the best and simplest work dedicated singly to that purpose that I have read.  Perhaps because of its simplicity, the book can direct its sentiments sharply and directly.  And, perhaps most importantly, the story is painfully tragic, like most first love.

 
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TIDBITS OF SIGNIFICANCE (translated from the Russian by Isaiah Berlin)

I was scarcely able to notice anything. I moved as in a dream, and felt through my entire being an intense, almost imbecile, sense of well-being.

-ch.4

 

I gazed at her, and how dear she already was to me, and how near. It seemed to me that I had known her for a long time, and that before her I had known nothing and had not lived...

-ch.4

 

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?

-ch.7

 

In her whole being, vital and beautiful, there was a peculiarly fascinating mixture of cunning and insouciance, artifice and simplicity, gentleness and gaiety.  Over everything she did and said, over every movement, there hovered a subtle, exquisite enchantment.

-ch.9

 

“My son,” he wrote, “beware the love of women; beware of that ecstasy—that slow poison.”

-Woldemar’s father, ch.21

 

I felt a sudden stab at my heart. The thought that I could have seen her, and did not, and would never see her again—this bitter thought buried itself in me with all the force of an unanswerable reproach.

-ch.22

 

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 upon 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 do whatever you may will, but 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.”

-ch.22

 
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READ THIS WHEN...

...you wish to recall and re-feel the happy anguish of first love.

 

IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU'D LIKE:

(for the sucker for a tragic and touching love story:)

  • William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet  (1595)
  • Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights  (1847)
  • Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd  (1874)
  • Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence  (1921)

(for the miserable wanting company in unrequited love:)

  • Catullus, poems  (1st century BC)  (Catullus for Lesbia)
  • Dante Alighieri, La Vita Nuova  (c.1293)  (Dante for Beatrice)
  • Goethe, Johann von, The Sorrows of Young Werther  (1774) (Werther for Lotte)
  • Rostand, Edmond, Cyrano de Bergerac  (1897)  (Cyrano for Roxane)

FIND THIS BOOK:

Hardcover

Give thanks for the Everyman Library!  They have dropped a lot of gems along the way, but they have managed to hold on to this one!

 

Paperback

The version I read, and that will always be closest to my heart, Isaiah Berlin's translation, was the Penguin edition:

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2 Comments Leave a comment.

  1. on 4 October 2014 at 8:47 am Gregory Tague Said:

    Dear Q Writer – I was just talking about *First Love* the other day to a colleague (who is teaching Russian lit. this semester). Perhaps one of the many items I read as a young man of 17 that had a tremendous affect on my psyche – I wonder what I would think of it now, 40 years later. gft

  2. on 4 October 2014 at 10:22 am David Lahti Said:

    Yes, it certainly had some influence on me too, although later– in my 20s– and mostly because my psyche was already in tune with it somewhat. I felt like Turgenev had tapped into some emotional states that I hadn’t been able to articulate and barely even to recognize as such.

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