Recently I have found myself drawn to novels about looking back to the past, about nostalgia and youth. I guess it is a sign that I am getting older or perhaps it is a consequence of the tough time I have been having in my personal life, where, without going into too many details, death has been on the agenda quite a lot. I find myself currently feeling highly emotional, over sensitive, and sentimental. Just yesterday, in fact, I was flicking through Alain-Fournier’s beautiful French novel Le Grand Meaulnes, and almost burst into tears [which is certainly very unusual for me] when I came across this passage:
“Weeks went by, then months. I am speaking of a far-away time – a vanished happiness. It fell to me to befriend, to console with whatever words I could find, one who had been the fairy, the princess, the mysterious love-dream of our adolescence.”
The fairy, the love-dream of our adolescence, is Yvonne, a young girl who, in short, comes to signify, both for the central characters and the reader, the magic of youth and the impossibility of recapturing the period of your life when everything was new and an adventure. So, anyway, bearing all that in mind, it seems as though this is both the perfect and the worst time to read Ivan Turgenev’s First Love [Первая любовь, Pervaya ljubov], which deals with very similar ideas and themes.
The novella begins with a group of men, ‘not old, but no longer young,’ sharing the stories of their own first loves. However, only one of the party has an interesting tale to tell, which took place one summer when he, Vladimir Petrovich, was sixteen. That it was summer is, I believe, significant, because it is of course generally thought to be a season of sunshine and gaiety and positivity, when everything is alive, when the days are longer, the blood is warm, and anything seems possible. Moreover, the age of sixteen is one of the pivotal years of one’s life. One is [to paraphrase that wise old bird, Britney Spears] not a child, not yet an adult; one is open-minded, willing to experience, but may not [certainly at the time the novel was written, if not these days] have any real life experience of your own. Indeed, Vladimir describes himself as ‘expectant and shy’; and while he wanted to give the impression of maturity admits that he was not yet allowed to wear a frock coat. He also points out that his father was ‘indifferent’ to him and his mother neglectful, which meant that he had the necessary freedom to chase those new experiences, and all the more reason to look for love and attention from someone else.
“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 ..”
The object of this love is Zinaida, a 21 one year old, impoverished princess who has just moved to the area with her boorish mother. In Benito Perez Galdos’ towering novel Fortunata and Jacinta, Juanito first meets the woman who comes to be his lover on a stairway, while she eats a raw egg, the juice running down her fingers. This is not only a fabulous way to introduce a character, but is clearly meant to say something important about the character herself, and Turgenev does something similar here. When Vladimir first spots Zinaida she is in her garden surrounded by a group of men, and so one knows instantly that she is popular with the opposite sex. Moreover, she is, in turn, tapping each of her suitors on the forehead with a flower. What this suggests, and what the rest of the text backs up, is that she is a lively, free-spirited, young girl. In fact, it comes as no surprise in this regard that she was, apparently, much admired by Gustave Flaubert.
[From the German film Erste Liebe, which is based on Turgenev’s novella]
Vladimir later describes the girl’s personality as a mixture of ‘cunning and carelessness, artificiality and simplicity, calmness and vivacity’ and I think this does a fine job of summing her up. She is not wholly one thing or the other; she is mysterious, enigmatic, never transparent, seemingly cruel at times, and yet somehow always charming. For example, she instantly gives the boy a nickname, Voldemar, and deliberately plays on his intensifying feelings, while at the same time showing him tenderness and favouring him over the other men in her life. She is, in short, the kind of girl I have myself lost my fucking mind over more than once. And that is strangely comforting in a way, that, even over one hundred years ago, men were giving their hearts to these beautiful, maddening young women. [First Love was, so it is said, based on Turgenev’s own experiences].
“She tore herself away, and went out. And I went away. I cannot describe the emotion with which I went away. I should not wish it ever to come again; but I should think myself unfortunate had I never experienced such an emotion.”
Interestingly, the situation in the garden does not only tell us about Zinaida. It also reveals something about the men in her life and hints at the reasons for her betrayal of Vladimir [yeah, she does him wrong]. Her admirers all fawn over her, they are all servile, eager to please. This is made clear by the fact that they allow her to hit them on the head with a flower. Later, one buys her a kitten, when she asks for one, and looks to get her a horse. Vladimir is no different. When Zinaida, not expecting him to comply, asks him to prove his love by jumping off a wall, with a 14 foot drop, he does just that. And yet the girl herself says that she can only love a man who would ‘break her in two’ i.e. who would not be her lapdog. This is one thing that I have never understood about men, or a certain type of man. Take my own brother as an example. He hangs around the women he likes, doing their bidding, buying them presents, in the hope that this will somehow show him to be a lovely, sensitive guy, and yet it never works. He never gets the girl because he comes across as weak and pathetic. And this is exactly what happens in First Love. In this way, you have to credit Turgenev with nailing a still-relevant, seemingly universal aspect of human relationships and psychology.
“There is a sweetness in being the sole source, the autocratic and irresponsible cause of the greatest joy and profoundest pain to another, and I was like wax in Zinaïda’s hands; though, indeed, I was not the only one in love with her. All the men who visited the house were crazy over her, and she kept them all in leading-strings at her feet. It amused her to arouse their hopes and then their fears, to turn them round her finger (she used to call it knocking their heads together), while they never dreamed of offering resistance and eagerly submitted to her.”
While First Love is increasingly packaged as a single, stand-alone book, and is, more often than not, described as a novella [by me in this review, no less], it is, in fact, not much more than an obese short story. Yet for such a short work, it is admirably sophisticated. For example, in terms of the structure, there is a lot of very satisfying mirroring going on. Both Zinaida and Vladimir are young, both are in a sense abandoned to themselves by their parents, and, more importantly, both experience their first loves during the course of the narrative. I think it is easy to overlook that Zinaida is not only an object of affection, that she too is going through one of the most tumultuous, defining moments of a person’s life, and it is this that gives the text a greater depth and makes her a more rounded and sympathetic character, because, let’s face it, young love is a bitch, and no one ever really handles it very well or emerges from it spotless. Oh, don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful too; I wholeheartedly recommend it, but, even so, I couldn’t wish it on anyone with an entirely clear conscience.