This edition of ‘First Love’ was published as part of Penguin’s ‘Great Loves’ boxset – a collection that I have no recollection of ever buying or being given. It’s not the sort of thing I would usually choose – being about a) romance, and b) a teenage boy with a crush on an older woman, which are two strikes against it. The third strike is the blurb from Penguin which breathlessly declares (of the collection): Love is strange. Love is beautiful. Love is dangerous. Love is never what you expect it to be. Here Penguin brings you the most sedutive, inspiring and surprising writing on love in all its infinite variety before featuring zero lesbians and only one gay couple in twenty books.
All of its infinite variety. Yeah.
Penguin also added a little caption on the back cover, explaining the particular lesson about love this book illustrates. The lesson ‘First Love’ teaches us, if you’re wondering, is “Love can be torture“. I’m not convinced that’s what I would have taken from the novella, but more on that later. Suffice to say, this book looked like a lot of things I would find boring.
I loved it! Our narrator has a clear-eyed, self-deprecating charm as the adult Vladimir Petrovich recounts his memories of his teenage crush on his neighbour to his friends. He doesn’t shy away from all the excruciatingly embarrassing moments of being 16 and almost old enough to ‘count’ as an adult but not yet confident enough to be properly included in their social circles, that acute longing and intensity of emotion and desperation not just to be loved but to be respected and acknowledged as something more than just a child. The cast of characters who all flutter around Zinaida, like moths to a flame, are each well sketched out with distinct personalities, all of them serving their own purpose. And while it isn’t a comedy, there are some moments which strike me as genuinely very funny.
The dinner party as a framing device allows our narrator (Vladimir Petrovich) that necessary distance from his teenage years to look back and recount what he experienced with the same touch of irony I think we all employ when we try and explain as adults how it felt when we were 16. Vladimir Petrovich tells his friends “my heart was full of longing, sweetly and foolishly; I was all expectancy and wonder” and oh, God, yes, it’s phrased beautifully – but he uses these overblown description to poke fun at his teenage daydreams very subtly. We have a lot of sympathy for his teenage self but are given enough space to notice his little foibles.
Zinaida, the object of his affection, is a flirt who enjoys close relationships with a number of different men Vladimir Petrovich interacts with and joins for party games, all of them centred around pleasing Zinaida, but none of them able to understand what she means by saying “I cannot love people whom I look down on. I need someone who would himself master me” – although adult Vladimir Petrovich, with the knowledge of how this affair has turned out, includes enough evidence that the reader can anticipate the revelation that Zinaida has fallen in love with one particular character, his teenage self is still shocked to discover the truth. It’s an emotional journey which feels heartfelt without being mawkish, and I had a lot of fun reading it.
There was one particular scene I wanted to highlight because I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. Towards the end, Vladimir discovers that his father was the mysterious man with whom Zinaida has fallen in love and his family moves away to avoid a scandal. However, one day Vladimir witnesses his father talking with Zinaida and striking her with his riding-crop, having just been riding his horse. “Zinaida quivered – looked silently at my father – and raising her arm slowly to her lips, kissed the scar which glowed crimson upon it.” Now, Zinaida’s physical pain reminds us of the earlier scene when Vladimir, our narrator, jumped out of a window at her request – because of how passionately he loved her. I’m not quibbling the physical pain element. It’s the use of the riding crop, especially given the parallels between Electric, the vicious horse who won’t let anyone but Vladimir’s father ride her, and Zinaida’s earlier comments about only loving someone who could master her that might have taken this out of “you know, sometimes Classics have surprise!BDSM” and into “it feels a little bit off to be connecting a young woman to an animal that needs to be broken in” territory for me. I can’t decide whether or not I like that part, but it’s not a major element of the story by any means.
‘First Love’ is a novella by 19th Century Russian author Ivan Turgenev, translated by Isaiah Berlin.