First Love – Ivan Turgenev (1860, trans. Isiah Berlin, 1950) 106 pages
This short tale of thwarted first love, told by a man, Vladimir Petrovich, looking back on the summer of 1833 when he was 16, manages to be both moving and funny. I felt for the pain of the young boy, whilst simultaneously rolling my eyes at the self-importance of teenagers (a bit how I feel watching Romeo and Juliet these days, stabbing themselves and drinking poison – kids!)
A young man is on the brink of adulthood, having just said goodbye to is tutor, when Princess Zasyekin moves in next door. The princess is uncouth and her house shabby:
“She took snuff as noisily as ever, and fidgeted and turned about on her chair as much as before. It never seemed to have entered her head that she was a princess.”
However, her daughter Zinaida is beautiful and poised, and has suitors in abundance. She teases them all, keeping them in a state of anticipation whilst remaining just out of reach. The young Petrovich is no different:
“But through the tears and the melancholy, inspired by the music of the verse or the beauty of the evening, there always rose upwards, like the grasses of early spring, shoots of happy feeling, of young and surging life.”
Yet there is always the sense that things are happening with Zinaida that our protagonist is too green to recognise. She seems genuinely fond of him and at one point even tells him so after he nearly breaks his neck jumping from a high wall (told you – kids!) yet there is something worldly and slightly damaged about her which Petrovich cannot begin to understand.
“My arms were smarting from the nettles, my back ached, my head swam, but at that moment I experienced a sense of bliss such as I never again felt in the whole of my life. It flowed like a delicious pain through all my limbs and finally resolved itself in rapturous leaps and cries. Yes, indeed, I was still a child.”
First Love reminded me of The Go-Between and Great Expectations whilst being resolutely its own tale. In a short space it conveys a detailed, effective portrait of the awakening of a young person to both the love and corruption that the adult world has to offer.