There is something so simple, but so satisfying in Turgenev‘s work. Every word seems to matter, every scene intentional. Perhaps this is because I’ve only read his shorter works, this novella, First Love, and his ‘short stories,’ Sketches from a Hunter’s Album.
It opens at the end of a dinner party. The host decides the remaining guests, all men, will tell the tale of their first love. Most of them claim to have uninteresting experiences of first love, but Vladimir Petrovich allows them hope for a good story, saying, “My first love was certainly not at all ordinary.” But he refuses to tell it aloud then and there, promising within two weeks to write it down for them. What follows is the fulfillment of his promise.
He begins at his family’s summer home, when he is sixteen, and barely beginning to take notice of girls:
I remember that at that time the image of woman, the shadowy vision of feminine love, scarcely ever took definite shape in my mind; but in every thought, in every sensation, there lay hidden a half-conscious, shy, timid awareness of something new, inexpressibly sweet, feminine . . . This presentiment, this sense of expectancy, penetrated my whole being; I breathed it, it was in every drop of blood that flowed through my veins — soon it was to be fulfilled.
Soon neighbors (a Princess! and her daughter!) move in next door, and Vladimir catches a glimpse of her. He loves Zinaida almost instantly, even when he sees her for less than a perfect creature (in her own words: “I am a flirt: I have no heart: I have an actor’s nature.”), he loves her no less, only his jealousy increases.
As with many first loves, this one does not end so happily, I might even call it tragic. First Love is short, about one hundred pages, and I read it in one sitting, which was perfect. Turgenev always reminds me of Chekhov’s stories, even though Turgenev was writing before Chekhov was born.