First Love
by Ivan Turgenev (1860)
translated from the Russian by Isaiah Berlin (1950)
Penguin Classics (2004)
112 pp


I was not expecting a lot from First Love because typically Turgenev has been overshadowed by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy when this period of Russian literature comes up.

But this was a great read — short and packed! I was able to read it in one commute. Despite the train noises and the people coming and going, First Love really affected me with its powerful depiction of innocent love teamed up with overwhelming passion and a desire to be a martyr according to the whims of the one you love.

This book begins with a few older gentlemen sitting around a fireplace. The host asks them to share the story of their first love. Most are typical stories, a crush that dies with time or when someone new pops into the picture. One says he has a great story but will have to write it down first — a great shout out to the power of writing! He does this, and when the gentlemen reconvene, we get the story.

At first I wondered why this literary device was used. It only lasts a few pages, and it seemed to be superfluous. However, as I put myself in the place of those gentlemen listening that night, I was haunted. Furthermore, when we realize that this has stuck with the narrator and has influenced his perspective not only on love but also on life and death, the setting of where and when this is told takes on more importance.

The story is packed with powerful images and scenes that will stay with me. While sometimes brutal, they seem all too real, even in our own pedestrian lives. The sixteen-year-old boy, Vladimir Petrovich, has fallen in love for the first time. The twenty-one-year-old girl, Zinaida, is independent and powerful and somewhat cruel to all of her suitors, yet they cannot get away from her. Incidentally, was this just the way it was back then, all boyfriends coming at once to play “friendly” games? Anyway, some of the suitors are proud and think she will choose them, but the young boy and the doctor know they are ensnared. They realize that it is almost pathetic, but they have no other desire to stay away. The scenes with the suitors are enlightening and very interesting, but the story really picks up when we come to understand that the young girl too is involved in a love affair where she is being dominated by her passions and by her own secret lover.

That last chapter’s glance at life and death and love’s role in it is one that sticks with me. Profound and haunting!

What has come of it all — of all that I had hoped for? And now when the shades of evening are beginning to close in upon my life, what have I left that is fresher, dearer to me, than the memories of that brief storm that came and went so swiftly one morning in the spring?

And those prayers for Zinaida, his father, and him? I am struck, but I can’t put words around it. How does this tie into the moment when Vladimir sees his father strike Zinaida?

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