It has always seemed to be a staple of the traditional old-fashioned story (and some very good stories at that) that an assorted group of people have much to say to each other after dinner (usually a small group of men over their port and cigars, but sometimes in other tales a small group including women). They sit together and suddenly a topic for stories comes up–and they all acquiesce in taking their turns at telling something that once happened to them, something they saw which seemed remarkable, something they’ve made up for the occasion, or something on a certain topic. It happens so often that it seems likely people used to do this regularly, not just in fiction, but in real life, in the days before television. Many writers have used this frame story convention to both good and poignant effect, among them a trio of writers who were associated with each other during the mid- to late 1800s, Joseph Conrad, Henry James, and Ivan Turgenev. Today, my subject is a short, seemingly slight and negligible tale by Turgenev called “First Love,” which is as much a philosophical examination of the phenomenon of adolescent crushes in all their neophyte grandeur as it is an actual tale of a particular young man and his first love.
As Vladimir Petrovich–a middle-aged bachelor–tells it, he was but sixteen when his parents and he lived in the country in a villa containing a manor house with three wings, the other two of which were to be used by other people. Rather, on the first night when the storytellers gather, Petrovich refuses to tell his story, but offers to write it out and bring it back in two weeks’ time: this seemingly odd device underlines the whole question of perspective, and how time and distance from the topic leave their mark. After orienting the reader to his setting, Petrovich tells how a shabby genteel princess, Princess Zasyekin, and her daughter, Zinaida Alexandrovna, come to live in the most run-down of the three house wings, and what the effect upon Valdimir’s youth and young adulthood was.
Zinaida and the young man are both described, the young man as the central character being described in his sometimes wild and heady moments of adolescent exultation, Zinaida in scenes with others, as she affects them by her quirks. Petrovich describes his first night alone in his room after Zinaida has entertained him along with a group of other, slightly older men in her mother’s house (the reader gradually becomes aware that this is something unusual, a young girl entertaining a group of men alone, with only a casual sort of supervision from the next room by her negligent and debt-ridden mother, but the perspective of the story is angled so that the young man is shown accepting this as more or less normal for a young Princess). Petrovich describes his sleepless night: “I seated myself on a chair and sat there for a long time, as though enchanted. That which I felt was so new and so sweet…I sat there, hardly looking around me and without moving, breathing slowly, and only laughing silently now, as I recalled, now inwardly turning cold at the thought that I was in love, that here it was, that love. Zinaida’s face floated softly before me in the darkness–floated, but did not float away; her lips still smiled as mysteriously as ever, her eyes gazed somewhat askance at me, interrogatively, thoughtfully and tenderly…as at the moment when I had parted from her. At last I rose on tiptoe, stepped to my bed and cautiously, without undressing, laid my head on the pillow, as though endeavoring by the sharp movement to frighten off that wherewith I was filled to overflowing….I lay down, but did not even close an eye. I speedily perceived that certain faint reflections kept constantly falling into my room….I raised myself and looked out of the window. Its frame was distinctly defined from the mysteriously and confusedly whitened panes. ”Tis the thunderstorm,’–I thought,–and so, in fact, there was a thunderstorm; but it had passed very far away, so that even the claps of thunder were not audible; only in the sky long, indistinct, branching flashes of lightning, as it were, were uninterruptedly flashing up. They were not flashing up so much as they were quivering and twitching, like the wing of a dying bird. I rose, went to the window, and stood there until morning….The lightning-flashes never ceased for a moment; it was what is called a pitch-black night….I felt great fatigue and tranquility…but Zinaida’s image continued to hover triumphantly over my soul. Only it, that image, seemed calm; like a flying swan from the marshy sedges, it separated itself from the other ignoble figures which surrounded it, and as I fell asleep, I bowed down before it for the last time in farewell and confiding adoration….Oh, gentle emotions, soft sounds, kindness and calming of the deeply-moved soul, melting joy of the first feelings of love,–where are ye, where are ye?” This is the very stuff of adolescent emotion at first love, which both men and women can surely relate to. Even the very elements of the heavens contribute to speak to the young man of love, as he stands by his bedroom window, taking in the stormy night.
As the young man is also aware of and relates a few pages later, Zinaida is a thoughtlessly cruel young girl at times. “…I was not the only one who was in love with her; all the men who were in the habit of visiting her house were crazy over her, and she kept them all in a leash at her feet. It amused her to arouse in them now hopes, now fears, to twist them about at her caprice–(she called it ‘knocking people against one another’),–and they never thought of resisting, and willingly submitted to her. In all her vivacious and beautiful being there was a certain peculiarly bewitching mixture of guilefulness and heedlessness, of articifiality and simplicity, of tranquility and playfulness; over everything she did or said, over her every movement, hovered a light, delicate charm, and an original sparkling force made itself felt in everything. And her face was incessantly changing and sparkling also; it expressed almost simultaneous derision, pensiveness, and passion. The most varied emotions, light, fleeting as the shadows of the clouds on a sunny, windy day, kept flitting over her eyes and lips.” The young man, Vladimir, being only sixteen to Zinaida’s twenty-one, takes her at her word when she tells him that he is a child compared to her: but this very complex picture of her which the mature man reads out to his friends years later proves something that the character when younger did not have the perspicuity to see about the girl: she too shows immature character traits, and childish whims rule her quite often.
This state of things goes on for some time, but gradually begin to change. Zinaida hints to her admirers that she is in love. She doesn’t say with whom, but one and all they are on tenterhooks. Then, she excuses herself from receiving them for several days, claiming to be ill. When Vladimir next sees her, she is different, somehow, calmer, older perhaps. He is simultaneously becoming aware of gradual change in his parents also, in his mother, who mainly nags at him about visiting the Princess’s house too often, and who shows him no real affection, and in his father, who according to him has always been capricious in his affections for the boy, occasionally cosseting him but more often rejecting his overtures. But the most startling change comes about as the boy slowly notices that his father is going about late at night in a cape in the garden, and then notices one day, finally, that his father is riding horses with Zinaida. As it turns out, to his great disillusionment and surprise at them both, it is his father with whom Zinaida is in love, and as becomes apparent also in the story, the older Princess her mother benefits from their trysts financially, though there is no absolute indication as to exactly how far the relationship has gone. One has one’s suspicions, however, just as Vladimir does.
The great searing of Vladimir’s soul happens one day when he happens to see his father strike Zinaida’s arm with a whip, and Zinaida accept this and kiss the mark. And Vladimir thinks to himself that “The last month had aged me greatly, and my love, with all its agitations and sufferings, seemed to me like something very petty and childish and wretched in comparison with that other unknown something at which I could hardly even guess, and which frightened me like a strange, beautiful but menacing face that one strives, in vain, to get a good look at in the semi-darkness….” He enters university, and soon after his father dies of a stroke, leaving behind these words for him: “‘My son…fear the love of women, fear that happiness, that poison…’.” Of course, it’s his father’s own nature which has created his own hell, and Vladimir dimly perceives this, but four years later, when Zinaida is married to a wealthy young man and dies in childbirth, Vladimir cannot forgive himself for seeming to shun her company and not visiting her before she died.
Vladimir’s final statement on young love and youth is rather a statement of the mature man, and by the flowing literary quality of it, one can assign a inter-fictional reason as to why the mature man Vladimir wanted to ponder and write out his statement to his two dining friends: this statement has all the roundness and literary character of poetry and life philosophy: “O youth, youth! Thou carest for nothing: thou possessest, as it were, all the treasures of the universe; even sorrow comforts thee, even melancholy becomes thee; thou art self-confident and audacious; thou sayest: ‘I alone live–behold!’–But the days speed on and vanish without a trace and without reckoning, and everything vanishes in thee, like wax in the sun, like snow….And perchance the whole secret of thy charm consists not in the power to do everything, but in the possibility of thinking that thou wilt do everything–consists precisely in the fact that thou scatterest to the winds thy powers which thou hast not understood how to employ in any other way,–in the fact that each one of us seriously regards himself as a prodigal, seriously assumes he has a right to say: ‘Oh, what could I not have done, had I not wasted my time!'” This is surely not only one of the most moving tributes to the vicissitudes of youth and young emotions and endeavors, but also one of the most accurate: what young person, male or female, has not felt their own powers swelling and becoming great in them, only perhaps some years later to regret not having done all that they could to fulfill their early promise?
At the end of the story, the character relates how some time later he attended the deathbed of an anonymous old woman who had never had anything grand or costly in her life, and he ended with a deep desire to pray for both himself and his father. And the question here is, why does he want to pray for them, rather than for the women in his life who have been mistreated or wronged, or who have suffered, like Zinaida, or Vladimir’s mother, or the old woman, or even the money-squandering old Princess, Zinaida’s mother? Knowing Turgenev and his concern for unfortunates and humanity, the answer is probably that the men have been the source of some of the wrong done to the others, and so are “greater sinners” and need prayers more–if, in fact, one can do any such arithmetic with such a poetic ending. But the story thus ends on a note of psychological depth and reality also, because often when people are too deeply moved by one situation to be able to let their feelings about it loose for relief, some quite unconnected tragedy or misfortune will free their tears and allow them to grieve: and Turgenev was nothing if not a great master of psychology in his characters.
Though this is a story of a particular love relationship and its disappointments, the most evocative moments in the piece are built around what all young loves have in common, and thus the specific details are made extra convincing because they are supported by what we nearly all have known or experienced at one time or another in our youths. And as I have I believe shown, Turgenev’s control of perspective, with the older man looking back and insisting on making a literary artifact of his tale instead of just telling it to his friends, then gradually developing the youth’s awareness of what is going on around him in a more adult, more cynical world, creates a masterpiece of world literature. I hope everyone will have a chance to experience it for themselves, and perhaps to compare it with their own early experiences of love and youthful emotions.