Ivan Turgenev’s First Love

Ah, first love!

That crazy, intoxicating feeling of being infatuated by another–totally lost, drawn magnetically to the object of your desire–for the first time.

Trust me, with two sons in college, and a third in high school, I can testify that this primal experience hasn’t changed. The iPod-Facebook generation rides the same emotional roller-coaster as did their mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, when it comes to l’amour.

Who has better captured that heady universal experience–and the dismay and despair when it doesn’t work out–than the great Russian short story writer Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev, in his elegant novella, “First Love”?

Turgenev isn’t given his due in today’s literary circles. His detail-laden realism and attention to social class are out of literary favor; moreover, his work is deemed too spare emotionally by some modern critics. Further, Turgenev, like Thackery in “Vanity Fair,” explores with an unblinking scrutiny the importance of class and wealth and ambition, and its hold over humans. As Joseph Finder notes in “Where Have All the Strivers Gone?” in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, it isn’t fashionable to write about the intersection of class and commerce; he argues that perhaps only Tom Wolfe and Jay McInerney “remain defiantly old-school in their portrayal of ambition as a basic aspect of the human character.”

That being said, Turgenev was admired–for good reason–by some pretty damn fine writers, including Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Thomas Mann, and (perhaps surprising to some), Joseph Conrad and Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway recommended that young writers read all of Turgenev’s work.

Turgenev understood the travails of the human heart–he spent his life in pursuit of a married woman, the then celebrated singer Pauline Garcia-Viardot–and his fiction often provides a window into that secret and guarded space.

“First Love” ostensibly tells the story of a 16-year-old Russian student, Vladimir, who falls hard for the 21-year old Princess Zinaida. Turgenev shows us how Zinaida’s family is clinging to a shabby social respectability; Vladimir’s mother dismisses Zinaida as an “adventuress.” But Vladimir is drawn into the circle of suitors around the young beauty, and, while he is aware he is acting the fool, can not help himself–he becomes obsessed with the girl. Turgenev’s story captures the sway an enchanting young woman full of spirit and life can hold over men; the crazy, intoxicating feeling of being deeply infatuated for the first time; the gut-churning attraction of the unattainable Other.

But first love is not restricted to the very young. We begin the story thinking that we are exploring Vladimir’s coming-of-age initiation into the mysteries of love; we quickly learn that Zinaida and Petr Ivanych, Vladimir’s father, are not immune to the power of love and desire. We watch as, compelled, the pair are pulled by a powerful attraction towards each other. The triangle becomes a complex one: Zinaida wants to treat Vladimir as a younger brother, but she also responds to his resemblance to his father (“‘The same eyes,’ she added, sinking into thought, and she hid her face in her hands.”) Vladimir spends much of the story blind to Petr and Zinaida’s entanglement, and only realizes late on that he is not the only one consumed by passion, his remote and seemingly masterful father is transfixed by it as well.

Turgenev’s appreciation of the transforming power of love is shown when Vladimir witnesses the final encounter between Petr and Zinaida. Turgenev handles the scene deftly; he holds back specifics of their quarrel, but lets us glimpse some of the tragic tug-of-war between the lovers. When Petr slashes at Zinaida’s bare arm with his whip, we recognize his frustration–he lacks the courage to defy social convention–but it is Zinaida’s disturbing reaction that seems compellingly authentic. “Zinaida shuddered, looked at my father without a word, and then, slowly lifting her arm to her lips, kissed the streak of red that had appeared upon it. My father flung the whip away from him and, hastily running up the steps, dashed into the house…”

The intimacy of the scene shocks. Petr, the “cold, reserved” aristocrat, is lost when confronted by Zinaida’s unconditional love; he has clearly also surrendered the “whip-hand” in the relationship. The story, we know then, will end badly (in the gloomy Russian way) and it does. Petr writes to his son: “fear a woman’s love, fear that bliss, that poison…” just before he dies of a stroke. Zinaida is doomed as well; she will die in childbirth.

Turgenev could never write the same story today, with its driving force the conflict between romantic love and a rigid social order. Today Petr could resolve his mid-life crisis by divorcing Vladimir’s mother and installing Zinaida as his trophy wife. After all, few care about society’s disapproval any more. It’s not as if there are significant negative social consequences to the break up of modern marriages–personal consequences, perhaps, but we seem to have exchanged the tragedy of being trapped for the tragedy of being abandoned.

It is telling that in the book and movie “Damage” (1992) which touches upon similar themes–a father and son in love with the same woman–the father’s passion for the mysterious Frenchwoman, Anna Barton, is made transgressive for us only because she is already his son’s lover and fiancee. We see the father, Dr. Stephen Fleming, as violating moral boundaries by this betrayal of his son, not by his adultery. Yet the pain, and the guilt, mirror that of “First Love.”

In an age of divorce, it may be harder for novelists to make star-crossed lovers believable, and consequently few try. Nonetheless, Turgenev’s basic themes still resonate–the power and pain of eros, the unexpected and inconvenient spark between a man and a woman, remain a mystery to us now as then. And we are most human when we experience the joy, and suffering, the twists and turns, which accompany that elemental connection.

Excerpts of “First Love” are from “The Essential Turgenev,” edited by Elizabeth Cheresh Allen, (Northwestern University Press).

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