Everyone has a first love. Maybe you're still with your first love. Maybe it was several loves ago. Maybe it ended amicably. Maybe it ended with heartbreak. Maybe it's a bittersweet memory. Maybe the scars are still sewn into the marrow of your bones. Maybe, like me, you've dated several people before, and since, your first love but somehow in the silent moments it always comes back to them. Or, like Vladimir Petrovich in First Love by Ivan Turgenev, your first love "started with the second."
First Love, by Ivan Turgenev, was published in March of 1860 in a journal called the Readers Library. It's now seen as one of his greatest novels/stories and one of the greatest descriptions of the pain and pure happiness that only a first love can bring. I can definitely attest to that. There were moments where I had to put the book down for several moments, or several days, because it was so real and caused a physical sensation in my chest. Or sent shivers from the tips of my fingers to the tips of my toes. If you're a reader you know the feeling. When a writer puts something into words that you've always felt. It's a very personal moment between the reader and the writer. Those are the moments that keep me coming back to Turgenev because his work gives me that feeling over and over again.
First Love follows a 16 year old protagonist, Vladimir Petrovich, as he meets and falls in love with his neighbour, Zinaida Zakyekina who we later find out is in love with someone else who happens to be Vladimir's own father. Unrequited love is a recurring theme in Turgenev's stories and it's definitely not surprising this is based on Turgenev's own experiences. He is one of the greatest writers of 19th Century Russia and the novels/novellas he bases on his own life are so beautifully written it's almost painful. You feel it all through his words and that is what makes him stand on his own and not the lesser of the three (Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev) big Russian authors. Turgenev himself claimed First Love was his most autobiographical of his novels and if that is so you can definitely see why he made certain decisions in his life and in his work.
Instead of giving a plot summary like I usually do with reviews I think I'll just leave this post with lines from this story. I feel like it's a tale everyone should experience for themselves. It's one of the most beautifully written books I've ever read and if you have to read one Turgenev novel please make it this one. You won't be disappointed. It's the perfect entry into his work and his life.
"I burnt as a fire in her presence...but what did I care to know what the fire was in which I burned and melted -- it was enough that it was sweet to burn and melt." "There is a sweetness in being the sole source, the autocratic and irresponsible cause of the greatest joy and profoundest pain to another." "Take for yourself what you can, and don't be ruled by others; to belong to oneself...the whole savour of life lies in that." “I gave myself up to fruitless speculation, and was always looking for secluded places. I became particularly fond of the ruined greenhouse. I used to climb, I remember, on to the high wall, settle myself on it and sit there, a youth afflicted by such misery, solitude and grief that I would be overcome with self-pity. How I revelled in these melancholy feelings - how I adored them.” “O youth! youth! you go your way heedless, uncaring – as if you owned all the treasures of the world; even grief elates you, even sorrow sits well upon your brow. You are self-confident and insolent and you say, 'I alone am alive – behold!' even while your own days fly past and vanish without trace and without number, and everything within you melts away like wax in the sun .. like snow .. and perhaps the whole secret of your enchantment lies not, indeed, in your power to do whatever you may will, but in your power to think that there is nothing you will not do: it is this that you scatter to the winds – gifts which you could never have used to any other purpose. Each of us feels most deeply convinced that he has been too prodigal of his gifts – that he has a right to cry, 'Oh, what could I not have done, if only I had not wasted my time.”