I don’t usually read old news, especially those about families strained in dusty dining rooms – 19th century literature, basically. Don’t get me wrong, I love Victor Hugo and Fyodor Dostoyevsky as much as anyone else, but their stories take advantage of the space left for them to develop. You can’t remember epics like “Les Misérables” or “Crime and Punishment”. It is the authors of the twentieth century, with their fragmentary and surrealist plots, who can capture us in just 20 pages. The reason I enjoy stories like Ivan Turegenev’s “First Love” so much is because they prove how wrong I am.
You could say that “First Love” raises all those red flags. Published in 1860, this Russian short story tells the story of Vladimir Petrovich, an aging aristocrat who tells the story of his first true passion. Much of the plot revolves around the experiences of this young protagonist as he transits between his own dusty dining room and – you guessed it – the dusty dining room of the beautiful 21-year-old Zinaída. As I warned, the setup seems outdated, but “First Love” captures me all the same.
Vladimir is not the only bachelor in love with Zinaída. From vigorous hussars to melodramatic poets, it seems that every influential man in the village pines is for the princess. Each of these colorful characters love differently. The cynical Doctor Lúshin slanders the princess behind his back but is happy to suffer any humiliation from her. Byelovzóroff, the most daring of the group, constantly threatens violence against others as a testament to his passion. Then there is a sentimental poet, a mischievous Polish count and, of course, Vladimir. The young protagonist loves exactly as a teenager would – in an abstract way – valuing the thrill of emotion more than the beloved herself.
None of them, however, manages to capture the heart of the young woman, which pushes her to continue an affair with another man. As it would be a disservice to reveal his identity, I will only say that at the time his choice was so outrageous that it almost led to the history being censored. In the end, Turgenev lifts Zinaída above suitors and Vladimir, because in the end, it is the only passion that persists: “He waits for me and is convinced that I will come – and I will come, and he there is no existing power that can stop me when I want to go to him.
The genius of this short story is how it so blatantly betrays readers’ expectations. The archetype of “first love” is certainly overused. From the perspective of a 21st century reader, even one who doesn’t shy away from the occasional romantic comedy, nothing seems more boring than having to wade through another. Turgenev’s short story is not only bearable, it is excellent precisely because it undermines the format.
If Turgenev had wanted to follow the beaten track, he could have concentrated on the passion of his narrator. This is where we think the story unfolds: the introduction of the loved one, a few obstacles in between, and then love won or lost. “First Love” follows in the first two stages, but when it’s time to cross the finish line, the plot takes a turn.
The second half of the story does not focus on the narrator but on Zinaída. The young girl takes the central role and the languid protagonist is relegated to the wings. This is because, unlike Vladimir, Zinaída is ready to continue her affair. His love is not only deep, but active. This is why, faced with Zinaída’s actions, the narrator cannot help but be amazed: “Yes, – I thought, – this is love, – this is passion, – this is love. devotion. “
The first traditional love story isn’t really about love – it’s a coming-of-age story, a rite of passage. Turgenev effectively turns the traditional love story upside down by drawing a clear line between passion and affectation. Vladimir’s love is actually superficial, but Zinaída’s is not. Because she remains faithful to her emotion, and because she is ready to sacrifice herself, her experience transcends the erosion of time. This is why she is at the center of the story – under the guise of first love, Turgenev is in search of the truth.
Having studied at an international school, I grew up expecting my four years of college to be some of the most memorable of my life. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken one of those years. But “First Love” proves that while we tend to overstate our youth, what matters in life is not what could have been, but what is.
Breitman’s article is part of an ongoing column featuring reviews of classic books that one should read. Read the other articles here.