Ivan Turgenev: First Love

Penguin have decided to build on the success of their Great Ideas and Great Journeys series – beautifully designed little paperbacks that put classic works into contemporary, and more importantly, short packaging – and have recently launched Great Loves.  My habit with the previous series was to buy the lot and never get around to reading them.  This time I decided instead just to buy the ones I actually wanted to read.  And do you know, it’s worked.

Ivan Turgenev’s First Love (1860) is one of just half a dozen of the twenty Great Loves which is a complete work in itself, which I think is much more satisfying than the extracts or selections of stories which make up the others.  And he’s one of those old Russians I’ve never managed to read before now (I tried, and failed, with Fathers and Sons a couple of years ago).

First Love is a much better – and at 100 pocket-sized pages, less daunting – introduction.  It is the remembered story of Vladimir, a young man who at sixteen falls in love with the girl next door, who proceeds to torture him with the uncertainty of her response.  He lies awake at night, storms raging without and within (“I rose, went to the window, and stood there till morning … the lightning did not cease for an instant.  This silent lightning, this controlled light, seemed to answer to the mute and secret fires which were blazing within me”).

Vladimir is also teased and belittled by the girl, Zinaida’s, other suitors.  The social limitations and controls of 19th century Moscow are alien to us, but all the more compelling for that.

I would sit and gaze and listen, and would be filled with a nameless sensation which had everything in it: sorrow and joy, a premonition of the future, and desire, and fear of life.  At the time, I understood none of this, and could not have given a name to any of the feelings which seethed within me; or else I would have called it all by one name – the name of Zinaida.

I easily predicted what the outcome of all this torture was going to be, and didn’t mind anyway, as books that are 150 years old are entitled to be somewhat foreseeable.  And then as I read on, I realised I had predicted it completely wrongly and was surprised by the conclusion after all.  So that’s why they call them classics.

First Love, as well as the social and romantic story, contains a fascinating portrait of the relationship between Vladimir and his father.  Sons and fathers must be a strength of Turgenev’s.  I’d better get back to that unfinished one then.


  1. I’ve got it on my shelf, John. Here’s the blurb from the back:

    Jack Laidlaw’s Glasgow is a city of hard men, powerful villains and self-made businessmen, of big industry and its victims, of enduring women, terrible slums and, one morning, of murder. An unothodox detective who cloaks compassion with sardonic wit, Laidlaw knows the right questions to ask, threading his way through the pubs and clubs, the bookies and tenements, trying to find the killer of young, apparently innocent girl.

    I picked it up around the time Weekend came out, although have never got round to reading it. Weekend still interests me more. From what I know of him, his crime fiction has a literary and social bent but I’m sure Dave can fill you in more on McIlvanney and, in particular, Laidlaw.

  2. Yep they’re lovely aren’t they gav? Unfortunately, as mentioned above most of them aren’t novels but collections of stories or extracts from longer works. For some reason I don’t like that. I have only bought the ones that are complete works: the Turgenev, Tolstoy, Nabokov and Baldwin. Oh there’s Bonjour Tristesse as well but I’m damned if I’m going to start reading books written by seventeen year olds…

  3. I’m damned if I’m going to start reading books written by seventeen year olds…

    The other day I was looking at something and was surprised to find out a particular author was only seventeen when their first book was published. And I’m sure it was someone you’ve read before. If only I could remember who it was. That would get you blushing.

    As for Sagan, I read Bonjour Tristesse last year and can’t remember a thing about it. So much for being vintage. Probably more corked.

  4. Oh, now short stories/short novels I can cope with but I’m never keen on extracts – I’m with the nun from the Sound of Music:

    ‘Let’s start at the very beginning
    A very good place to start’

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