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.