‘What I felt was so new, so sweet. I sat quite still, hardly looking
round, and breathing very slowly; only from time to time I
laughed silently at some memory, or grew cold at the thought that
I was in love – it was here – this was love.’
A group of middle-aged men sit together after dinner and the conversation turns to first love. One of them, Vladimir Petrovich, tells his story ... As a 16-year-old, spending the summer at his parents’ country house, he glimpses ‘a tall, slender girl in a striped pink dress’: the young princess Zinaida. She is five years older, impoverished and not particularly respectable, but he falls desperately in love with her. As she plays each of her suitors off against the other, Vladimir sinks ever deeper under her spell – until the discovery of his true rival comes as a terrible awakening.
Ivan Turgenev, a contemporary of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, was less interested in religious, political or moral matters than in the truthful portrayal of human lives. With infinite skill and tact he evokes the pangs of youthful love, of which the narrator says, ‘I never wish to experience them again, but I should count it a misfortune never to have had them at all.’ The story’s subject is not just Vladimir’s unrequited love, but his dawning understanding of the adult world around him: his parents’ troubled marriage, his charming, elusive father and Zinaida’s own secret unhappiness.
Turgenev claimed that his coming-of-age story was completely autobiographical. He was 16 in 1833, when the story is set, and spent that summer in a dacha near Moscow. Most importantly, he too had a difficult relationship with his charismatic, philandering father. As novelist Robert Dessaix says in his introduction, one of the pleasures of First Love comes from ‘our awareness of the way that the boy, the older Vladimir and Turgenev himself see the theatre of romance quite differently’. Dreamlike illustrations by Anna and Elena Balbusso capture the haunting, melancholic beauty of the story.
Review by CarltonC on 7th May 2012
"This is a slight novella and though evocative of the time (19th century Russia), is not fulfilling. Although framed by the narrator, Vladimir Petrovich, recalling his first love, the story is almost e..." [read more]