Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Ivan Turgenev’s First Love

The Quiet Storm:

Ivan Turgenev’s First Love

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

The Russian novelist, short story writer, and playwright Ivan Turgenev was a master of subtle sensationalism. His most famous novel, the 1862 Fathers and Sons, introduced a shocking nihilist character named Bazarov to a scandalized literary scene while simultaneously crafting a nuanced and even understated depiction of the rift between old and new Russian values that was both wholly particular to the time and universally recognizable in its portrayal of human change. His first major work, the autobiographical Sketches from a Hunter’s Album, which was collected in book form in 1852, comprised dispassionate depictions of peasant life in a fully realistic and unsensational manner while exposing the abuses and iniquities of feudalism, leading (in part) to his house arrest and forming part of the impetus for the abolition of serfdom in Russia. Turgenev’s works were both revolutionary and restrained, and his realism was embraced by the larger European public—having much in common with that of his good friend Gustave Flaubert—but were unpopular and even considered un-Russian in his home country, which he largely abandoned for Germany and France but which was always the permanent native residence for his fiction.

Ilya Repin’s portrait of Ivan Turgenev, 1874
Often nostalgic for his youth and his homeland, Turgenev’s literary balance nonetheless tempered his works with a lack of sentimentality that makes them perhaps even more effective and touching, and in few instances is this delicate equilibrium more rewardingly bittersweet than in his 1860 novella, First Love. Reputedly basing the book on his own childhood memories, which could easily have lead to maudlinity, Turgenev instead layers his approach with levels of thoughtfulness that allow the reader to step back while at the same time being drawn into its profoundly moving story. The book begins during the calm aftermath of a dinner party when three middle-aged men decide to discuss their first loves. The first two present quick and uncomplicated tales, leaving the third, Vladimir, to provide the real entertainment. Vladimir demurs at first, claiming that he can’t tell a story well and that it’ll come out wrong if he tries, but he offers to write it all down and share it with them later, to which the group reluctantly agrees. Reconvening two weeks later, he then reads them his narrative. Vladimir’s story takes up the rest of the book, without a return to the older men, and this opening half-frame serves as a perfectly tiered device that gives a slight distancing perspective, while the story itself pulls the reader in and quickly becomes (and remains) primary, creating an extraordinary emotional and artistic counterpoint.

Marcus Stone’s Love at First Sight, 1980
As a youth of sixteen, Vladimir and his family spent the summer in the country while he was halfheartedly preparing to enter the University. There was little love in the family—his father was aloof and indifferent to him, and his mother was almost always preoccupied and anxious—and so Vladimir took to roaming the grounds alone. His family’s house had small lodges on either side of it, and soon an impoverished princess moves into one of them with her daughter, and the first time he sees the daughter, Zinaida, Vladimir becomes transfixed with sensations that he’d never before experienced. Flanked by four obsequious suitors, Zinaida mocks Vladimir from across the garden fence, but he immediately does everything he can do to become acquainted with her.

Gaining admittance to Zinaida’s circle through her mother, an avaricious and grotesque woman who’s obsessed with her lost fortunes—and who it becomes apparent is not above using Zinaida to attract moneyed and influential men to the house—Vladimir soon becomes as entranced by the free-spirited but often capricious and cruel daughter as are the rest of her suitors. Constantly examining his nascent emotions, Vladimir never quite knows what’s happening to him or understands the nature of the world that he’s entered, although the reader, prompted by the adumbrations of the older man’s narrative, slowly pieces it together around him, and so the book both operates on the primal level of the young Vladimir’s confused searchings and maintains the more sophisticated levels of his world’s true flux.

Alexei Harlamov’s Summertime, unknown date
When Vladimir finally discovers what’s actually happening and then sees and hears about the tragic aftermath, the book is truly heartbreaking—as well as sobering, in many facets of the word. As a contrast, the sturm und drang of Goethe’s early novella The Sorrows of Young Werther (which seriously embarrassed the more mature Goethe) never relents in its obsessive myopia. First Love allows the reader to feel the true storm and stress of all of Vladimir’s passions, but it also lovingly and patiently paints a rich panorama of the world around him, often pausing and dwelling on the varieties of experience and perception and simple existence that compose a realistic (if intensely felt) life.

The sobering realizations that Vladimir receives at the end of the book resound backward and forward through the composed tale as well as through the life of the man soberly composing it for his friends, and the result is a book of profoundly nuanced reflections. A true gem—at less than 100 pages—this multi-faceted novella contains a lifetime of luster and shadow and refraction, and in its reversal of wild Romanticism, its pages somehow manage to contain a fully inverted literary cliche: the storm within the calm.

—David Wiley

No comments:

Post a Comment