While this Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883) novella was the first I've read under the Melville House imprint, I counted this as the fifth or sixth I've finished for the year. The last two before First Love were unequivocal masterpieces - Chess by Stefan Zweig and The Fall by Albert Camus. Quite unlike the narrative playfulness of these last two modern novellas, Turgenev's story was a linear and controlled exploration of being in love at a young age. It offered a portrait of a transition from youth to adulthood: from the confusion and giddy puzzlement that accompanied the raw feelings of youth to a more luminous perception of reality as one gained more experience. The protagonist was a sixteen-year-old student, a young man of middle class background. The object of his affection was a young princess, older than him by a few years, who with her mother was his family's new house neighbor. Turgenev created tension in two fronts. First, although members of Russian nobility, the new neighbors were actually on the verge of poverty. Their tenuous hold on their upper class status was endangered by their large debt owed to some influential persons. Second, the beautiful young princess was not entirely a bashful one. She was as carefree as can be and she was surrounded by a lot of suitors who were slaves to her every wish. Into their midst was flung the young protagonist - awkward, dejected, and in love. Soon, the young princess was sending a covert message to the group of young men (our student, a poet, a doctor, a handsome count, and a hussar) around her. She had found someone: a lover who was her match. She, her heart, was already taken. But who among them could it be?
The novella was translated by Constance Garnett, she who was often reviled as a poor translator of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy but acknowledged even by translators working today as a peerless stylist when it comes to finding equivalents for Turgenev's natural prose style. Her words in this novella are well chosen and restrained; they possess a certain vitality that pushes the story forward to its more emotional and more elemental conclusion. In Garnett's translation First Love, first published in 1860, still maintained a fresh coat of varnish for a classic Russian tale. The highlight of the narrative was when the text briefly switched to the poetic mode near the end - with precious words like dost, thou, thee, canst, art, wilt - not really in a sappy way, in order to impart a lasting "lesson" for the young man, a lesson that he will treasure for its insight into the workings of life. A way for his young heart to adapt to the bittersweet experiences that came, will come his way. This poetic interruption was like a Chekhovian nudge, enriching even as it culminated in a hypothetical statement of despair.
I know that one of these days I may enter a Russian phase of reading and will finally make my acquaintance with Turgenev's celebrated novel Fathers and Sons. Such as it is, this novella is already a good starter for dipping into Turgenev's essential writings.