20 August 2011

First Love (Ivan Turgenev)

This post is my wee participation to The Art of the Novella Reading Challenge, instigated by Frances of Nonsuch Book with the support of publisher Melville House. I'm all out for the Curious Level (1 novella) but a look at the eclectic list of novellas in the series - not to mention the elegant cover designs pared down to a one-tone background color - tells me this is not a one-night stand affair. I'm already eyeing a couple of titles for my next reads post-challenge. But first my gratitude to Nicole of bibliographing, the source of my copy of the novella which I won in her giveaway. An opportune prize to win since by reading it I also get to come close to fulfilling the requirement of one of only two reading challenges I signed up for this year. (After Zamyatin and Szymborska, it will be my third book for The 2011 Eastern European Reading Challenge, over at Black Sheep Dances.)

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.


  1. This looks like a great series, love Camus, heard great things about Zweig & when younger worked my way through the Russian classics (In translation), have a particular fondness for Turgenev, having read Smoke, On the Eve, fathers & Sons etc. So will wait patiently for your Russian phase to take hold, so I can follow the results.
    Ps. A different subject I don't know if you know but I run a poetry anthology on Twitter @pomesallsizes, It now has its own page on my Blog titled Pomesallsizes & I'm looking for Poetry magazine links, websites & anything poetic on the web from around this planet, if you know any, please send us the link.

  2. Turgenev, among other Classic Russian writers, is one of my favorite novelists. Hope to see more of them here. :)

  3. All and any of Turgenev's novels are worth reading, but 'Fathers and Sons' delineating changing Russia and the generation gap in ideology is the best.

  4. Gary, definitely a treasure-house series. I've read a couple of titles there before (The Eternal Husband by Dostoevsky, The Dead by Joyce). I think I will begin with the Russian novellas before getting into the abyss of the Russian point of view. I do know about your online poetry gig! I'll see what links I can share and get back to you.

  5. Karlo, Turgenev et al. will now surely be in the works. A great thing is that most of these texts are in the public domain!

    Kevin, thanks for the third endorsement, the TBR pile will gladly make room for F&S.

  6. I have all but eight (I think) books from the series, and I've been meaning to participate in the challenge. But seeing as there's only a week left till August ends, I might never get past the Curious Level. Thanks to your review, I'll be making First Love my first foray into MHP's The Art of the Novella. Been wondering where to start.

  7. Aldrin, you wouldn't go wrong with Turgenev as a start. But I suspect any title is as good as any to start in this increasingly delectable (to me) series. Melville's Bartleby, the Scrivener was near perfect too. I'm now well into The Duel by Conrad, whose humor is perfect contrast to Turgenev.

  8. Thanks Rise, The more the merrier, trying to collate magazazines I can find from around the planet.