Wednesday, June 24, 2009

First Love discussion

Book Illustration for 'The Day Before' by Ivan Turgenev, 1947
Konstatin Rudakov
Picture source

The text of "First Love" can be found at
Project Gutenberg,
Google Books,
Mootnotes, or
The Literature Network

An audio version can be found at LibriVox

A summary is provided at Wikipedia

A nice summary, excerpts and more is available courtesy of David C. Lahti at the University of Massachusetts

My post on links to Turgenev resources can be found here

The library copy of “First Love” I read was translated by David Magarshack—all quotes are from his version. I’m going to post some extensive quotes as well as reveal some of the plot twists, so be forewarned. I still highly recommend reading the work…I was familiar with the plotline and still enjoyed it tremendously. This was (as far as I recall) my first reading of anything by Turgenev and I’m looking forward to reading more. I hope to read at least two more of Turgenev’s works in the next few weeks, so I’ll go into detail on overarching themes over the course of their discussions.

Turgenev claimed several times that this novella was autobiographical (although he was younger than the protagonist when the events occurred). The story follows 16 year old Vladimir Petrovich (looking back on the events when he is 40) as he falls in and out of love with his neighbor Zinaida Alexandrovna, the daughter of Princess Zasyekin. While the story bills itself as a look at Vladimir’s first love, there is decidedly more going on beneath the surface. Turgenev’s prose is deceptively simple, yet forcefully conveys what the characters are feeling. A few topics as I noted them…

Love as ecstatic torment
Love is the central theme, and the torturous effect it has on the characters becomes difficult to watch. Turgenev does a masterful job of conveying the emotions and the feelings while experiencing a first (or second, or third) love. The first real meeting between Vladimir and Zinaida shows the girl winding wool around the boy’s hands, just as she figuratively winds him around her finger. Zinaida accomplishes this with all her suitors as well. While the title refers to Vladimir, the older men courting Zinaida display many of the same silly actions and concentrated feelings of a first love. Several know how juvenile they are behaving but they continue to dote on her all the same. Vladimir is drawn to Zinaida, unable to escape her gravitational pull. He abandons his studies and would do almost anything for her. He realizes his passion and suffering began at the same time, describing the torment he feels from his love.

My passion began from that day. What I felt at that time, I remember, was something similar to what a man must feel on entering government service: I had ceased to be simply a young boy: I was someone in love. I have said that my passion began from that day; I might have added that my suffering began on that day too. Away from Zinaida, I languished: I could not think of anything, I had not the heart to do anything, and for days on end all my thoughts revolved round her. I languished…but in her presence I did not feel any happier. I was jealous; I realized my own insignificance; I sulked stupidly and cringed stupidly; and yet an irresistible force drew me towards her, and every time I stepped over the threshold of her room I was seized by an uncontrollable tremor of happiness. Zinaida guessed at once that I had fallen in love with her, and indeed I never thought of concealing it; she amused herself with my passion; she made a fool of me, petted me, and tormented me. It is sweet to be the only source, the despotic and arbitrary cause, of the greatest joys, the greatest sorrows, in another human being, and I was like soft wax in Zinaida’s hands.

Vladimir feels he will give up his life to spare her any misery, and he superficially proves it by jumping from a high wall at her request. His love is a transformative power, both when he falls in and falls out of love. After performing extraordinary measures for her love, Vladimir struggles to understand why Zinaida could love his father. He has yet to understand the nature of love, which is driven home as he clandestinely witnesses the final encounter between his father and Zinaida:

I began to watch. I did my best to hear what they were saying. My father seemed to be insisting on something. Zinaida would not agree. I can see her face just as if it were all happening now—sad, serious, beautiful, and with an indescribable imprint of devotion, sadness, love, and a kind of despair—I can find no other word for it. She uttered words of one syllable; she did not raise her eyes but just smiled—submissively and obstinately. It was by this smile alone that I recognised my Zinaida as I used to know her. My father shrugged and set his hat straight on his head, which was always a sign of impatience with him. Thin I heard the words: “Vous devez vous separer de cette…” Zinaida drew herself up and stretched out her hand…. Suddenly something quite unbelievable took place before my very eyes: my father all of a sudden raised his riding crop, with which he had been flicking the dust from the skirts of his coat, and I heard the sound of a sharp blow across her arm, which was bared to the elbow. I just managed to restrain myself from crying out, while Zinaida gave a start, looked at my father without uttering a word, and, raising her arm to her lips, kissed the scar that showed crimson on it. My father flung away the crop and, running up the steps rapidly, rushed into the house. Zinaida turned round, tossed back her head, and, with arms outstretched, also moved away from the window.

What she must separer herself from is hinted at later as Vladimir’s father receives a letter that, combined with begging a favor from his wife, upsets him so much he has a fatal stroke. The father had started his own letter to Vladimir on the day of his stroke: “My son,” he wrote, “fear the love of woman, fear that ecstasy, that poison…” The leveling of emotions, one of the (alleged) benefits of maturity, is absent here. The rush of being in love has the power to sweep that aside at any age.

Turgenev’s descriptions are simple but convey both the picture and the atmosphere wonderfully. A few descriptors or a simile provide a literary watercolor—not everything is in crisp focus, but enough detail is provided to mentally fill in the gaps. Even when he uses techniques that can be trite, such as having nature mimic internal feelings, the passages wonderfully succeed.

Soon I noticed faint glimmers of light continually lighting up my room. I sat up and looked at the window. The window bars showed up against the mysteriously and dimly lit panes. “A thunderstorm,” I thought, and I was right. It was a storm, but it was very far away, so that the thunder could not be heard; only the faint, long, branching-out forks of lightning flashed uninterruptedly across the sky: they did not flash so much as quiver and quiver and twitch, like the wing of a dying bird. I got up, went to the window, and stood there till morning. The lightning did not cease for a moment; it was what is known among the peasants as a “sparrow night,” or a night of uninterrupted storm with thunder and lightning. I looked at the silent stretch of sand and the dark mass of the Neskoochny Park, at the yellowish facades of distant buildings, which also seemed to quiver with each faint flash. I looked and could not tear myself away: this silent lightning, these restrained gleams of light, seemed to respond to the mute and secret fires which kept blazing up in me too.

Vladimir admits his dad had a strange influence on him: “I love him and I admired him” even though it is clear his dad keeps him at a distance. His dad has the power to transform him from a jealous Othello to a cowering schoolboy in an instant. Family life for Vladimir gets worse as the story goes on…tension between his father and mother increases. While his mother could have garnered the reader’s compassion for all she has to put up with from her husband and son, Turgenev paints her unsympathetically.

My father treated me with good-humoured indifference; my mother scarcely paid any attention to me, although she had no other children: other worries occupied her completely. My father, who was still young and very handsome, had married for money; she was ten years older than he. My mother’s life was far from happy: she was in a state of constant irritation and was always jealous and bad-tempered, though never in my father’s presence—she was terrified of him—while his attitude to her was severe, cold, and aloof. I have never seen a man more exquisitely calm, more self-possessed, or more despotic.

Vladimir’s father seems to be the only happy person in the story. Is it because he is so detached and aloof from much of what is going on around him? Or is it because he has power to get what he wants? The father gives Vladimir pointers on happiness and freedom:

  • “Grab all you can, but never allow yourself to be caught: to belong to yourself alone is the whole trick of living.”
  • In describing what gives a man freedom, his father says “His will, his own will: that will give him power, which is better than freedom. Know how to want something, and you will be free and you will be able to command.”

His father’s actions follow his own tenets, or at least up to the point where he must beg from his wife. For the most part, those tenets also describes Zinaida’s outlook, although she is bound by social constraints that were unbreakable at the time. The importance of wealth and class underlies much of the story. She achieves happiness to a point, but her definition of happiness is distinctly different. She looks for a competent and forceful love to balance and complete her. Her comment that “I want someone who will master me” explains perfectly why she falls in love of Vladimir’s father. It also explains some of her infatuation with Vladimir, who physically resembles his father but whose presence is a pale imitation. Zinaida sacrifices for his father just as the suitors sacrifice for her, all to the same unfulfilled effect. The similarities between Zinaida and Vladimir’s father become clearer as their relationship is revealed.

In addition
There are quite a few reference to literary characters and easy comparisons: Cleopatra and Antony (fated to end badly), Polonius from Hamlet (sycophants), Othello (jealousy), Pushkin’s poem “The Gypsies” (Aleko). Not to mention the undercurrents of Oedipus throughout the story. The literary element includes the poet Maydanov, whose heart seems bigger than his talent.

Some Turgenev themes and motifs stretch across many of his works. Some are apparent here, such as the superfluous man and the strong Turgenev heroine. Even though Turgenev claims some of the events occurred early in his life, the obvious question is how much of his unrequited love for Pauline Viadrot present in the story?

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