Friday, April 1, 2011
FIRST LOVE by Ivan Turgenev
In the crystal-clear Penguin Classics translation by Isaiah Berlin, Turgenev's First Love is a wonderful, surprising little novella (or long short story; 19th-century writers frequently blurred the not-yet-solid line between the forms). The plot is simple, the stuff of Oedipal melodrama and grand opera: a sixteen year-old boy falls in love with a 21 year-old girl, only to discover that his rival for her affections is his own father. Turgenev's handling of youthful passion and infatuation is remarkable. Few readers will soon forget the night of silent lightning or the narrator's silly, more-comic-than-romantic leap from a 14 foot-high wall, but I was most impressed by the events of chapter twenty-one, in which the narrator, unable to injure his father with the knife of Freudian castration, chooses instead to identify with him. The two men ride together, and the father's horse, a thoroughbred mare, is described in terms that recall the 'thoroughbred' Princess Zinaida, the apex of the family love triangle. The narrator's first experience of love threatens to become an initiation into phallocentric misogyny. But he then witnesses his father's rough treatment of Zinaida, treatment explicitly paralleling the father's equestrian exploits: he strikes the girl with his riding crop before bursting into her home and, it is strongly suggested, riding her. After the shock of this scene, Turgenev swiftly wraps up his tale with a flurry of convenient deaths and a suggestion that all the complexities and contradictions of life are subsumed in the one death that puts a period to us all... But I don't quite buy this proffered interpretation. The events of the penultimate chapter overshadow even the deaths of the final chapter; the revelation of the violence of passion is what continues to haunt the narrator--and his readers.