June 22, 2015
The Art of the Novella challenge 30: First Love
by Jonathan Gibbs
Title: First Love
Author: Ivan Turgenev
First published: 1860
Page count: 124
First line: The party had long ago broken up.
This seems like an apt companion piece to Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe, my last Melville House novella. Another European man, in middle age, remembering his first love, in both cases a woman somewhat older than he was when he loved her. Here the age gap is less, but then the lover and his beloved are also younger – it’s as if age as a category expands as we grow, rather than simply progressing in linear fashion. This book, though, is less self-flagellating than Adolphe, and the tale less one of acid self-recrimination than pure lament. Where young Adolphe chases and seduces a woman for sport, and with no thought of the consequences, and makes them both suffer for it, Turgenev’s sixteen-year-old Vladimir falls under the spell of a girl a few years older than himself, who uses him, not unknowingly, and not entirely unkindly, as a toy and a mascot in her dance around a half dozen far more suitable suitors. The suffering is all his. He learns; of course he does: what he learns is to love suffering, or at least appreciate it as a necessary part of love, or life, or literature.
The novella opens with a short frame narrative, in which three Russian gentlemen decide to amuse themselves after a party by sharing stories of their first loves; two of them, though, have nothing to offer, and the third, Vladimir Petrovich, “a man of forty, with black hair turning grey,” has too much: he insists on writing his one out and reading it to them, at a later date. The frame chapter ends with the line, “His manuscript contained the following story:”. What we get after that is what he writes; there is no sense of him reading it aloud, and we never re-emerge into the frame narrative at the end of it.
In this, it reminds me rather of the novella-length ‘Sensei’s Testament’ in Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro, though that is balanced by a much fuller prologue… and this makes me wonder, too, in passing, why there are no Japanese titles on the Art of the Novella list. There must be some amazing novellas in that literature – and that throw a particular light on what a novella might even be, as Turgenev’s book most certainly does.
The story that Petrovich tells is of what happened to him in the summer of his sixteenth year, when his parents took a house in Moscow, the next door house being taken by an ageing Princess fallen on hard times and her 21-year-old daughter, Zinaïda, with whom young Vladimir falls deeply in love. He spends his days and evenings either waiting in attendance on her, jostling for attention among the men who flock about her, playing silly games and scoring points off each other, or away from the house, mooning on his own.
What I was feeling was so new and so sweet… I sat still, hardly looking round and not moving, drew slow breaths, and only from time to time laughed silently at some recollection, or turned cold within at the thought that I was in love, that this was she, that this was love.
There is nothing here that is not thoroughly familiar, from literature and… well, if not from life as such, then perhaps from the habits of remembering one falls into as one grows. If being in love for the first time wasn’t actually like this, you might think, then it’s hard not to remember it this way. First Love is a perfect example of literature not as commentary on life, but as manual for living, a template for us to follow, so that our lives may become more like literature, and we can understand them. Jeffrey Eugenides made hay with this idea in his novel The Marriage Plot, and you could equally imagine a novella called The First Love Template, or some such.
Turgenev’s prose seems to hold classicism and romanticism in perfect balance. It’s a long time since I read Fathers and Sons, and I think I was probably impressed rather than moved by it – the feeling for the psychology of character, which is its gift, so it seems, to the modern novel, has become entirely familiar, while the young nihilists whose rise the book atomises look pale by contemporary standards. First Love, on the other hand, I am now old enough to read as a melancholy commentary on the uses of art in life.
I’m now more or less the age that the author was when he wrote the book, and the thing that really intrigued me, beyond the vivid description of Vladimir’s boyish quandary, is Turgenev’s treatment of Zinaïda. It’s one thing to fix in aspic yourself as a child, when you – and through you, the reader – know that that child will grow up to become the person you now are; it’s quite another to fix and fixate upon a girl once five years (i.e. immeasurably) older than yourself, but who is now half your age. This is a theme that Nabokov treats with exemplary tact and awe in Lolita. Literature fixes people like butterflies, but life is not a butterfly display case, quite.
For example, in the room where I’m writing is a poster of the Godard film A Bout de Souffle, a film that I loved from the first time I saw it, in my teens – with a fair amount of that love bound up with Jean Seberg and Patricia, the character she played. She was twenty when she acted in the film. I was maybe fifteen when I first saw it and fell in what felt like a version of love with her. I didn’t love her, of course – you can’t love someone you’ve never met, but you could say I adored her, and made of her a benchmark for female loveliness and freedom of spirit. Now I’m in my forties and, guess what? That adoration persists, but I have to keep reminding myself, when I look at the poster, or watch the film, that that’s a 20-year-old woman, and I’m a man more than twice that in age. Seberg died, in 1979, aged 40, but for me she never aged beyond A Bout de Souffle. I pinned her, like a butterfly, into the felt-backed glass case of my fascinations, in a way that I didn’t, for instance, with the girls and girlfriends I first loved, with whom I first practised and acted out affection, jealousy, commitment and heartbreak. Those girls I’ve allowed the dignity, in my imagination and in my forgetfulness, to mature into adult women, with lives and jobs and maybe families, who knows.
And it’s the imaginative process of Turgenev’s novella (which, we learn, was based on events in his own life) that seems to me mildly perverse. A thought experiment: imagine you were able to fly back through time and reinhabit yourself aged 14 or 15, as you first fell in love, first pined and desired, first kissed, first had sex, but with your adult consciousness intact, it would surely be illegal, would it not? But how different is that to the experience of writing, or reading, First Love? I’m sure Turgenev would shudder at my suggestion. Or perhaps he wouldn’t. The perversity of literature, after all, takes many forms.
That aside, First Love strikes me as another exemplary entry in the Art of the Novella series, in that it seems to clearly differentiate its form from those around, or either side of it. If both the short story and the novel are attempts (essays) on ‘life itself’, whether in its quicksilver ephemerality, or expansive unaccountability, then the novella is about ‘a life’. First Love tells an anecdote, but it is an anecdote that absolutely dominates the life of which it forms such a small part. It covers a few weeks, but a few weeks that Vladimir has carried with every step of the way from sixteen to forty. At sixteen, Zinaïda was his whole horizon. Now she has receded, necessarily (yes, another dead woman, dead that she may be safely mourned) but he carries him with her. His story of her is the story of his life.