Translator: Constance Garnett
Original Language: Russian
Year of First Publication: 1860
Year of Publication for This Edition: 2014
Number of Pages: N/A
Publisher: The University of Adelaide
I’m on a bit of Russian literature kick lately. Maybe you noticed. After sampling a bit from Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov, I next set my sights on Turgenev, having heard him described as one of the greatest Russian novelists who ever lived. The first thing I read from him, though, was not a novel but a novella. There’s apparently some division among book bloggers as to the worth of the novella as a form: while many people prefer the shorter format that eats up less time than novels do, others find novellas too brief to allow the reader to form an attachment to the characters. I for one love novellas, and especially ones like this, that, for all their brevity, still have you feeling with, and hurting for, the characters.
Like many of Turgenev’s stories, this one begins with a frame story: three men are all sitting around the fireplace one evening, where they’ve all been asked to tell the story of their first love affair. After two of them deliver lackluster stories about how they met their wives, the third man, Volodya Voldemar, asks for time to go home and write his story out. He returns the next day and reads to his friends the story of how, when he was sixteen years old, he fell in love with a beautiful young woman named Zinaïda. So captivated is Volodya with Zinaïda that he barely even notices how cruel she can be, or that she’s merely amusing herself with him and her five other suitors. His dreams of loving her, however, come crashing to the ground when he discovers that Zinaïda is secretly having an affair with his father.
There was a long time where I was reading mostly nonfiction and poetry, and when I tried to read fiction, I would quickly lose interest. After reading so many poems where practically every word contributed in palpable ways to the meaning and the effect of the piece overall, prose just seemed too … prosaic. I was disappointed by fiction because it didn’t have that same (or similar) intensity of language. As it turns out, Turgenev is just the sort of fiction writer I wanted: his prose is rich and lyrical. His words flow effortlessly. His ability to create a mood and an atmosphere too is breathtaking:
The air blew in a gust for an instant; a streak of fire flashed across the sky; it was a star falling. “Zinaïda?” I wanted to call, but the word died away on my lips. And all at once everything became profoundly still around, as is often the case in the middle of the night. … Even the grasshoppers ceased their churr in the trees—only a window rattled somewhere. I stood and stood, and then went back to my room, to my chilled bed. I felt a strange sensation; as though I had gone to a tryst, and had been left lonely, and had passed close by another’s happiness. [From Chapter 16. Ellipsis in the original.]
Not only is the prose beautiful and vivid, the characters are as well. One of the things I love most about Russian books (the ones I’ve read, anyway) is that, while they may not always fit the modern-day criteria for “realism,” their characters still feel more real than most. By that I mean, though the circumstances that these characters find themselves in may sometimes seem very dramatic, there’s a core of truth in these characters that lets the reader form a deeper connection with them. Their actions and circumstances might not be “reality” for most people, but the emotion and the feeling behind them is universally human. Maybe it’s because First Love is so heavily autobiographical—Turgenev himself wrote that it was his favorite of his own work because “it is life itself, it was not made up”—but the characters have an emotional richness to them that is hard to find elsewhere.
That’s all for now. Which other Russian books or authors would you recommend? And how do you feel about novellas? Let me know in the comments.