Wednesday, September 1, 2010

I put pomade on my hair, lay down, and slept like a top all night - the gentle, bittersweet First Love

First Love (1860) is the Turgenev story, among his early works, that I would recommend to almost anyone.  No politics, no philosophy.  No subplots, which is what makes it more of a long story rather than a short novel.

The title almost tells the story.  A sixteen year old boy falls in love with a twenty-one year old woman, the sort who fascinates all of the men around her.  Since this is his first love, one can guess where we end up.

Turgenev’s tasks: First, get the details of adolescent love right.  Our poor sap falls in love at first sight; here he is that night:

As I was going to bed, without quite knowing why, I spun round two or three times on one foot; then I put pomade on my hair, lay down, and slept like a top all night. (Ch. 2)

The story is being written by the protagonist, twenty years later, as some sort of confession or purgative.  I like that he does not mind looking ridiculous.  I don’t know which is better, the spinning or the pomade.  His love destroys his studies, ruins his habits, makes him dress ridiculously.  “Like a beetle tied by the leg, I circled constantly round the adored lodge.”  All just right.  In some sense, the entire story is a mood piece, alternately ecstatic and despondent.

At the midpoint of the story, the boy learns that his beloved is in love with someone, but who?  Which leads us through Task #2, breaking the boy’s heart in an instructive manner.  I’ll let that be, and just mention that the lesson ends with a scene so sexually frank that I was genuinely startled.  It’s cloaked by the (adult) narrator’s presentation of the (adolescent) boy’s lack of understanding.  Maybe I'm the one who didn’t understand it.

References to horses weave the story together, beginning to end.  To me, this lifts First Love above what might at first look like a straightforward treatment of the subject.  Or a simple treatment – this write-up of First Love keeps insisting on its simple simplicity.  Yuck!  But there’s a difference between seeming and being, and between a simple story and complex artistry.

This bit is good, right?

…and then my attention was absorbed by the appearance of a large, brightly coloured woodpecker, busily climbing up the slender stem of a birch tree, and peering nervously behind it, alternately to the right and to the left, like a double bass player from behind the neck of his instrument. (Ch. 14)

Turgenev, early Turgenev, at least, spends a great deal of energy on finely-polished nature writing.  The Sportsman’s Notebook actually ends with several pages of pure description, of a dozen or so different scenes (meadow in spring, steppe in autumn, and so on).  I’m not convinced that this is all to the good, that the descriptive material is always so well integrated with the story.  The balance in First Love is nice, though, nature pathetically filtered through the palpitating heart of our hopeless young lovebird.

I used the Isaiah Berlin translation (1950) which, with attractively large type and pointless illustrations, stretches the length to 120 pages.  I’ll bet Oxford and Penguin get it down to sixty.  Making up for yesterday: A Common Reader on First Love.


  1. It's the pomade that's better, but I suppose I could be swayed on that point.

    This one's going right on the list.

  2. Oh my gosh! "Like a beetle tied by the leg"!

  3. This is all before Turgenev met Flaubert, although he certainly could have read Madame Bovary.

    Easy to see why they got along - Turgenev's best moments are often these tiny little things.