For my second of the Art of the Novella series, my daughter selects Turgenev’s First Love. This is good, I am on surer ground with Turgenev than Melville. I consider the short stories in Sketches from a Hunter’s Album as among the finest and Kasyan from the Beautiful Lands the most perfect of that collection.
In First Love Turgenev writes with an artful simplicity, despite the slightly fusty Constance Garnett translation. Sixteen year old Vladimir falls hopelessly in love with twenty-one year Zinaida, daughter of a diminished aristocratic family. With the self-possession of a twenty-one year old beauty, Zinaida, flirts effortlessly with Vladimir, playing him off against a contingent of fervent admirers. Suddenly her gaiety turns to wretchedness – as Vladimir (and the reader) decipher who has captured Zinaida’s love, Turgenev misdirects the reader and leads his story to a shocking ending. Full appreciation of the viciousness of the penultimate chapter, as so often with stories of this period, requires attentive reading. A few words conceal a lot of detail.
It is a weaker tale than those in Sketches, though just rescued from sentimentality by those last two chapters. I’ve never been able to decide whether I prefer Turgenev or Dostoyevsky, on this reading my vote is tipping in favour of the latter.