November 09, 2018

First Love

First Love

First Love, which Turgenev called his most autobiographical novel, tells the story of a sixteen-year-old boy’s infatuation with an older girl. The story was modeled after Turgenev’s own love for a young woman, who eventually turned out to be the mistress of his father. While many Russian critics were divided about the propriety of the subject matter, the novel was reportedly received with enthusiasm by the likes of Gustave Flaubert and Tsar Alexander II. 

The game of forfeits went on.[1] Zinaida sat me down beside her. She invented all sorts of extraordinary forfeits! She had among other things to represent a “statue,” and she chose as a pedestal the hideous Nirmatsky, told him to bow down in an arch, and bend his head down on his breast. The laughter never paused for an instant. For me, a boy constantly brought up in the seclusion of a dignified manor house, all this noise and uproar, this unceremonious, almost riotous gaiety, these relations with unknown persons, were simply intoxicating. My head spun, as though from wine. I began laughing and talking louder than the others, so much so that the old princess, who was sitting in the next room with some sort of clerk from the Tversky Gate,[2] invited by her for consultation on business, came in to look at me. But I felt so happy that I did not mind anything, I didn't care a straw for any one's jeers, or dubious looks. Zinaida continued to show me a preference, and kept me at her side. In one forfeit, I had to sit by her, both hidden under one silk handkerchief: I was to tell her my secret. I remember our two heads being all at once in a warm, half-transparent, fragrant darkness, the soft, close brightness of her eyes in the dark, and the burning breath from her parted lips, and the gleam of her teeth and the ends of her hair tickling me and setting me on fire. I was silent. She smiled slyly and mysteriously, and at last whispered to me, “Well, what is it?” but I merely blushed and laughed, and turned away, catching my breath. We got tired of forfeits – we began to play a game with a string. My God! What were my transports when, for not paying attention, I got a sharp and vigorous slap on my fingers from her, and how I tried afterwards to pretend that I was absent-minded, and she teased me, and would not touch the hands I held out to her! 

What didn't we do that evening! We played the piano, and sang and danced and acted out a gypsy encampment. Nirmatsky was dressed up as a bear, and made to drink salt water. Count Malevsky showed us several sorts of card tricks, and finished, after shuffling the cards, by dealing himself all the trumps at whist, on which Lushin “had the honor of congratulating him.” Maydanov recited portions from his poem “The Manslayer” (Romanticism was at its height at this period), which he intended to bring out in a black cover with the title in blood-red letters; they stole the clerk's cap off his knee, and made him dance a Cossack dance by way of ransom for it; they dressed up old Vonifaty in a woman's cap, and the young princess put on a man's hat… I could not enumerate all we did. Only Byelovzorov kept more and more in the background, scowling and angry… Sometimes his eyes looked bloodshot, he flushed all over, and it seemed every minute as though he would rush out upon us all and scatter us like shavings in all directions; but the young princess would glance at him, and shake her finger at him, and he would retire into his corner again.

We were quite worn out at last. Even the old princess, though she was ready for anything, as she expressed it, and no noise wearied her, felt tired at last, and longed for peace and quiet. At twelve o'clock at night, supper was served, consisting of a piece of stale dry cheese, and some cold turnovers of minced ham, which seemed to me more delicious than any pastry I had ever tasted; there was only one bottle of wine, and that was a strange one; a dark-colored bottle with a wide neck, and the wine in it was of a pink hue; no one drank it, however. Tired out and faint with happiness, I left the lodge; at parting, Zinaida pressed my hand warmly, and again smiled mysteriously.

The night air was heavy and damp in my heated face; a storm seemed to be gathering; black storm clouds grew and crept across the sky, their smoky outlines visibly changing. A gust of wind shivered restlessly in the dark trees, and somewhere, far away on the horizon, muffled thunder angrily muttered as it were to itself.

I made my way up to my room by the back stairs. My old servant was asleep on the floor, and I had to step over him; he woke, saw me, and told me that my mother had again been very angry with me, and had wished to send after me again, but that my father had prevented her.

(I had never gone to bed without saying good night to my mother, and asking her blessing. There was no help for it now!)

I told my man that I would undress and go to bed by myself, and I put out the candle. But I did not undress, and did not go to bed.

I sat down on a chair, and sat a long while, as though spellbound. 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. Zinaida's face floated slowly before me in the darkness – floated, and did not float away; her lips still wore the same enigmatic smile, her eyes watched me, a little from one side, with a questioning, dreamy, tender look… as at the instant of parting from her. At last I got up, walked on tiptoe to my bed, and without undressing, laid my head carefully on the pillow, as though I were afraid by an abrupt movement to disturb what filled my soul… 

I lay down, but did not even close my eyes. Soon I noticed that faint glimmers of light of some sort were thrown continually into the room… I sat up and looked at the window. 

The window-frame could be clearly distinguished from the mysteriously and dimly-lighted panes. It is a storm, I thought; and a storm it really was, but it was raging so very far away that the thunder could not be heard; only blurred, long, as though it were branching, gleams of lightning flashed continually over the sky; it was not flashing, though, so much as quivering and twitching like the wing of a dying bird. I got up, went to the window, and stood there till morning… The lightning never ceased for an instant; it was what is called among the peasants a “sparrow night.” I gazed at the dumb sandy plain, at the dark mass of the Neskuchny Gardens,[3] at the yellowish façades of the distant buildings, which seemed to quiver too at each faint flash… I gazed, and could not turn away; these silent lightning flashes, these gleams seemed in response to the secret silent fires that were aglow within me. Morning began to dawn; the sky was flushed in patches of crimson. As the sun came nearer, the lightning grew gradually paler, and ceased; the quivering gleams were fewer and fewer, and vanished at last, drowned in the sobering positive light of the coming day…

And my lightning flashes vanished too. I felt great weariness and peace… but Zinaida's image still floated triumphant over my soul. But it too, this image, seemed more tranquil: like a swan rising out of the reeds of a bog, it stood out from the other unbeautiful figures surrounding it, and as I fell asleep, I flung myself before it in farewell, trusting adoration…

Oh, sweet emotions, gentle harmony, goodness and peace of the softened heart, melting bliss of the first raptures of love; where are they, where are they?

First published in Russian: 1860

Translation by Constance Garnett

This story was published in volume 39 of Chtenia.


[1] A bit like “truth or dare,” where losers in a round of the game were required as punishment for their loss to perform some sort of silly or slightly embarrassing act.

[2] Tverskaya Vorota, an important commercial district in central Moscow.

[3] The oldest park in Moscow, along the Moscow River. Today it is known as Gorky Park.

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