Love in Turgenev’s work
Turgenev (1818-1883) remained a bachelor throughout his life. His mother was a cold and fickle woman and his father had married her for her money. As a child Turgenev witnessed the constant arguments between his parents and swore to himself that he would never marry. And he didn’t. Most of his adult life he was in love with Pauline Viardot, a married woman. He adored her, but apparently happily accepted that he could never have her completely (see http://wp.me/p5zzbs-1R ).
His mother and Pauline keep popping up in his work. Let’s have a look at three of his well known love stories: First Love (1856), Acia (1858) and Torrents of Spring (1872). All three are more or less autobiographical and in all three stories the narrator looks back on an episode in his youth. This construction is know as a ”frame story”, a technique that Turgenev uses a lot, and it gives the reader the feeling that he is reading in Turgenev’s memoirs.
Fear the love of woman; fear that bliss, that poison…
First Love is probably the most famous of the three stories. The 16 years old Volodya is head over heels in love with Zinaïda, a beautiful, cheerful, proud and somewhat cruel girl of 21. She has numerous admirers. In the course of the story she changes and becomes pale and depressed. It turns out that she is having an affair with a married man, not with one of her admirers, but with Volodya’s father! Of course the affair leads to arguments between Volodya’s parents and soon they move to another house. Volodya sees Zinaïda once more: when he is out horse riding with his father, his father suddenly disappears. Volodya follows him and sees him talking to Zinaïda. At some point his father lashes her arm with his whip and the shocked Volodya sees her kiss the red streak that the blow has made. ”That’s love (…)” Volodya concludes, ”that’s passion!”. Shortly afterwards his father dies and a few years later Zinaïda dies as well.
The way in which Zinaïda treats her admirers reminds us of Pauline, who let Turgenev sit down on a paw of a giant polar bear rug lying at her feet; the only paw that wasn’t already occupied.. First Love was Turgenev’s personal favourite and he said that it was loosely based on true events. It's remarkable that Volodya isn't jealous when he finds out that is father has an affair with Zinaîda; he understands that she chose his handsome father.
Happiness has no tomorrow, no yesterday…
Acia is set idyllically in Germany. During his travels there the narrator N.N. meets a Russian brother and sister; Gagin and Acia. They get along well and soon they are spending every day together. N.N. likes Acia, but can’t figure her out; one day she is a simple Russian girl, the next she is reckless and passionate. Gagin tells him that that is the result of her childhood. She is the daughter of his father and a serf woman. Acia falls in love with N.N. and he with her. He decides to propse to her, but when he goes to their house it turns out that they have gone away without saying good-bye to him. He unsuccessfully tries to find them. Looking back the narrator admits that he wasn't sad for very long and that a marriage with such a fickle girl would probably not have been very happy.
Acia’s story has similarities with that of Turgenev’s own daughter with a serf woman; Paulinette. Acia’s dark appearance and tiny figure must have been inspired by Pauline.
I am going where you will be, and will be with you till you drive me away…
Torrents of Spring is also set in Germany. Sanin falls in love with the beautiful, Italian Gemma, who is engaged to a solid German. During a day trip in the mountains Gemma gets insulted by an officer and when her fiancee fails to react, Sanin challenges the officer to a duel. The duel ends with both men missing their shot. When Gemma finds out about the duel, she breaks off her engagement. Not long after Sanin proposes to her himself. In order to raise money for the wedding, he will have to sell his estate in Russia. By chance he meets an old school friend who also happens to be in Germany. This friend suggests that his wife Maria might be interested in buying the estate. Maria, however, makes a bet with her (gay) husband that she will be able to seduce Sanin within a couple of days. She wins the bet in a masterly described scene and instead of returning to Gemma with the money, Sanin follows Maria to Paris. He sends Gemma a lame letter, breaking off the engagement.
Only the beginning of this story really happened, in Frankfurt Turgenev met a pretty Jewish girl and her family, but he saw them only once and the rest of the story he made up. The end, of course, echoes his relationship with Pauline, following her around Europe. Although he was perhaps never Pauline’s lover.
The eternal admirer
Three completely different girls, but three very similar love stories. It all starts in high spirits; the weather is ’magnificent’ and ’unusually good for the time of the year’ and the surroundings are idyllic. The sudden appearance of an exceptionally pretty girl surprises the narrator. He falls in love, but he never gets the girl, and remains a bachelor. Again and again Turgenev describes being in love, but he never dares to let it blossom into a relationship, nor in his stories, nor in real life.
Eerste Liefde, Asja and Lentebeken, lovingly published by van Oorschot, parts 2 en 3, translated by Carl en Rebecca Ebeling and Wils Huisman
The Gentle Barbarian – V.S. Pritchett
All three stories are available for reading online: