‘A strange, feverish time’ [book review]

A review of Love and Youth: Essential Stories by Ivan Turgenev, translated from the Russian by Nicolas Pasternak Slater

A short-story collection full of surprises, Love and Youth charmed and confounded me in almost equal measure. In what publisher Pushkin Press deems the ‘essential’ collection, Ivan Turgenev’s well-known novella First Love is gathered together with some of his short stories in a brand-new translation by Nicolas Pasternak Slater. The result is a short and fairly turbulent ride that offers an interesting introduction to one of the greats of nineteenth-century Russian literature and leaves a powerful impression of the two often-confusing states of being that give the collection its title.

Cover image Love and Youth

When I settled down to read Love and Youth, which opens with First Love, I felt fairly confident I knew what I was getting into. There were the polite Russian gentlemen telling stories to one another; there was the somewhat high-flown language, the slightly staid manner of speaking that marked this text out as having been written in a previous time. Before long, however, events had taken an unexpected turn – particularly when it came to the second half of the book, which contains stories such as ‘The Rattling!’ and ‘Bezhin Meadow’. These are, without exception, unusual tales, full of strange twists and overtones of comedy, and characterised by a heavy dose of the ‘whimsy and wilfulness’ originally encountered in First Love.

The immense, dizzying and often agonising feeling of falling in love for the very first time is captured with sensitivity and sharpness in this novella, in which our sixteen-year-old narrator falls head over heels for the beautiful, witty and often cruel princess who moves with her impoverished family into the house next door. His love is, of course, doomed to remain unrequited, but the story takes an unexpected direction when Princess Zinaida chooses to bestow her affections not on one of the many young men who flock to admire her, but on an older and far less suitable figure. During this painful summer, our narrator is very often treated as a child – not just by other characters, but also by the author, who has structured the story such that the reader often understands things far in advance of the main protagonist – yet he steadily matures along with the novella as he comes to see the difference between infatuation and love. There is the inevitable moment of realisation – ‘my love, with all its joys and sufferings, now struck me as so trivial, and childish, and pitiful, when set against that other, unknown thing which I could barely guess at’ – but Turgenev has subtler ways too (the changing of the seasons, the narrator’s manner of speaking) to indicate his rather tortuous coming of age. Despite what felt like an unnecessarily neat and hasty ending (though this was doubtless the style of the period, not all ends really need to be tied up), First Love is a moving and timeless story that will find some resonance with almost every reader.

The same probably can’t be said of the remaining stories, which, though in their own way fascinating, are a little harder to get on with. All building on themes of love, human folly and social class, they read a little like the fairy tales they so often touch upon. In ‘Bezhin Meadow’, a lost hunter stumbles across a group of boys guarding a herd of horses and, settling down by their campfire, listens to them telling one another local ghost stories. In ‘Biryuk’, another footsore hunter is taken in by a forester, later going out into the woods with him to catch a local peasant in the act of felling a tree. Despite the rather stern sense of morality at its core, this story seemed among the most accessible and was particularly striking in its descriptions of the natural world, at odds with the narrator’s rather clichéd, not to say dismissive portrayals of the forester’s home: ‘A peasant’s hut at night is not a cheerful place’. The story that follows, ‘The Rattling!’ again juxtaposes the higher and lower classes as a nobleman on a hunting trip (sense a theme here?) is aided by a local farmer on a wild night-time drive to a nearby town. Though quite likely the strangest of the collection, I enjoyed the madcap tone of this story, its apparent delight in its own impetuosity. Turgenev, I felt, had fun writing ‘The Rattling!’ – and while this is in itself a cliché, fun isn’t something I often associate with nineteenth-century Russian fiction.

The later stories, ‘The District Doctor’ and ‘The Lovers’ Meeting’, were a little less successful for me on the grounds of their fairly overwrought language and too-masculine gaze when it came to talking of love. Literature does, of course, have to be read in the context of the period in which it was written, so I can’t entirely blame Turgenev for the minor (actually, almost non-existent) role he gives his female characters. An attempt to adhere to a popular style of writing may also be behind the author’s apparent – but bewildering – eagerness to package all his stories very definitely as fictions. First Love, for example, is introduced as a fireside story told by the narrator as an older man, but though given names in the opening paragraphs, his audience never resurfaces again. In a similar device, ‘Bezhin Meadow’ contains several references directed at an undefined ‘you’, the reader, while in ‘The Rattling!’ we even come across the blatant line: ‘Yermolay added something juicy and unprintable’. The net result of all this is a distancing effect, placing the reader definitively outside the story and thus making some of the characters – for me, at least – a little difficult to get on board with fully.

Niggles aside, Love and Youth is an enjoyable reading experience that brilliantly captures the fleeting sense described by the moony-eyed narrator of First Love:  ‘the earth’s own relentless, headlong rush through space’. Life goes at a fair clip in these stories and is quite often totally absurd, yet that isn’t an altogether inaccurate reflection of the real experience of living. Not what I’d counted on, but all the more charming for it, Love and Youth is an irreverent dash through some of literature’s more serious themes, an insightful look at nineteenth-century Russian society, and a clear indication of Turgenev’s prowess as a writer. Heavily influenced by dreams, legends and fairy tales, the stories ultimately offer a wonderful sense of escapism: ‘a strange, feverish time’ indeed.

Love and Youth: Essential Stories by Ivan Turgenev, translated from the Russian by Nicolas Pasternak Slater, is published in the UK by Pushkin Press and available in the US from 9 March 2021 through Steerforth Press. Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for so kindly providing a digital review copy.

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