43.Prva ljubezen Ivana Turgenjeva in grskega pisatelja Ioannisa Kondilakisa (The first love by Ivan Turgenev and John Condilakis), translated from English by Vera Troha, in Primerjalna Knjizevnost, (Comparative Literature), volume 28, Nr 1, Liubljana, June 2005, ó. 91-97.
There is a Greek saying that a man never forgets his first love, and a woman her latest. As a demonstration I will refer to two short stories of the same title, “The first love”, written by the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev and by the Greek writer John Condilakis.
As we read in the introductions to the two works used in this study1, they are autobiographical to a great extent. They were, however, written in different periods of the writers’s lives. Condilakis’s work was written a little before his death. this can be inferred by the fact that it was published in 1919, a year before his death. It was also written in “dimotiki”, the spoken language, in contrast to his other works, which were written in “catharevousa”, a sort of written language much preferred by scholars and writers alike, a language with grammatical and syntactical forms of the ancient Greek, from which it borrowed most of its vocabulary. Turgenev, on the other hand, started his work in 1860, when he was only 42 years old, and finished it in the middle of March of the same year, as we are informed in the introduction.
In spite of the common theme, both works have some differences as regards the plot. However, there are two major similarities: the plot is unusual, and the heroines came to a tragic end. Condilakis’s heroine commits suicide and Turgenev’s heroine dies young, in childbirth. Both die before reaching the age of thirty.
Their first love had a great impact on the lives of both writers, as they confess: “The sorrow gathered in my soul and stayed there all my life” (p. 92), Condilakis writes. “Then I felt that, no matter how long I would live, I would never be able to forget this movement, this glance, this smile of Zenaid. Her figure, this new figure which unexpectedly appeared before me, would stay for ever in my memory” (p. 81), Turgenev writes. A little earlier the hero says to his beloved: “I will be in love with you until I die” (p. 77). I wonder if this is the reason why neither writer got married. Perhaps they both had the feeling that all the women that they met in their lives were lacking in comparison to their first, idealized loves. Turgenev writes in the same short story: “Oh, tender feelings, sweet sounds, goodness and calmness of a moved soul, lost joy of the first excitement of love, where are you? Where are you?” (p. 35-36) And a few pages later: “The feeling of happiness that I had at that time never appeared again in my life” (p. 53). That time was when Zenaid, thinking that he was unconscious, kissed him all over his face. “Her breast breathed over mine, her hands tenderly held my head, and suddenly – what happened to me then! Her tender, cool lips began covering my whole face with kisses… bit my lips” (pp.52-53).
The experience of the first kisses was for Condilakis’s hero also tremendous: “But when… Vangelio embraced me and kissed me, I had the feeling that now she was kissing me in a different way. Her kisses were fewer but lasted longer, and all of them on the mouth. I had the feeling that they were burning and that my cheeks were on fire” (p. 19).
Condilakis’s first love, Vangelio, was a distant relative. “Slim and brunette, apparently older than eighteen, maybe older than twenty” (p. 12), while the writer was only five years old. The others would tease him for his feelings. Vangelio is engaged, but her fiancé abandons her, and she doesn’t manage to form another relationship. So, as the hero gets older, never ceasing to love her, Vangelio directs her frustrated feelings towards him. His mother doesn’t fail to notice, and is not at all pleased.
Our hero is now fourteen years old. He lives in the city where he attends high school. On coming home for the vacations, he finds Vangelio ill with tuberculosis. His mother isn’t on good terms with her, being anxious about the relations she has developed with her son. He, however, despite his mother’s worried protests that he may become infected, visits her twice. Vangelio, in despair, says to her mother: “I have a love which doesn’t suit me. This love is my great and only joy, but also the great and incurable pain of my life. People should feel sorry for me. I haven’t asked for their sympathy. But though they criticize me, I am neither afraid nor ashamed. God who thinks differently will judge me and find my heart pure” (p. 88). In the end, in despair, she climbs a high cliff and throws herself down, killing herself. Her young beloved then falls into great despair.
Turgenev’s narrator is sixteen when he makes the acquaintance of Zenaid, an impoverished princess who lives with her mother in a nearby house in the country. Like Kondylakis’s first love, she is “tall and slim” (p.16). He falls in love with her. He suffers from jealousy seeing her surrounded by a multitude of admirers, just like Kondylakis’s narrator, who is jealous of Vangelio’s fiancé. Later his distress becomes greater, as he realizes that she is having a love affair with someone. He gives us some evidence, which at that time had passed unnoticed by him, as to who the man in her life might be. Finally he finds out that this man is his own father, as he is witness to a farewell scene. So our hero turns out to be an inverted Hippolyte, Euripides’s hero. He loves his father’s wife, and not vice-versa. And the one who is going to die is his father, and not he. His separation with his mistress seems to become intolerable to him, provoking thus an apoplexy, which sends him to death. Just before he dies, he begins writing a letter to his son. “My son – he wrote to me – beware women’s love, this happiness, this poison” (p. 83).
While these short stories apparently focus on the love despair that these two young heroes experience, in fact, what moves the reader more is the tragic condition of the two heroines. By far the most moving of them is Condilakis’s heroine, whose frustrated love is eminent throughout, finally leading her to suicide. As regards Turgenev’s heroine, she gets married, but four years afterwards she dies in childbirth. Turgenev’s hero didn’t have the chance to meet with her during all these years.
According to Aristotle who says “…when the tragic incident occurs between those who are near or dear to one another… these are the situations to be looked for by the poet”2, Turgenev’s love-story should be more tragic, since there is the son’s jealousy of the father. Moreover there is no conflict, since Zenaid, in contrast to Vangelio, doesn’t take this young boy’s love for her seriously, which might have caused his father’s rage. And the young son doesn’t feel anger against his father when he discovers who his rival is. And, most of all, the heroine’s death doesn’t happen “according to the law of probability or necessity”3, but quite accidentally.
On the contrary, Condilakis’s love-story has an air of ancient tragedy. The tragic heroine suffers because of amartia, that is “some error or frailty”4, and her tragic end is not an ordinary death, but suicide. She is, moreover, constantly in the foreground. The father in Turgenev’s story, though he also dies because of “some error or frailty”, appears very rarely on the stage. His error is the adultery, and his punishment a death caused by grief. So the reader feels more compassion, a sentiment prevalent in Greek tragedies according to Aristotle, for Vangelio than for any of Turgenev’s heroes.
There is a general similarity in Turgenev’s and Condilakis’s works. In the electronic encyclopedia Britanica cd, we read about “…the elegance of the love story and the psychological acuity of the portraiture” in Turgenev’s works, and that “The promise of happiness is offered, but the ending of the relation is invariably calamitous”. In Condilakis’s works the end is always calamitous as well, without however any promise of happiness. This is more evident in another of Kondylakis’s work entitled “When I was a schoolmaster”. The reader has no doubt that neither the love of the teacher nor the love of the narrator for the same young beautiful girl is going to be reciprocated. But while the narrator overcomes his grief when the young girl gets married the good-looking young man, the teacher, falling into deep depression, like Vangelio, commits suicide.
In his “First
love” Condilakis proves very modern in his depiction of a passionate love and
its frustration not in a normal love relationship but rather in an unusual love
relationship. “Madam Butterfly” by Henry David Hwang is one of the most
representative examples of the portrayal of an unusual, but nonetheless deep
erotic passion. His hero commits suicide, as the woman he is in love with
proves to be a man and, moreover, a spy. Not because of the betrayal, but
because the ideal female form with which he was in love proved to be
Turgenev, in opposition to Condilakis, tends to focus more, like a painter, on the outer appearance of his heroes. Zenaid is depicted in many episodes. These depictions, emphasizing her beauty, function as a means to make the narrator’s love both justified and inevitable. Zenaid is portrayed from his point of view, the point of view not of an objective spectator but of a teenager totally in love: “I glanced at Zenaid – and at that moment she seemed to me much taller than anyone of us. Her pale brow, her motionless eyebrows, reflected such a brilliance of spirit and commanding force, that I thought: You are this queen” (p.63).
In their first encounter the young narrator is attracted by “her huge gray eyes” (p. 16). Condilakis’s narrator also remarks that “her black eyes, which seemed greater than usual, had the agony of an injured bird” (p.35). The huge gray eyes of Zenaid express eroticism, since, as biologists contend, a woman’s eyes, when sexually aroused, dilate, and, announcing thus her erotic readiness, she seems more beautiful, attracting in this way the males. In contrast Vangelios’ black eyes, which seemed larger than usual, made evident her great distress like windows to her soul.
Condilakis, in contrast to Turgenev, depicts the outer appearance of his heroine very briefly, showing her gradual withering as the symbolic equivalent of a deeper spiritual withering, caused by the attacks of the narrator’s mother and by the realization of the inevitable frustration of her erotic feelings. Turgenev portrays his heroine’s beauty while Condilakis portrays the turbulent inner world of his.
Turgenev makes brief but accurate portrayals of the suitors who surround his queen: “-Maidanov, the princess addressed a tall young man with a thin face and the small eyes of a blind man, and a very long black hair…” e.t.c. (p. 31). A motif in Turgenev’s works is the examination of the impact of a newcomer to the rest of the company and their reaction when they see him developing a relation with the heroine, which, as we have already said, is doomed to fail. So in Turgenev’s short story there are a lot of characters, while in Condilakis’s short story there are very few, all of them having a decisive role in the development of the plot.
Every narrative work is to a certain extent ethographic, either by design or unavoidably, since the milieu of the characters has to be described somehow, otherwise they would seem to be moving in a vacuum. When a story is placed in the distant past its readers capture more intensely its ethographic character, because of the difference in the customs and morals between the present and the past. The soviet citizens and contemporary Russians as well must observe with curiosity the morals of the aristocracy of that time and the ways they entertained themselves. The game of Jack which Turgenev describes may well be unknown to contemporary Russians.
In his short story Condilakis exposes medical practices of the past, with an ethographic intention and a satirical aim as well. The mentally ill was thought to be possessed by demons. The demons would then be exorcised by the priest, and if they didn’t leave the possessed man, he was heavily thrashed. “The poor crazy man was beaten and they thought that they were beating the devil” (p.58). In those times there was also a very strange way to fight fever. “My mother used to call for a man of letters to ‘write the shivers’, that is to write an incantation on a piece of paper, and this paper would then be strung around my neck, as a talisman. They also used to dissolve this paper and give me the solution to drink” (p. 80).
And a page later:
“…The majority of these doctors of traditional medicine were fortune-tellers, that is magicians and doctors at the same time. Instead of diagnosing the illness according to the symptoms of the patient, these doctors diagnosed on the basis of fortune-cards, which were believed to be a mixture of magic and cure.
My mother called such a doctor to examine me. He came holding a thick book, handwritten, wrinkled and worn in the corners after so many years of browsing. He hardly cast a look at me. He neither examined my pulse nor looked at my tongue. My mother told him that I felt very feverish, I sweated at night and was delirious. But all this was irrelevant information for his art of healing. He only asked what month and what day I had been born. Then he opened his book. And as he turned over page after page, there appeared stars of David, magic circles and other similar magic forms. After reading aloud for a while he stopped and told me to put my finger randomly on any point. Then he started reading again, not aloud this time, his lips hardly moving. After a few minutes he made his diagnosis. I had a heavy “vistara”, that is an attack of the evil spirits, but perhaps initiated and in collaboration with a human being. His piece of paper was rather vague on this point” (p.81).5
language also shows the transition of the Cretan vernacular (Condilakis comes
Both stories are excellent. I think that Condilakis’s short story is the better. Although it was not my intention to demonstrate it in my analysis, I think it becomes evident through it. Turgenev is a widely known writer. Condilakis, a very talented writer, had the misfortune to write in an idiom spoken in a small country. But the fate of great literary works written in minor languages like Slovenian and Greek is too large an issue to be discussed here.
 Ioannis Condilakis, I proti agapi kai alla
diigimata, (First love and other stories),
2 Aristotle, Poetics, tr. By S.H.Butcher, etext #1974, Gutenberg Project, XIV.
3 Ibid, IX.
4 Ibid, XIII.
5 Incidentally, Ba Jin, a famous Chinese writer, satirizes similar traditional medical Chinese practices and the rejection of the western medicine in his work Chun (Spring). We have read it in a simplified edition, as a reader, in Sinolingua editions, Beijing, 1987, p.42.
Ioannis Condilakis, xx:, I
proti agapi kai alla diigimata, (First love and other stories),
I.S. Turgenev, 1988: Pervaya lubov (First love),
Aristotle, Poetics, tr. By S.H.Butcher, etext #1974, Gutenberg Project, XIV.
Ba Jin, 1987: Chun (Spring),