‘First Love’ by Vladimir Nabokov

A stand-alone short story, but also a chapter later incorporated into the autobiographical Speak, Memory, this is a brilliant and knowingly Proustian evocation of adolescent love in Paris. The narrator recalls his ten-year-old self, so no middle-aged Humbert here. The innocence is two-fold: one related to young love, the other an unstated prelapsarian sense of the world set to experience the trauma of the Russian Revolution and the First World War. As always with Nabokov, it’s the details that make the story a success. The ending is precisely observed, its recollections accelerating in a cinematic montage. As a treatment of piercing memory, it echoes MacNeice’s poem ‘Soap Suds’ and the coda to Lytton Strachey’s memoir of Queen Victoria. Achingly beautiful. 

First published in The New Yorker as ‘Colette’, July 1948. First collected in Nabokov’s Dozen, 1958. Most recently collected in Collected Stories, Penguin Modern Classics, 2017. Read it online here

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