First Love by Vladimir Nabokov, 1948
The magic trick:
Using the story title to alter the reader’s interpretation
The words first love likely conjure up images of a momentous childhood relationship, one that ends quickly but whose innocence lingers on into adulthood. Or something like that.
And this story delivers something quite like that. The narrator indulges in a lovely nostalgia trip and remembers a summer bond he forged at the age of 10 with a girl named Colette. She kisses him on the cheek. He promises to run away with her. It’s all just what you’d expect from a story titled “First Love.”
One problem, though: I don’t believe the narrator’s relationship with Colette is the first love of the title at all. Nabokov separates the story into three sections. He makes no mention of Colette until section three. The first two are filled with detail after detail of the narrator’s summer memories, the beaches, the trains, everything.
The title toys with the reader’s expectations, and then helps to refocus the reader on the story’s central theme. Colette, in section three, comes to represent everything the narrator feels for his childhood vacations – the special joys, the education, the adventure the innocence, and the failed escape. And that’s quite a trick on Nabokov’s part.
When, on such journeys as these, the train changed its pace to a dignified amble and all but grazed housefronts and shop signs, as we passed through some big German town, I used to feel a twofold excitement, which terminal stations could not provide. I saw a city, with its toylike trams, linden trees, and brick walls enter the compartment, hobnob with the mirrors, and fill to the brim the windows on the corridor side. This informal contact between train and city was one part of the thrill. The other was putting myself in the place of some passerby who, I imagined, was moved as I would be moved myself to see the long, romantic, auburn cars, with their intervestibular connecting curtains as black as bat wings and their metal lettering copper-bright in the low sun, unhurriedly negotiate an iron bridge across an everyday thoroughfare and then turn, with the windows suddenly ablaze, around a last block of houses.