Jeremy Stangroom on a Danish debut novel
First love, lets face it, is irksome. Almost always unrequited unless you are really very good looking or rich it starts in embarrassment and ends with a restraining order. And yet we hanker after the remembrance of it. Partly this is because our memories of first love figure the illusion of a future where love and life, without risk, argument, conflict, complacency and mediocrity seemed to be a realisable possibility. And partly it is because getting old, with all of its disappointments, just isn't much fun.
Jens Christian Grøndahl
But this hankering is, of course, the stuff of fantasy and day-dreams. First love is through and through sentimental. Its real object of concern is ourselves and not the person we purport to love. After all, how else is it possible to explain that many of us have believed ourselves to be in love with someone maybe Simon LeBon or Velma from Scooby Doo we had never actually met? But, of course, sentimental or not, first love is still a powerful thing and people do crazy things in its name.
That first love can exert a powerful force, both constructive and destructive, is the central theme of Jens Christian Grøndahl's excellent novelette Virginia. The book tells the story of a woman whose life is shaped by a chance encounter she has with a downed pilot when a teenager in the Second World War. She is never able to forget the pilot she shares her first kiss with him and as a result her life takes a trajectory that it would not otherwise have done. Grøndahl handles this theme with subtlety, and at the same time weaves in a sub-plot about guilt and redemption. There is no doubt that many people will find the story moving.
However, those of us of a more cynical bent will perhaps find something a little disturbing in all this. Part of the problem is that there is something amiss if you're obsessed in adult life with someone you spent only a few hours with as a teenager. Your kids are not going to be very happy, for example, if you explain to them that Mummy and Daddy are getting a divorce because Daddy can't stop thinking about Mrs Symkins, the gym mistress, with whom he had a couple of assignations when a teenager. They'd think Daddy quite barmy, and they'd be right.
But somehow because Grøndahl's story concerns a woman, a pilot and the Second World War, the stuff of many a tuppeny-halfpenny romance novel, the scenario doesn't seem quite so crazy. It seems right that this young woman might fall helplessly in love with a dashing young pilot, and that the experience might come to shape the course of her life. And this is part of what makes the story disturbing. Not least it suggests a number of worrying thoughts about the way our preconceptions about women and romance make this tale seem plausible.
The other part of what makes Virginia a slightly disconcerting read is that one suspects that Grøndahl might be on to something here. We have become, or maybe we always were, nostalgia junkies. The hankering after the memory of first love is just part of a more general hankering after the past. Our television schedules are dominated by nostalgia programming. Badly dressed pop bands from the 1980s re-form to terrorise their audiences once more. And, though it is a scary thought, many people attend school and class reunions without having a gun held to their heads.
And consider the success of the Friends Reunited web site, which people access in their millions. Indeed, there probably aren't many of us who haven't visited the site with just an inkling of the hope of making some kind of contact with a beau not seen in decades. What one finds, of course, is that the site is full of stories about people who have reunited with long lost loves. Inevitably, they decide over the course of a couple of meetings, never mind the odd twenty years apart, that their love was always meant to be. And in a triumph of irrationalism, they announce that they are to be married.
Madness? Of course. But perhaps no more so than Virginia spending her life haunted by the memory of a pilot with whom she once shared a kiss. And probably indicative of what just about every sage has pointed out is part of the human condition; that we're never quite satisfied with what we've got.
Virginia is available from Amazon (UK)