You can start very young indeed. Dante was nine and Beatrice Portinari just eight when he fell in love with her, though she went on to marry another man and die at the age of twenty-four. The narrator of Turgenev's First Love is a more conventional sixteen when it happens. But Romeo and Juliet? And should one ask about religious figures at all?
I can't make up my mind whether it was at five, ten, fifteen or twenty I first properly fell in love. There is a photograph of me aged less than five, stealing a kiss from a pretty little girl in a Budapest park. Was that love? Probably not. I don't remember dwelling on it. I don't remember wasting away and pining.
It was at ten I first confessed love. It was to a ten-year-old thin, dark, gawky girl with big dark eyes and a bob, at the back of the class after everyone had gone. That was after Jimmy, my bus-spotting, steam-train adoring friend, had already kissed her in my full view. Why did he kiss her? Why did I suddenly feel I was in love with her? What would I have known of romantic love? Something I suppose, since I told her straightaway. I love you, I said. She gasped and ran off and that was the end of it. (She contacted me from Australia, married with three, a year ago, out of the blue and out of sheer curiosity seeing my name somewhere.)
I confessed love as one does – the confession full of anxiety, uncertainty, fear of humiliation, relief and a sense of guilt, even at that age – and immediately felt desolate. For at least an hour. Or maybe it was less than that.
The Duc de la Rochefoucauld, in one of his maxims, asks whether anyone would ever love had they not first learned the discourse of love. The question assumes an answer in the negative and, sceptical as the old sceptic was, he seems pretty persuasive on this point. Love is what we expect. We know the signs: we've mastered parts of the language. Romantic love, courtly love, is a dance we know by heart. Rosalind tells Orlando what the signs are. "A lean cheek, which you have not, a blue eye and sunken, which you have not, an unquestionable spirit, which you have not, a beard neglected, which you have not; but I pardon you for that, for simply your having in beard is a younger brother's revenue: then your hose should be ungartered, your bonnet unbanded, your sleeve unbuttoned, your shoe untied and every thing about you demonstrating a careless desolation; but you are no such man; you are rather point-device in your accoutrements as loving yourself than seeming the lover of any other."
I did not have a lean cheek or blue eyes nor a beard at ten, but my hose was occasionally ungartered, my sleeve unbuttoned, my shoe untied, and a number of things did demonstrate a careless desolation.
But that was not love. That was just the sound of a big idea meeting a strange feeling. How did I learn the discourse of love at such a tender age?
There was János Vitéz ("John the Valiant" is a shot at translating a scarcely translatable epithet), the long and very exciting verse tale by the Hungarian Romantic poet, Sándor Petöfi (1823–1849) that begins, as I translate it:
The summer sun blazes, not a smidgeon of shadow,
The shepherd attends to his sheep in the meadow.
No need for the sun or celestial fire,
The boy is in love and aflame with desire.
Tender his heart as it crackles with passion,
He shepherds his flock in amorous fashion.
At the end of the village the vague sheep meander,
He lies on the grass with his cloak spread out under.
An ocean of brilliant flowers surrounds him
But little he cares for anything round him,
A stone's throw away flows the brook in its station,
His eyes watch the water in rapt fascination,
Yet not quite the water, for all its fine features,
But a beautiful maiden, the fairest of creatures,
The fairest of creatures with midriff so slender,
Her golden hair tumbling, her bosom all splendour.
I think I had this by age five, let alone age ten. That bosom all splendour! I saw it and felt it near me as part of the discourse of love. It was a twenty-something-year-old nineteenth-century Hungarian poet who first taught me the rudiments of the literary language, or discourse, of love. He was my pander, Galeotto to my Paolo. The beautiful maiden Ilona / Szép Iluska (Fair Nell) was my Francesca. There was the idyllic scene, the heat, the laziness and idleness, the electricity of desire, bountiful nature, the girl in the water. Golden hair, bosom all splendour. One really shouldn't tell a five-year-old child such things because trouble inevitably comes of it: trouble, tragedy and death, as it did with Francesca and with fair Iluska. Well, in most cases just trouble, but the rest may follow.
If embarking on the beginnings of a Pavlovian reaction to the word "love" at age ten is not really first love, what is, or was in my case? As far as I remember now there was a long series of hopeless first loves, or rather crushes, all unreciprocated: violent squalls of high-octane romance-desire. It took practically nothing to turn a potential spark into a brain-and-limb-consuming flame that, at worst, lingered for a month or two, leaving me with the feeling that no one could be less desirable than I. I was the focus of the sorrows of Goethe's Werther as seen in Thackeray's parody:
So he sighed and pined and ogled,
And his passion boiled and bubbled,
Till he blew his silly brains out
And no more was by it troubled.
Charlotte, having seen his body
Borne before her on a shutter,
Like a well-conducted person,
Went on cutting bread and butter.