For those fretting over plot spoilers, let your anxious fears subside. Were there an obvious plot to be found in Turgidovsky’s novel, I wouldn’t be so cruel as to detail it here. As it is, the novel is typically wide-ranging, never settling on one character or story long enough for its readers to develop a serious (or, worst case scenario, sympathetic) relationship with them. And why stick around anyway? As Turgidovsky says: ‘Death is the only end. Everything culminates in eternal torment’. Which is to say, if you’re looking for anything other than full-throated anguish, pack your bags and get going before the first sentence begins.
Heart-warming they may not be, but it would be a lie to say that Turgidovsky’s characters aren’t, in their own special way, entertaining. Take the rather wonderful Little-Hammer-Man who appears in the first chapter of Delicious Air of Life [hereafter Delicious Air]. Is there not an element of self-parody in this figure whose main aim is to remind ‘everyone, always, of the fact that they are much happier than they should be’: to ‘hoover up every last crumb of joy from under every Russian table’? Passionate he may be, but he is also frighteningly practical, going about his business according to a carefully planned strategy, as set out for him by the shadowy Ministry of Justified Misery, of which he may or may not be a founder member.
The precedent is obvious. From Chekhov’s Gooseberries (1898):
There ought to be someone with a little hammer outside the door of every contented, happy person, constantly tapping away to remind him that there are unhappy people in the world, and that however happy he may be, sooner or later life will show its claws; misfortune will strike – illness, poverty, loss – and no one will be there to see or hear it, just as they now cannot see or hear others. But there is no person with a little hammer, happy people are wrapped up in their own lives, and the minor problems of life affect them only slightly, like aspen leaves in a breeze, and everything is just fine.
One can well imagine Turgidovsky reading this passage, his eyes alight with morbid enthusiasm, buoyed by the prospect of creating this ‘person with the little hammer’ whose presence his literary predecessor appears to call for. ‘Everything is just fine’? Not in my book, says Pyetr proudly.