Little is known of Pyetr Turgidovsky’s romantic history. One presumes, at first, that he would have had little, if any time for warm human relationships. His novels do a mighty fine job, after all, of proving that such things are futile, impossible, nugatory: barren. And yet one might argue that a misery such as his must be fuelled by a sense of something lost; that someone so unhappy must have been touched by the warm hands of joy at one point or another. Oppositions dictate experience, do they not?
Enter Elena Pitchovnik, the first woman I know of who claims to have had a relationship with Turgidovsky. Admittedly it was a short-lived one (four and three-quarter days) but it was nevertheless, by her account, ‘deep, sweet, intense and, at moments, thoroughly romantic’. So what went wrong? ‘Nothing,’ she writes, ‘ought to have gone wrong. Happiness was there for the taking. It sat on the wall like an egg holding a spoon, crying to be cracked’ (her simile, not mine). ‘But Turgidovsky is allergic to happiness,’ she goes on, ‘he refuses to let himself be seduced by a beautiful life. He fears the effect of it too much. He fears his art will suffer, so he takes it in his arms for a few days only, then drops it, like a baby, back into the mud’.
Oh yes, the old Art V Happiness debate. Nothing new there. Does honest-to-God cheerfulness really cramp a writer’s style? Not necessarily, though it depends somewhat on the characters in question. Some writers will cope better than others. Turgidovsky clearly doubts his ability to keep going under the monumental stress represented by happiness. But who’s to say he’s ever given it a proper go? It’s dangerous territory, I admit, and I’d be the last person to push the great Russian nihilist into doing something he – and we – might regret for all time. On the one hand, he might learn to love mankind. On the other, we might never see another novel like The Lunatic or Delicious Air of Life. It’s a tough choice.