Two Ruinous Percent

‘An optimist never fails to delight me. What gorgeous creatures. They really do represent tragedy in its purest form. To imagine that one loves life! What a perfectly wonderful delusion; what a beautiful misunderstanding. What a joke! Oh yes: an optimist is always better than a half-hearted pessimist. One ought to go the whole hog, even when one is disastrously wrong.’ (Pyetr Turgidovsky)

There are many pleasures one can get from reading Pyetr Turgidovsky, not least the realisation that, however depressed you are, you will never have so little faith in humankind as he. I took to the garden this morning and buried myself in a sandpit before re-reading the closing chapters of Turgidovky’s most recent work, Delicious Air of Life (or the Ugly God-damned Wife). Here I encountered a previously forgotten passage in which a character called Alexsei castigates a character called Yuriy for his ‘tiresome allegiance to mere melancholia’. Yuriy, it turns out, is a fan of films by Swedish melancholy-monger Ingmar Bergman. Alexsei, it turns out, is not.

‘These charlatans drive a weasel up my arse,’ he complains, charmingly. ‘They only take it so far, you see. They show that life is miserable; they remind us that death is near; they explore the innate selfishness and ultimate incompatibility of human beings, only to relent at the last minute with some airy-fairy nonsense about how life is ninety-eight percent tragedy, but every now and again one has an interesting conversation with someone on a sunny day which almost makes it worth while. Almost makes it worth while! Nonsense. Such moments, if they ever occur, make nothing worthwhile. In fact, they make everything all the more tragic. Heed not this soft-headed approach; this ruinous two percent of life-making delightfulness. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that one sweet sunset makes fifty years of pain worth living. It simply doesn’t’.

Lovely stuff, representing Turgidovsky at his miserable best. Also a timely reminder of this year’s most interesting literary discovery: Turgidovsky juvenalia. Okay, so there’s a fair amount of dross to be found amongst Turgidovsky’s early, unpublished work. But there are gems too. Incompatible (a poem, of sorts) is probably not one of them, though it deserves a mention nevertheless. After all, it can only interest us to know that the ‘ultimate incompatibility of human beings’ (as mentioned above) has been a Turgidovskian motif right from the beginning. Or can it? I suppose we might expect a teenager to think himself essentially incapable of forging any kind of human relationship – and in this sense, Incompatible is no more than typical. ‘I am incompatible with my family. I am incompatible with my friends. I am incompatible with the girl I passed on the street the other day. I am…’  – so on and so forth. Relatively uninspiring, and unsurprising stuff. Still, it does show a remarkable consistently, reminding us of Turgidovsky’s admirable refusal to cast off teenage angst – to enter the adult world with all his scars intact, unhealed, and bleeding profusely over all the pages of his pleasantly unpleasant novels.

Truth and Unpleasantness

In comments to a post below, Elis draws attention to an article written by Raymond Chandler in 1912, in which he attacks the narrow-mindedness of a contemporary wave of realism. Chandler writes of these so-called realists: ‘Boldly declaring that they will cast aside all factitious optimism, they automatically choose the dark aspect of all things in order to be on the safe side; as a result unpleasantness becomes associated in their minds with truth, and if they wish to produce a faultlessly exact portrait of a man, all they need to do is to paint his weaknesses’.

Reading these words now I am reminded, unsurprisingly, of our good friend Pyetr Turgidovsky, whose philosophy of unalloyed misery has much in common with late nineteenth and early twentieth century ‘realism’. Nothing but the sordidness of life will do for Turgidovsky; depression, dullness, dirt and desolation; these are his subjects. But would he call himself a realist? Most probably. I don’t doubt that he believes, essentially, in his gospel of unhappiness. Yet there is a quality to his ‘realism’ missing from these earlier forms: a passion, perhaps even an exaggeration, which leads some, still, to the conclusion that Turgidovsky’s ultimate goal is satire. He pushes misery so far that there is nothing to do but smile.

I’m not so sure about this conclusion. To push Turgidovsky through Chandler’s closing comments may, however, nudge us towards a better understanding of the famous nihilist. The greatest ‘realists’, he argues, are in fact ‘the most courageous of idealists, for they exalt the sordid to a vision of magic, and create pure beauty out of plaster and vile dust’. Anyone who has read the description of dead bodies in Turgidovsky’s latest work, Delicious Air of Life (or the Ugly God-damned Wife), will probably agree that here, amongst all the blood and bruises, we find more than enough ‘pure beauty’ to confirm that Turgidovsky is, should you wish to take this line, a ‘courageous idealist’.

Dash It? (Delicious Air 7)

As Domino points out in the comments to this post, there is more than a whiff of ambiguity surrounding the subtitle to Turgidovsky’s new novel. Beyond the obvious uncertainty as to why it even exists, one is driven to question the presence of the dash lurking in the middle of the word ‘god-damned’.

With this in mind, one turns gracelessly to the usual scapegoat: the translator. It must be his fault: of course it must! And yet Mikhail Lenka (for it is he) has been quick to spring to his defence – not at the expense of the miserable author, but of another middle-man: the goddamned publishers.

For yes – it seems that a tidal wave of publishing-house doubt drenched the title issue, propelled by the eternal winds of small pedantic minds. One such mind belonged to a crabby Englishmen, who was convinced that ‘goddamned’ was an American affectation and fought like a hungry polecat for the addition of the fatal dash. To say that Lenka was swamped by malcontent would be putting it lightly. In fact, he wasn’t sure that ‘goddamned’ should be there at all –  in either manifestations. His original translation was ‘blighted wife’ – which works perfectly well, unless you’re a publishing house with bees, wasps and dragonflies in your bonnets, helmets and bowler hats.

So what went wrong? Well, ‘blighted’ was thrown out, for a start, to be replaced by ‘ugly goddamned’, whereupon the precious Englishman piped up and, after hours of argument, managed to grab himself a dash, albeit only for the English edition. The result? Turgidovsky’s book shall be published in the US with the title: Delicious Air of Life (or the Ugly Goddamned Wife) as opposed to its English title, Delicious Air of Life (or the Ugly God-damned Wife), as opposed to Lenka’s title, Delicious Air of Life (or the Blighted Wife), as opposed to whatever the hell its Russian title was.

It’s hard to say what the author thinks of all this. It’s a tragic farce, of course, but then Turgidovsky tends to delight in such things, does he not?

More on this later.

Whither the Wife? (Delicious Air 6)

As I have noted several times (including here) Turgidovsky’s new novel, Delicious Air of Life, comes with a subtitle, namely The Ugly God-damned Wife. This raises an obvious question – who is the ugly god-damned wife?

Truth be told, the book contains quite a few wives, few of whose faces would launch a tugboat, let alone a thousand ships. And, bearing in mind the fact that everyone is, in Turgidovsky’s melancholy eyes, damned by god, we find we have at least two dozen candidates for the sorry role in question.

Which is not to say that I think the subtitle actually refers to a specific character. After all, Turgidovsky’s previous novel, The Lunatic, was not concerned with a single lunatic, was it? Indeed, its kind conclusion was that we are all lunatics: united in our glorious and tragic idiocy. In which case we might presume that all the women in Delicious Air are ugly god-damned wives.

Which raises another question. Turgidovsky is, essentially, a misanthrope – not a sexist. He appears to despise men and women equally – so why, in a book that deals with both sides of various unhappy marriages, does he drag the focus onto the women in his ambiguous subtitle? Why not Delicious Air of Life, the Ugly God-damned Wife and her Witless, Pug-nosed Husband? As titles go, it’s a little on the unwieldy side, but does much better justice, I think, to the writer’s worldview; to his charmingly fair concept of the sexes as being equally ineptitude, proportionally fatuous.

Clinical Corpse (Delicious Air 5)

I don’t suppose I’d be giving the game away if I said that Turgidovsky’s Delicious Air ends with a death. I would, however, be lying, for it doesn’t quite end with a death – no, that’d be far too sentimental. It ends with yet another glimpse at people leading deathly lives; people who have yet to find their eternal rest, if rest it is.

Proceeding that, though, we get what is possibly the longest, most clinical description of a corpse I’ve read for a while. Thirty eight pages! And yet I’d be deceiving you if I suggested that these pages aren’t, in their own special way, exhilarating: crammed with the odour of decay, oozing with putrescence like nobody’s business. There are points at which you think it’d be easier to kill yourself than turn over the next page – and yet you plough on regardless, enjoying each depressing line as much as the last.

And so I have reached what some people call ‘the death of the book’. The end. Ah, but have I finished the book? Not at all. What can any man learn from reading a book just once? Back to the beginning with you, I say, back to the beginning. Read, re-read and re-read again.

Not that I won’t be taking a short break. After all, Turgidovsky is gruelling stuff. He is the arch-prince of spirit-dampening: the great lord of lugubriosity – and for this, I salute him. But I’m sure that he even understands the need to step out of the chamber of desolation every now and again; to sup, sometimes, on that delicious air of life he seems so keen to disparage. One day a year, perhaps, he treats himself. Just one day he gets up late, turns off his logical mind, and learns to admire life.

Or maybe not.

Second-Guessing the Shark (Delicious Air 4)

So, I’m nearing the end of my first reading of Turgidovsky’s Delicious Air of Life. It’s taken me a little longer than usual, but then it isn’t what you’d call an ‘easy book’. One recalls the words of Franz Ludo when asked what he thought of The Lunatic. ‘I’d rather cycle through a cesspit with a shark on my head than read that again’. And he calls himself a critic!

Of course, there are ways and means of ensuring that one doesn’t get too bogged down in a book, of which ‘active reading’ is the most obvious. Perhaps Ludo consumed The Lunatic whilst sitting on a sofa, as many readers do, or lounching about on his bed (also a popular reading venue). A mistake, of course. To keep on top of a book, one needs to make more of an effort than this. Oh yes indeed.

To give some examples from this past week, during which I have been reading Turgidovsky’s new novel as actively as I can, approaching each chapter from a different perspective. Chapter One I read in the bath. Chapter Two I read on a train. Chapter Three I read curled up in the airing cupboard (to my wife’s evident surprise when she came to collect a sock). Chapter Four I read whilst running around the garden (it’s not a long chapter). Chapter Five I read standing on my head. Chapter Six was read to me by my wife whilst I recovered from reading Chapter Five. Chapter Seven I read under the influence of half a bottle of scotch. Chapter Eight I read lying naked on the kitchen floor. Chapter Nine I read sitting on the front porch balancing a walnut on my head (rather unsuccessfully, I’m ashamed to say). Chapter Ten I read on a bus whilst being abused by schoolchildren. Chapter Eleven I read at the bus stop in the rain whilst waiting for another bus. Chapter Twelve I read with my head inside the fridge, surrounded by the delicate aroma of blue cheese. Chapter Thirteen I read under the bed in the spare room. Chapter Fourteen I read sitting in a ditch. Chapter Fifteen I read in a public house. Chapter Sixteen I started reading in a library but, disliking the atmosphere, continued reading in a supermarket. Chapter Seventeen I read whilst a friend threw tomatoes at me and Chapter Eighteen I read whilst I threw them back at him.

Which brings me just about up to date, I think.

Honeymoon in Vladivostock (Delicious Air 3)

My wife tried to persuade me the other day (Wednesday, I think it was) to go and sit in a dark maladorous room with a group of soft-drink swilling strangers and watch a marriage fall apart slowly on a large screen. I declined the offer.

It’s not that I don’t like watching marriages fall apart; rather the way that popular culture deals with it. Last year she foisted that book on me; the one about the newlyweds and their ‘difficult’ wedding night. It wasn’t a long book, but all the same I threw it into the sea long before the last sentence. The ‘difficult’ wedding night is a hard one to manage – and I wasn’t sure that this particular author hadn’t made a mess of it. No, when it comes to sustained sexual embarrassment, one really needs to turn to a master of the form.

Take Turgidovsky, for example. Now, I can’t vouch for his emotional state, but it seems that the hairy Russian writer had a lot of bad sex on his mind when writing Delicious Air. If his former novel, The Lunatic, was crammed to the rafters with unrequited love, his present tendency is towards loveless marriages. Not just loveless: disastrous, desperate and destructive. It’s all there  – everything that you could wish to go wrong, duly does. He doesn’t miss a trick, this Turgidovsky fellow.

On page two hundred and ninety four we are introduced to the first of four newlyweds that populate the novel. Christian and Mary are, as the names suggest, a religiously minded couple: young, virginal, idealistic. What could go wrong? What indeed. Perhaps they shouldn’t have chosen to honeymoon in Vladivostock? Ah, but you can’t blame that wonderful city for everything. Before reading this novel, I feared that Turgidovsky would be using the great port as an excuse to rage about chemical pollution. I underestimated him. It’s not that Turgidovsky doesn’t care about chemical pollution in Vladivostock – but that, ultimately, that’s only one of a host of things going wrong. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Turgidovsky isn’t interested in big symbols of human tragedy – for everything about humans is tragic. There is no end to it.

Mean-spirited he is, but also even-handed. Lest you think his attack on Christian and Mary is anti-religious, he does his level best elsewhere to remind his readers that everyone makes the same mistakes, merely in different ways. Which is to say that his atheistic couple fare no better. No one comes off lightly and no answers are supplied. Everyone is unhappy in their own special way. Ah, Turgidovsky – what a sweetheart you are!