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.
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’.
‘Life’s certainties? Death, taxes and crap adolescent poetry’. So said Elmer Rautchberg in 1957. And it can’t have been the first time that someone publicly railed against substandard teenage verse. The wild scribblings of angsty young adults have, for all the passion contained within, rarely set the world alight. Though volumes of early works by some of the age’s greatest sonnetists continue to shift significant amounts, very few of them have garnered critical praise.
It’s true: waves of cynicism lick the beach of my brain repeatedly, but still I will confess that I have a slight weakness for crap adolescent poetry. Not my own of course (heaven forbid) – nor that of your ordinary troubled citizen. But when someone emerges with a piece of early writing by a contemporary master, I am almost always intrigued. It may lack the skill, poise and sense of later work, but it just as often delivers an unexpected punch: a line or two, maybe, of surprisingly wonderful verse – or the tentative appearance of themes integral to maturer writings.
I was thus thrilled to see that some of Pyetr Turgidovsky’s youthful work has recently been republished (against the author’s wishes, I believe) in a Russian literary magazine. Who knew that the young Turgidovsky used to pour his heart into poetry? And who’d have imagined that it would be this good?
I want to die by the side of the road (written at the age of sixteen and by far the best of the present lot) is nothing short of a classic. Of course, adolescent self-loathing is pretty much what we’ve come to expect from the mad Russian miser, but it’s nonetheless a shock to see how good he was this early on. This, truly, is moving stuff. And they will scrape me up/and they will lay me down/and they will kick me clean/across the gravel. And what about those lines about the hedgehogs and the crows? And the description of the maggots? The Russian critic Alexander Hrabav says it best: ‘Imagine The Good Samaritan, but without the goodness’ – a line that could just as well describe everything Turgidovsky has written since, much of which appears to have grown like mould from the festering wound of this poignantly shocking early work.
I had something to say about Fjona Uu – something significant, no doubt – but I’ve forgotten what it was, so in the meantime I’ll slink back with a sorry frown to what is strangely becoming this blog’s favourite subject.
What is it about Pyetr Turgidovsky that keeps us coming back to him? I’d never have thought that unrelenting misery was so captivating. And yet it’s hard to keep the big Russian brute out of one’s mind. He holds so many of the answers to those questions we can’t help but ask. Not pretty answers, mind you – but fabulously frank and fascinating ones.
Consider the following question, certainly one of the more beguiling search terms to have appeared in connection with this blog in recent weeks: ‘What makes the twenty first century miserable?’
One yearns to know what possessed someone to type these words into their computer (clearly not someone hoping for a comfy evening in). One wonders, then, whether the question is asked on the understanding that our century is especially miserable, or whether the curious searcher is looking to compare contemporary misery with misery of the past. Perhaps the person is question is anxious to see how misery may progress over the course of this century – in what wonderful ways it will continue to manifest itself. Will twenty-first century misery outdo twentieth century misery? If so, how? In what way will our brand of modern misery prove itself more miserable than the great brands of medieval misery? Is there any more we could do to ratchet up the misery rating? Are we miserable enough?
I can’t profess to know the answer to any of these questions. But trust me when I say that Turgidovsky almost certainly does. And he’s gone some way to providing them in his most recent novel, Delicious Air of Life (or the Ugly God-damned Wife).
As for those he hasn’t yet tackled, rest assured he’s working on them as we speak. So fear not: this writer will leave no miserable stone unturned.
‘Not still writing about that silly Russian?’ asks my wife, with an extra dollop of sneer.
I grin like a dog: my default setting in such circumstances. She knows very well that this is an important moment in Turgidovsky studies. His second novel has arrived at last – and the eyes of every editor of an obscure European journal are, quite naturally, pinned on him. They all want to know what to make of his new work, The Delicious Air of Life (or the Ugly God-damned Wife). Will it live up to the unrelenting misery-fest that was his debut, The Lunatic?
Misanthropic hermit as he is, we’ve learned a fair deal about Turgidovsky since his first book fell on our laps, infected our minds and used our souls as a punch-bag. Who doesn’t know of his daily routine, his ubiquitous black umbrella, his cousin, his fear of marshmallows, his love of funerals, his irregular teaching methods and his bravely consistent impoliteness? We feel like we know him – and that we rather we didn’t. And yet, for all his meanness, he remains a magnetic personality. What is it? Is it the faint possibility that below the almost endless layers of unhappiness, he might be having a laugh on all of us? I know that this is a conclusion Heidi Kohlenberg favours. But I am not so sure. I think that Turgidovsky takes wretchedness perfectly seriously and, though this doesn’t do much for his readers’ state of mind, it is to some extent an admirable approach. After all, happy endings aren’t for everyone, are they?
With all this in mind, I intend to start reading the new book this afternoon – and to throw out some thoughts on it as and when they occur to me. Call this an experiment in reviewing. Of course, I would usually wait until I’d read a book several times before judging it, but I see no harm in using another method for once; if not because I believe in it, then because it’ll allow me to get some words in before the other critics have finishing sharpening their knives.
More on this, therefore, later.
Further to yesterday’s post, you may be interested to know that, in the absence of Paulo Zilotti, most of the lecture time was given over to the second speaker, the aforementioned ‘gaunt man with the beard’. I had never come across him myself, but he turned out to be none other than a cousin of Mr Misery-Guts himself: Pyetr Turgidovsky – a writer whose visual appearance is thought by many to be the perfect reflection of his prose (Heidi Kohlenberg writes about meeting him here).
As for Valery Turgidovsky (for that was the man’s name) he was much merrier than you might expect from a fellow of such perilous slimness that automatic doors were in the habit of shutting in his face. At times he was, in fact, uproariously funny (he was reading, in case you wondered, from his book of short stories The Constant Fumbler). Having said that, I’ve always thought Pyetr is far more comic than he is ever given credit for.