43. The Widow

THE LETTERS COME IN every day, from all across the world in all kinds of languages. I don’t reply to them. I read the ones I can read, the ones written in Russian and French, and they always say the same kind of thing: Evgeny changed my life, Evgeny is a hero, we need more people like Evgeny, that kind of thing. If I replied to them I’d tell them all the same thing: you should get over your infatuation with Evgeny, Evgeny was nothing more or less than a selfish bastard. What the fans don’t understand is that if they had known him they would probably have hated him. Sometimes Evgeny could be the worst kind of man you could ever meet. He had a temper, not violent, but easily annoyed and petulant. He was vain, he was lazy in every way other than his writing, which to begin with he only ever intended to be a pointless indulgence. He was a narcissist in my opinion, a workaholic, a terrible father, the worst kind of father, neglectful and indulgent in turn. He didn’t drink or take drugs and he was too ugly and depressing to be around to be unfaithful, so I guess I should be grateful for that. He was far from stoic, quite the contrary in fact, but as for the aches and pains of pregnancy, childbirth and child rearing, he was completely indifferent. For years, while he wrote, I had to work, and I had to bring up the kids too. He was only ever interested in his writing, even when – especially when – there was no prospect of ever making any money out of it. Of course, the success was unexpected. It took us completely by surprise. When it came – slowly at first, then, later, too late, in torrents – it took the edge off the narcissism a little, but heightened the melancholy. You can see it in the writing, at first only intermittently maudlin, and becoming more so over time, and finally by the end so maudlin it is more or less completely unreadable, at least to me. Of course by this stage he was already sick, but if he’d taken proper care of himself he’d still be alive today. The kids were young and he wanted to see them grow up, and success made him wish he had longer to live – but not so much as to actually make him change the way he took care of himself, which was nothing short of irresponsible. He ate badly, he kept odd hours, he worked too hard, he slept badly, he skipped doctor’s appointments, he didn’t take his pills. In a way, it’s no surprise the kids adored him, but what hurt me the most is that they resented me because I was the disciplinarian. I had to be – he never said a cross word to them. Whereas most parents rightly think that a child’s debt to them can never be repaid, he believed the precise opposite – that a parent’s debt to a child can never be repaid, because the child didn’t ask to be born. He didn’t want them to be writers, maybe because he didn’t think they could ever be as good as he was or he didn’t want them living in his shadow, which amounts to the same thing. In a way success came at the right time – early enough to set us up for life after Evgeny but not too early to change Evgeny for the worse. Any earlier and it would have brought out his arrogance, his vindictiveness. Had he not died when he did, by now he would be living in the shadow of his greatness, sadder than ever and held in contempt by everyone who knows better. Throughout his life, he made enemies wherever he went. He was likeable at first, but those friends that stuck with him did so despite his personality, not because of it. He was capable of great charm, but only when there was nothing in it for him, when it was futile. On second thought, it wasn’t himself he was in love with, but futility. The whole point of Evgeny’s writing was that by the time he began to seriously write he was sure it was futile, convinced he would never succeed as a writer. Not that he didn’t want to succeed, just that he didn’t expect to. Those expectations had been crushed out of him by years of ignoble failure. That was the kind of guy he was: if he thought there was a chance he would succeed at something he wouldn’t do it. To him, life was a game to fritter away. He courted misery. To his credit, he never shied away from any of his faults. He was as lousy a lover in real life as he was in his writing. What the fans don’t realise was that Evgeny was crazy, completely unfit for life, and that to model your own life on Evgeny’s life is beyond crazy, it’s suicidal and utterly futile. I think he realised that towards the end, how wrong he had been about everything, but only at the very end. I can honestly say the only part of our time together I cherish truly and unreservedly is the last few days, most of which we spent in hospital. It was the only time of true clarity in the whole eight years we were together, the only time Evgeny managed to muster up a modicum of courage and forbearance. I always think of that wonderful story by Tolstoy when I think of that time – ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’, that great good man who spends the last days and hours of his life screaming inexplicably, and why? Because he realises it has all been… what? Muddle-headed. Mistaken. Wrong. Evgeny didn’t scream, he was the complete opposite in fact. Finally he had found his hour. In everything other than in his art, he had well and truly wrecked his life – there was no chance of redemption now, no possible salvage. If anything he seemed relieved. It was as he wanted. I was more than sorry to see him go – I was heartbroken. But I was angry too. A man who is in love with futility is ultimately in love with death. Evgeny never could stand Tolstoy.