Fyodor Mikhailovich, where are you today?

Oh, Fyodor Mikhailovich, where are you when we need you? Or, to be honest, when we want to be able to let off our frustration and anger? And, no, we don’t agree with those universities that are taking your books off their reading-lists as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. We will continue to value your words—as we value Tolstoy’s, Chekhov’s, and so many others’—because they have shaped the way we think, no, the way we are. Without you, our humanity would be diminished.

I know you said that you can’t supply the answers to our present-day problems and that we have to work these out for ourselves. But when we talked about nationalism all those months ago in Kelvingrove Park, it all seemed somehow simpler, more theoretical. Now, all those things you wrote about Russia and its superiority over the West, about how a nation can be cleansed by war, and your praise for the Russian volunteers fighting for Bulgaria and Serbia—what does that all mean today? Does it mean you would be cheering at the destruction of Kharkiv, Mariupol, and Kiev, with Odessa and Lviv to come? Some might think so, but could you really have accepted Slav fighting Slav, Russian-speaker fighting Russian-speaker? I can’t believe it—but I suppose it might depend what information you had and whether you believed it. What if you really believed Russians were being massacred in Donetsk and that Russia had only stepped in to help and protect …? But surely you were too smart to be taken in by those sorts of justifications? I don’t know. And then, just as I’m getting plunged into gloom, I remember what you said about Russia’s truly distinctive capacity being the ability to enter into and sympathize with the views of all other European nations. And I remember that your defining theme was ‘the man in man’, what makes us all (Russian, Ukrainian, English, Scottish, French, etc., etc.) human—the eternal soul that exists beyond our divisions of nationhood and official religiosity. I must hold on to that.

I want to echo the words of Elizaveta Prokofievna at the end of The Idiot, looking at the sad, silent figure of the beloved Prince Myshkin: come back to us. But I know you won’t and can’t. God knows, I’m lucky for the meetings we did enjoy. I can’t expect you to be there at every crisis in life. No, it’s up to us now not to let your words be taken and twisted in the cause of violence and hate. You know, I’ve several times thought that of all the characters in your novels, the one that the Russian President most resembles is Peter Verkhovensky, the ruthless conspiratorial leader of a nihilist organization dedicated to subverting the rule of law in Russian society. It’s not for me to judge any individual, and that’s not my point. But one thing I did learn from you was that nihilism can use any vocabulary that suits its purposes because it’s ultimately indifferent to truth. Like your Grand Inquisitor, it can even adopt the language of Christianity. But does it respect the freedom and the dignity of the individual? Does it love the person? There’s the rub.

No, I won’t stop reading you, you can be sure of that—and I’ll go on listening to Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich and, if it’s ever possible, I’d love to visit Moscow one more time in my life. I cherish my Russian friends. But, today, I can’t help thinking of the words of the Marquis de Custine, who said that since he had visited Russia (in 1839) he saw the future of Europe in black. You wouldn’t agree with that and I don’t want to. But his words haunt me. And then, on the other side, I think also of what Berdyaev wrote about you. I’m not quoting this to flatter you, but to help me hold fast to the promise of that other Russia, the Russia of Sonia, Myshkin, Zosima and Alyosha; the Russia of saints who died rather than lift their hands against their brothers, the Russia of spiritual pilgrims and witnesses to truth who faced down history’s worst tyrants; the Russia of artists, writers, musicians, and dancers who created sublime images of what we—all—might become in a transfigured world. 

‘So great is the worth of Dostoievsky that to have produced him is by itself sufficient justification for the existence of the Russian people in the world; and he will bear witness for his countrymen at the last judgement of the nations.’

I write these words and, of course you don’t appear. I didn’t think you would. But I seem to hear your voice, from somewhere not too far off … ‘Please, I’m only a writer …’

Epilogue

Epilogue

The next day, Easter Day, I did go to church. I’d been planning on doing so anyway, but my last conversation with Dostoevsky gave me additional motivation. I should immediately say that I wasn’t full of the ecstatic enthusiasm of a new convert. The service wasn’t especially wonderful. I couldn’t really follow the sermon or hear the prayers given by a member of the congregation. I didn’t have any deep religious experience. The heavens didn’t open. But it made sense. ‘I am the resurrection and the life’. Perhaps we spend so much time arguing about the first part of this, the resurrection, that we forget about the second, the life—‘we’, that is, atheists and believers alike. Find the joy in life and the resurrection will, perhaps, look after itself. Whether I awas anything more than half a believer, I’m still not quite sure, but I now knew that I believed in life and, if life, then love; if love, then joy. Not, as I say, in any special ‘religious’ way. Just the human way of a child and a convict, the innocent and the guilty. And, if Fyodor Mikhailovich was right: if joy, then God.

            That was my last conversation with Dostoevsky, but I did see him one more time. 

            A month or so later, on a bright May Sunday afternoon, Laura and I took a walk up to the Botanical Gardens. The good weather had come quite suddenly, after the promise of early April had turned into a cold, overcast spring, which often happens in these islands. Overnight the city put on its summer best and the crowds were out in force. It was almost a party atmosphere. 

            We found a bench outside the Victorian hothouses and sat there, just relaxing, getting the sun to our skin, and watching people having a good time: playing, laughing, talking, eating, texting, reading. The seemingly endless stream of people parading past where we were sitting provided a constantly changing spectacle for any half-curious people-watcher. It was almost like watching the passagiato in an Italian seaside town, only here it wasn’t quite as slow or leisurely. You never knew how long summer was going to last, so you had to get your pleasure in quickly. There was almost an undercurrent of urgency. 

            Then, amongst a wave of people coming towards us, I saw him. He was wearing a rather crumpled old-fashioned white linen suit and a straw hat, which made him look rather like a character in one of those Russian plays where they all sit around in their dachas having affairs and intrigues. He was walking quite slowly and I saw several people loop round him, clearly finding him in the way, but he appeared to be oblivious of them. His hands were clasped behind his back and he seemed to be cheerfully talking to himself. He could almost have been trying out some dialogue for a new novel. As he approached us, he looked up, raised his hat and, without changing his pace, gave us a smile of acknowledgement.

            “Fyodor Mikhailovich!” I burst out.

            I could see that Laura had already noticed him, which wasn’t surprising. Although his summer outfit might not have been so unusual in the south of England it did stick out here in Glasgow, not to mention the way he was talking to himself. He looked undeniably eccentric—at the very least. When I spoke his name Laura turned to look at me, then back at him, then me again.

            He didn’t pause to speak and was soon absorbed into the crowd. Gone. 

            “Was that …?” she asked.

            I shook my head self-consciously and a little ashamedly.

            “It was.”

            “We need to talk,” she said, looking both alarmed and curious.

            Of course, I couldn’t tell her everything at once. And she couldn’t take it all in at once. That’s why I’ve written it down like this, so she could read it all. She has. I think I mentioned that around Christmas time she’d started reading The Brothers Karamazov. We didn’t discuss it much at the time, though when she finished the last page, she did turn to me and say “That was the most amazing novel I’ve ever read.” I could only agree.

THE END

(or is it THE BEGINNING?)

Conversation 7: ‘We are all here’. Episode 6.

            Down to the right of where we were standing loomed the great dark bulk of Glasgow’s cathedral, the one medieval building surviving the constantly repeated demolition and rebuilding of the surrounding city, its black spire steadily but wearily pointing those who might care to look towards God. Or so the faithful hoped. I couldn’t help thinking of Nietzsche’s madman who described Christendom’s empty churches as tombs of God. What such a building or its God had to do with our conversations was hard to say.

            “God, Fyodor Mikhailovich. God.”

            He looked surprised and watched me for several seconds as if waiting for me to say more.

            “God?”

            “Yes, God. We’ve been talking, I suppose, about immortality, but in The Brothers Karamazov it seems like the question about immortality is also a question about God. So. God. Does he exist? I suppose if there’s immortality, he must—but maybe this immortality is all just part of some great cosmic process, some eternally evolving collective mind in which Christ is the most highly evolved individual, or something like that?”

            I almost surprised myself by how philosophical I sounded. It’s true that I’d dipped in to Solovyov’s writings since that conversation in the park, so maybe some of it was filtering through.

            “God? Yes. Where does the light come from if not from God? We, I’m afraid, don’t generate too much light. Not left to ourselves. Reptiles devouring each other in some dark primeval swamp. But there is light. The world is flooded with light once we have eyes to see.”

            “Sorry, I don’t want to niggle about words, but I thought you said the light you see each other by there was Christ’s light. So: Christ—God. What’s the difference? Is there any difference? How does that work?”

            “Don’t you remember—it seems you don’t—the apostle’s word about the light of God’s glory shining in the face of Christ? That’s the light we see: or, to be more precise, it’s when it’s reflected in his face that it becomes a light that human beings can see and be seen by. As I’ve said, that doesn’t mean that all human beings are ready to see that light. Perhaps none of us can see it directly while we’re on earth and, even here, it takes some time to adjust to. The source, of course, is hidden and will always remain hidden, but we know it by the light it emits—and I’d add, the joy.”

            “The joy?”

            “The joy. It’s the only real eternal answer there is to all those interminable eternal questions. Even if you can’t see the light or aren’t aware that you’re seeing it, the joy you feel in your life is, I’d say, almost a direct awareness of God. You can’t see Him, but you can have joy in Him and having joy in Him is to know Him. If I may mention Zosima again, remember how he exhorted his monks to pray for joy and to be as joyful as children and as the birds from heaven. Joy, in the end, is the answer to all our prayers. Only, of course, it’s not an answer that any philosopher would accept, though the best of the Church Fathers knew it.”

            “But how do you mean, ‘joy’, Fyodor Mikhailovich,” I asked. Part of me warmed to what he was saying but joy didn’t really seem like an explanation and, anyway, what kind of joy was he talking about? There was the joy we experienced in physical exercise, in listening to music, in work, in being out in nature, and, well, sex. Was this what he was talking about or did he mean some special kind of religious joy? If it was the last, I didn’t really know what he was talking about. So I put the question to him, pretty much in those terms.

            Slowly, thoughtfully, he put his hat back on and pressed it down firmly. Despite the fact that we were now talking about joy he seemed to become quite sombre, almost withdrawing into himself.

            “Questions, questions, questions” he said, almost reproachfully. “Listen. There’s nothing wrong with asking questions, but you have to ask them in the right way. As I said in our very first conversation, why ask me, why not ask God? You said, that he hadn’t turned up and, since I was there, you had to make do with asking me.”

            “Yes, yes, I remember.”

            “I didn’t object and, as you know, you’ve asked me a lot more questions since then. I’ve done my best to tell you what I can, but, in the end, it really isn’t me you need to be asking.”

            “It’s God,” I said.

            “Exactly.”

            “But how do I ask God? Do you mean going to church and joining in the prayers?”

            “That’s one way,” he said, “as long as you pray in the right way.”

            “But how do I pray in the right way? And who’s able to tell me what the right way is? We were just talking about joy, but I don’t always see the people who go to church being very joyful. In fact, I have to admit that I sometimes find their services rather dismal.”

            “Let me tell you a story,” he said. “It’s a true story and I wrote about it in The House of the Dead. It’s rather appropriate because it happened during Holy Week—and I think this is your Church’s Holy Week now?”

            I nodded.

            “Yes, tomorrow’s Easter Day.”

            “Good, well you can think about this tomorrow if you like. When we were in the prison camp, it happened that we were taken to church for the Holy Week services—under armed guard, I might add. And the guns were loaded. Can you imagine that?” He paused, perhaps to give me space to grasp the irony of taking people to church under armed guard. Ready to shoot them if they stepped out of line. “When we arrived, a great crowd of us, shaven headed, chained, many of us branded, were corralled into a place at the back of the church where we could hardly see anything, though we could hear the voice of the priest, smell the incense, and see the light coming through the windows in the cupola. A bright Siberian light. And I couldn’t help remembering how, in my childhood, our family had always stood towards the front, if not in the very best places then in the next-to-best places, along with the other middle- and upper-class people. Like any child, my attention drifted from time to time and sometimes when I looked round I’d notice the common people massed by the door, poor, shabby, and, frankly, smelly. I was even a bit frightened of them. And now, now—I was one of them, and worse, because we were in chains, we were feared, but also the object of pity. Once I too had been one of the gentry—now people gave me alms, as if I was a beggar. But, I tell you, it was there, amongst those men, the lowest of the low, men who knew their own degradation and prostrated themselves before God in full knowledge of their depravity and guilt, it was there I learned what it really meant to pray. Pray like that, and your prayer will be answered.”

            What could I say? I’d never really experienced anything quite like that in my life. Of course, there’d been moments when I felt like an outsider in one or other social situation and, yes, moments of desperation when I just didn’t know what to do, where to turn, or what to say. Did I have to relive those moments? But that was just taking me back to where we started—despair, not joy! 

            On several previous occasions, I’d notice how Fyodor Mikhailovich seemed to read my thoughts and when he resumed he might have been answering my unspoken questions.

            “Of course, you haven’t experienced that, few people have. And I should say that there’s nothing good about suffering that kind of degradation. Whatever people think I said, suffering itself doesn’t bring you nearer God. Some of those penitents who sought out suffering and tramped over Russia going without food and water and wearing chains found forgiveness, it’s true. But it wasn’t the hunger or their chains that saved them. It was their desire, their hope, their truth. And for those prisoners, there and then, for me too, there was honesty, there was truth. When we prayed ‘Save us’ we meant ‘Save us’. It wasn’t just a formula spoken in a polite and well-trained voice. It was everything, the whole content of our lives gathered into that moment, that word. None of them could have put it like this—I couldn’t have done so myself at the time—but when you’re praying like that, even while you’re still praying, you know you’re being heard and even though you know you have to go back to the camp and maybe serve another ten years there’s a seed, a seed of joy, and you feel it, even then. That,” he concluded, “is the truth that makes you free.”

            So we were back to the beginning—questions, despair, truth. But, as he spoke, I began to understand, perhaps for the first time (or perhaps I’d always known it) that it wasn’t an explanation I was looking for. I didn’t need convincing that God existed or that the world had some sort of purpose. What I needed was joy. 

            Looking back on that time now, I wouldn’t say the joy had gone out of my life but it’s true that I’d neglected it; maybe I’d become a bit stoical, as you’re inclined to be in middle age, taking the bad with the good, gritting your teeth and getting on with it; struggling on. All those clichés that somehow help you to get through the next day and deal with whatever’s going on. But the joy wasn’t really gone, it was just eclipsed. Waiting for me to accept it. It was such a small thing. The difficulty was simply in accepting that it was nothing grand or heroic, nothing uncommon, nothing that only deep thinkers or mystics could find, just the joy that any child or one of Dostoevsky’s peasant criminals could experience. I didn’t even have to have some great conversion experience, like Paul on the Damascus Road. I just had to be honest with myself about what I wanted. And ask.

            As I say, I don’t imagine God plays tricks with the weather, least of all for my benefit, but at that moment the light seemed somehow brighter, the breeze milder and, you could even say, pleasant. I’ve no doubt there were lots of miserable people down there in the city, families squabbling, couples splitting, addicts dragging themselves through the streets or sinking back into unconsciousness. Just beyond the cathedral was the Royal Victorian Infirmary, with who knows how many stories of sickness and grief unfolding within its walls. There was suffering. There was a lot—so much—that needed to be done. There were things I needed to do. Debts I needed to pay. And I don’t mean money. I mean everything I’d received from other people that made life possible, people I knew and people I didn’t. And yet—it was a good day. At least, there was good in it and that was something to be glad about.

            “Thank you, thank you,” I said. “Maybe I’m starting to get it.”

            He didn’t respond.

            In fact, he wasn’t there. Gone—without saying goodbye. I was left alone, but I didn’t feel alone. Something, something I couldn’t quite find the words for, had come into my life and, as I write this now, it seems to have stayed with me. I’m not talking about anything like those flashes of inspiration that Dostoevsky described Prince Myshkin as having in the moment before one of his epileptic fits, visions in which time seemed to stop and he was lifted up into heaven. No. Just feeling, well, different. More rooted? Perhaps. But also lighter. Ready. Ready for what? For whatever came next.

            “Thank you,” I repeated in a whisper, as if speaking to myself. 

            I looked at my watch. Time to go. It was a good fifteen minutes’ brisk walk to the restaurant where I was meeting Laura, but I didn’t need to rush. It was, as I said, a good day. Leaving the Necropolis, I strode down into the city.

THIS IS THE FINAL EPISODE OF CONVERSATIONS WTH DOSTOEVSKY. A SHORT EPILOGUE WILL FOLLOW NEXT WEEK. THE BLOG WILL REMAIN ONLINE FOR SEVERAL MONTHS BUT WILL THEN BE TAKEN DOWN. A BOOK VERSION WILL HOPEFULLY APPEAR LATER IN 2022 OR IN 2023. THANK YOU FOR FOLLOWING IT.

Conversation 7: ‘We are all here’. Episode 5

I’m very aware that one of my faults is a tendency to be rather flippant, even, maybe especially, when talking about something really serious.

            “So does that make it a mistake to think we should just love one person for our whole life, like in marriage? Isn’t that a kind of egoism too, a kind of possessiveness? The way we say my wife, my husband … perhaps the people who call themselves polyamorous are right?” 

            He sighed.

            “Look. In the course of a human life, we all do have a variety of loves. But the fulness of love isn’t less than a whole human life, it’s more. If you really could perfectly love just one other human being you’d have achieved a miracle. To be sure, the way we love is sometimes very egotistical and people use what they call love to make themselves more interesting or exciting as individuals. But that’s a delusion—though sifting the true from the false isn’t always easy. Just think of some of the relationships I described in my novels. Does Myshkin love Aglaya or Anastasia Phillipovna? Does Katerina love Dmitri or Ivan? Does Stavrogin love Liza? And however you answer, how real is that love? Is it love or passion? A lot of ink has been spilled over these questions. And I’m not the only novelist to have noticed it. The lie sometimes does a very convincing imitation of the truth and true love may sometimes hide itself behind the lie. But if there is some seed of genuine love in any one of our loves, then it will abide. So, to get back to your question, yes: Masha … Anna Grigroryevna … even Suslova … not to mention my little Alyosha … and, of course, you already know about Vladimir Sergeyevich … they are all here, we are all here … but, how can I say, it is not our feast, we are only guests, and our joy is no longer for ourselves only, it is for the bridegroom, for the one whose feast is being celebrated here. This is the joy that unites us.”

            “You mean Christ?”

            He nodded. Almost imperceptibly.

            “So … how is it? I mean, is it like Dante’s ‘mystic rose’ where all the saints are sitting round like the petals of a great rose and looking up at God?”

            I think I was being flippant again. Like I said, it’s what I do when things get really challenging.

            He shook his head, as if in incredulity.

            “I’ve told you before, haven’t I, that I cannot really tell you how it is here. And even if I were permitted, I couldn’t. It’s not possible. It really is indescribable.”

            Again, I had a momentary twinge of anxiety, sensing the great gulf between us and realizing that this man I was talking to had been but no longer was a man quite like me. This time, though, it was less intense. Maybe this was because I sensed a tone of sympathy, even regret, in what he said. Not quite like me—but human, all the same. As if wanting to allay my fears, he continued, slipping into what was by now a familiar school-teacherly tone.

            “What you say about Dante’s heaven isn’t quite accurate, but we’ll leave that. Of course, Dante spoke and could only speak in images, figures, parables—as he himself said. He could say nothing of what he had experienced except by adjusting it to the minds of his readers, his Euclidean readers, you could say. You might object that I’m now speaking to you from that place he spoke of and that I maybe know what he only imagined. But even if that’s so, then—as long as I’m talking to you—I’m forced to use those same images, figures, and parables. Well, not exactly the ‘same’ because he was a man of the Middle Ages and I was a man of the modern world, the modern city, and the modern capitalist system, living in a world of railways, steamships, newspapers, and stock markets. But I can say this much: that we’re not, as you put it, sitting around looking at Him. He is everywhere, His light is everywhere, and we don’t need to look at it because we see it when we look at each other. That’s what I mean by seeing each other in His light.”

            “Each other? Most of what I’ve read about heaven speaks about the saints contemplating God, not each other!”

            “This is why I’m saying that it’s so difficult to explain. You ask: ‘Is it this?’ or ‘Is it that?’ but it’s not exactly either and not exactly both. We don’t—as you put it—sit around looking at Him. We see Him, but we see Him in the light in which we see each other and to see each other in His light is to see Him. It’s a matter of love, again, you see. Even on earth, 

 we sometimes have moments (at least, I did) where we feel that if only we could all let go of our prejudices, our suspicions, our fears, our jealousy, our pride, and all the rest of it and see each other as we are, as the best in us is always wanting to be—why, then, we might be in heaven already.”

            “Markel,” I said, referring to the ecstatic visions of Zosima’s younger brother that Dostoevsky described in The Brothers Karamazov and who said that if we saw the world as it truly is we’d be in paradise now. 

            “Markel, and not only Markel. You see it’s not a matter of choosing between each other and Him or between earth and heaven. We just have to learn to see things in the right way—but learning always takes time. Perhaps there are those like Markel who see it in an instant, but for most of us learning it takes a lifetime and more. You could even say that it’s unending.”

            “So you don’t see him directly at all?”

            “Please, don’t try to make me say what I’ve said quite clearly I cannot say. Think back to when Alyosha dreams of seeing Zosima amongst the guests at the wedding in Cana and Zosima calls to him to come and join them and to behold Him, their Sun, their light. But the light is far too bright and Alyosha cannot look, any more than you could look at the sun with your naked eyes. But, please—no more: I can only say this much because it’s actually something that you can experience on earth, at least in some degree.”

            I don’t for a moment believe that God—whatever God is—plays pranks with the weather, but, as Fyodor Mikhailovich was speaking the sun momentarily came out from behind the clouds that had been steadily thinning out as the morning progressed and I had to raise my hand to shade my eyes.

            “Fair enough,” I was forced to admit. “But it’s hard to see what that sort of light might have to do with Jesus of Nazareth, a human being like us! Why can’t Alyosha look at him?”

            He tutted. “Now listen—I need you to listen very carefully,” he said. “Alyosha couldn’t look at Him because he was still limited by his earthly body and humanity, but Zosima and the other guests—they could see him. In fact, it’s in Him and through Him that God’s light, the ultimate and uncreated light, becomes visible, ‘acquires a human face’, you could say.”

            I wondered whether Fyodor Mikhailovich had actually meant to quote William Blake and, if so, where he’d encountered his poetry. But I still didn’t quite get it. Was there one light in heaven or two? And how could Christ’s human face also reveal the divine light? 

            “Fyodor Mikhailovich,” I complained, realizing as I did so that it might sound lie bleating. “This is all very confusing. Help me out a bit. I mean, if this divine light is so bright we can’t look at it, how can you see it in a human face, even Christ’s?”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich looked nonplussed, as if unsure how to respond.

            “Very well,” he said finally. “Let’s begin with a story from the gospels that I’m sure you know.” 

            He paused and looked questioningly at me but, of course, I couldn’t say yes or no until I knew which story he was referring to.

            “Sorry,” I said, “you’ll have to help me out.”

            “Really? Don’t you remember the transfiguration?”

            “Ah!”

            “Ah! Yes, when Christ ascended the mountain with Peter, James, and John and was illuminated and irradiated by the divine light, so much so that they had to turn away—being, like Alyosha, still in the body.”

            “Yes, but … I’ve always thought that was a legend.”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich put his hands to his head in what I hoped was only mock frustration.

            “But why? Is it so incredible? Haven’t you had moments in your life when you’ve suddenly found yourself face to face with a beautiful woman who’s literally so radiant that you can hardly look at her?”

            “But that’s different!”

            “Obviously it’s not the same, but just think of the effect Beatrice had on Dante! Everything I’ve been saying should be telling you that earthly love, imperfect earthly love is the best way of learning divine love.”

            Divine love. This was a long way from where our conversations had started: with a vision of a loveless world beneath a dead sun. 

Conversation 7: ‘We are all here’. Episode 4.

            He stopped and looked down, perhaps absorbed in his memories. I knew he’d had two very eventful marriages and there was obviously a lot to remember. Finally, he raised his head and looked out over the city.

            “The thing is, it’s almost impossible to explain. It goes almost without saying that He was right—that nothing here is quite like how we imagine it while we’re on earth. Our questions are never quite right and our answers are no answers at all. As we were just saying, the questions that really matter are the questions about ourselves, about who we are, but even here we mostly start off on the wrong foot—especially (but not only) if we’ve been reading some philosophy.”

            “How do you mean?”

            “It’s not so difficult and I think we’ve touched on it before. It’s the ego, the ‘I’. The problem is that we just seem to take it for granted that this is a simple fact. As the philosopher said, ‘I think, therefore I am’. We may not be philosophers but each of us tends to assume that that ‘I am’ is the most basic fact there is. It’s something you just can’t get beyond or behind. Because of that it colours everything we think, do, or feel. But if we really think about what happens in love, there has to be something more basic, more powerful than the ego. ‘A god greater than I’, as the Italian poet wrote. That’s just as true for the most ordinary everyday kind of love as it is for the love we see in the saints, though they love to a much more intense degree.”

            “But, Fyodor Mikhailovich, I seem to remember that when we were talking about Christ, you said that only He could love perfectly because He was the only person in history whose life wasn’t based on egoism, whereas the rest of us can never free ourselves of it entirely.”

            “No more we can. Even here, where I am now, we’re still in the process of shedding the last illusions of egoism. Nevertheless, I didn’t say we couldn’t love at all. What I said was that our love was always going to be limited or distorted by our inveterate egoism. But we do have the example of Christ, appearing in time and showing the truth of a love utterly devoid of egoism and because of that we are able to direct our efforts in the right direction, so to speak. So, even on earth, egoism isn’t the only factor. From the very beginning of our lives we’re surrounded and fed by a love—our mother’s love—that moulds our basic response to life. And when the baby smiles back at its mother, that’s not egoism, it’s love. Remember Raphael! Everything we’ve talked about in connection with brotherhood is only possible because there’s more to us than egoism. Knowing that what you have to do in your life is not just down to what you as a single individual want to do or feel like doing but is connected to what you owe your brothers—and sisters (and I’m not forgetting about your sisters)—this too is more than egoism. And, as I said before, this is something that you don’t need to have explained to you, it’s something you feel; it’s as immediate as your feeling of your own self.”

            “Yes, but you also said that those of us in the West, at least, had forgotten this—that we only had liberty and equality, but not fraternity.”

            “Yes, and it’s true—to a great extent. I’m not saying and never said that everyone in the West was completely incapable of love. You couldn’t be human if you couldn’t love at all. In fact, as Zosima said, you’d be in hell—and it’s only in hell that the possibility of love is completely annihilated. And who knows, perhaps not even there, just reduced, so to speak, to a quadrillionth of its proper power. No. No one could go on living at all if they didn’t have some sense of being part of something greater than themselves. Remember Zosima again: everything flows. When we are thinking from within the boundaries of the ego we think of each other as self-contained units, like Leibniz’s monads, but that’s a false point of view. These boundaries are themselves part of the illusion. To be a person, a real human person, is to be much more than an ego, a self, an I.”

            “And yet, Fyodor Mikhailovich, all these characters in your novels—they’re all individuals aren’t they, each with their distinctive characters, none of them quite like any of the others?”

            “Indeed, that’s what I tried to achieve as a writer—but, at the same time, to show how none of these individuals existed alone; that they were who they were and became whoever they became only in and through how they responded to each other. Someone like Raskolnikov tried to be master of his own life and to cut all the ties that bound him to family and friends—but he couldn’t do it. It was a fantasy. As for the brothers Karamazov, as I said before, the narrator wrote a novel whose hero, as he called him, was Alyosha, but I wrote a novel about all three—even Alyosha needed the others every bit as much as they needed him. Even though he doesn’t himself know why, he’s drawn to them and is eager to get to know them. Why? Because he knows that the secret of his own life is only to be found in the life he shares with his brothers. Nowhere else. If he’s to grow in love, he quite simply has to let go of whatever ‘ego’ or ‘self’ there still is in his heart.”

            “Quite simply! It sounds rather difficult to me!”

            “It is difficult and—as I said—it’s not something that any human being can fully achieve in earthly life.”

            What Fyodor Mikhailovich was saying about letting go of the ego reminded me of various things I’d read from time to time about Buddhism. In fact, it seemed to be a commonplace of what some people call the new spirituality.

            “I’m thinking, Fyodor Mikhailovich—and forgive me if I said this before—this is all sounding rather like Buddhism. Don’t Buddhists teach that there is no ego, no self, that it’s all an illusion?”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich pressed the palms of his hands together, almost as if he was praying. He smiled.

            “I didn’t really know very much about them in my lifetime,” he said, “but I don’t think they’re completely wrong. Some would say there’s something Buddhistic about our Russian Christianity. Perhaps there is. We look to Asia as well as to the West, and Christ fulfils all human longings. But the point is that it’s not just about seeing through the illusions of the ego: it’s about becoming active in love.”

            “But who do we love and who does the loving if there’s no ego and no self?”

            A wave of warm air came up on the soft south-westerly breeze. Fyodor Mikhailovich removed his hat by the crown, shook his head, and let his hand, still holding the hat, fall to his side.

            “It’s such a beautiful day, isn’t it?” he said. 

            I waited. I was getting used to the way in which he often avoided giving a direct or immediate answer to my questions.

            He looked at me out of the corner of his eye, almost slyly.

            “Assuming you’re not just playing with words,” he said, “I’d just point out that I never said that when you let go of the ego you’re left with nothing. On the contrary, when you let go of the ego you have life, life in all its fulness, without the limits and boundaries that our rational ego places on it. When the seed bursts its shell, you could say that it dies but it doesn’t just cease to be. It has to ‘die’ in order to bring forth new life. You know that verse from John, of course, and I’m sure you know I took it as the motto for my Brothers.”

            I grunted affirmatively.

            “And remember also what He said about loving your life and losing it: the only way to find life is to lose it.”

            “But, surely, if everyone were all of a sudden to give up their egos, wouldn’t the whole of society grind to a halt? I can see that things might be better if there were a few more ego-free saints of love to help us stay optimistic, but … could everyone live like that?”

            “And you don’t think society is grinding to a halt already? Perhaps you don’t read the newspapers like I did.”

            He had a point. You couldn’t really hold up the kind of society we had now as any kind of model. Some kind of change was clearly needed—and if it wasn’t going to be in the direction of increasing love, then the prospects really were rather grim. 

Conversation 7: ‘We are all here’. Episode 3.

            “We seem to have come a long way from your novels,” I ventured. “But perhaps not …”

            “Certainly not! But it wasn’t up to me to say again what John had said and that could only be said in the way he had said it. As I’ve insisted all along, I was only ever a writer of novels and a teller of tales. But for my time—and maybe still for some people in your time—my words were able to remind them of his word, John’s word and His, a word they had for the most part forgotten or were constantly on the edge of forgetting. So, you never knew Raskolnikov, you never knew Zosima—but they and all the rest of them, my whole human comedy, could nevertheless remind you of what was most important in your own life.”

            “And yet, Fyodor Mikhailovich, till you actually appeared in my life last November, I think your novels raised more questions than answered … When you first came, what I was reading reminded me more of my despair than of anything to do with Christ or eternal life. And not every reader is going to have the benefit of you coming to help explain it all,” I added, doubtfully.

            He laughed quietly, as if to himself. 

            “Well, perhaps it’s important that, before anything else, we remember to ask the right questions! It seems to me that when it comes to faith the whole discussion gets skewed by the fact that it’s usually the wrong questions people insist on—like when they want to know about the historical facts behind the gospels. That might be an interesting historical question, but it’s not a question that’s ever going to help anyone find faith.”

            “So what sort of questions should we be asking?”

            “The questions we should be asking—the questions we might just need reminding about—are questions about ourselves, about what we’re looking for, and about what we really want.”

            “But that’s my problem—when I ask those sorts of questions, I don’t get any answers.”

            He looked quizzically at me and I realized that what I’d just said could seem rather churlish, not only in the light of his constant willingness to respond to my often rather crass and even impertinent questions but also because his novels already provided many positive images of faith. There was Raskolnikov—but then there was Sonia; there was Ivan—but then there was Alyosha (and, of course, Zosima). And everything in between.

            “OK,” I conceded. “I suppose I can’t really claim to be drowning in existential despair any more. Maybe I don’t have any answers but, like the police say, you’ve opened up some interesting lines of enquiry and I think I do understand at least some of the things I’ve got to do … things I can only do for myself, like taking responsibility—becoming guilty, as you put it. But still, even if I do manage to become a more responsible and a more loving person, even if I try to live by the ideal of Christ or even just to be true to the best and most inspiring memories from my previous life, the question that we started with still remains.”

            “And that was?”

            “Whether … whether the universe really cares … whether the best we can do isn’t, in the end, Quixotic, like your Prince Myshkin.”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich’s bowed his head and looked thoughtful. We continued walking silently for a few paces. Then he stopped, putting his hands on his hips and seeming to breathe deeply (I don’t know if he could ‘breathe’ but, as he could definitely talk, why not).

            “Well, at least we’ve solved one problem,” he declared.

            “Really? What’s that?”

            “We’re not talking about Platonism any more?”

            “We’re not?”

            “No—or not in the sense you meant. The questions we’re talking about now—the kinds of questions I wanted to remind my readers of—they’re not about ideals that have nothing at all to do with life. They’re what people in the twentieth century would call existential questions, questions about how to live, or, even better, about the sort of person you want to be.”

            “Not metaphysical questions, then?”

            “On the contrary, very much ‘metaphysical’—but only to the extent that they’re first and foremost existential.”

            I thought for a moment. I wasn’t sure if we weren’t just playing with words, but I think I saw what he was getting at.

            “OK, I can accept that,” I said, hesitantly. “But can we come back to what I just said about the universe … about the universe not caring. To put it bluntly is there a God? And—although it seems absurd to ask someone like you … in your state … is there immortality?”

            He turned to me and put one hand on my elbow. His touch was very gentle, but there was a definite, discernible pressure. What absorbed my attention though was the expression of his eyes. I don’t really know how to describe it.  It was like looking into the darkest of night skies and, like a dark night sky, it glistened with points of warm, radiant light. But it wasn’t even as if I was looking … it was more like I was being looked at although, at the same time, I couldn’t exactly say that he was focussing on me; it was more like I was on the edge of vanishing into his gaze, into this great encompassing pool of luminous darkness. 

            Over the last few months I had, I suppose, almost got used to his presence but now, suddenly, I felt unnerved, anxious even, like feeling out of one’s depth in the sea, realizing in a flash just how great the gulf between us really was.

            “Fyodor Mikhailovich,” I blurted out, almost panicking, “what do you see there? What kind of life is it? Did you see Masha again? Did you—do you? And Anna Grigoryevna? And do you, there, remember us, as we remember you?”

            He didn’t immediately withdraw his gaze but, ever so slowly, it seemed to come back into focus. He moved his hand, as if brushing something off my shoulder and turned further round, so as to look back at the city. I followed his cue.

            “Now that’s a lot of questions,” he said. “Did I see Masha again? And Anna Grigoryevna?”

            Masha, I should say, had been his first wife and he’d written an eloquent private note about his thoughts while standing over her dead body, asking himself whether he’d ever see her again. These notes had a special connection to the story I’d been reading when he first visited me, A Gentle Spirit. Although Dostoevsky’s wife didn’t kill herself, as the woman in A Gentle Spirit does, both texts reproduce the thoughts of a man standing by the body of a wife he had wronged. Anna Grigoryevna was his second wife, with whom, by all accounts, he’d found happiness at last.

            I waited for him to say more.

            He looked at me slyly.

            “You’re not trying to catch me out, are you?” he asked.

            “Catch you out? How?”

            “Your question reminds me of how the Sadducees tried to catch Christ out.” 

            “Sorry … I don’t follow …”

            “Surely, you remember—when they asked Him a trick question about whose wife a woman who had been predeceased by seven husbands would be … at the resurrection?”

            I suspect I went bright red. I certainly felt very embarrassed. “In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage.” It was a text I ought to have known. And I hadn’t intended it as a trick question. But, unlike the Sadducees, my question was serious and he hadn’t really answered it—any more than Jesus really answered the Sadducees.

            “You know,” he continued, in a more easy-going voice, “I once said that three-quarters of the happiness to be found in life is to be found in marriage. Of course, I also knew that forgiveness is never more needed than when things go wrong between man and wife. I experienced that too. We are all guilty. But there is also happiness.”

Conversation 7: ‘We are all here’. Episode 2.

            “Where to begin?” he mused. Then, falling silent, he seemed transfixed by a tree to our right that was just coming into leaf. “Look at that!” he said, “How can anyone look at that and not be filled with joy?” His voice fell to a confidential whisper. “Perhaps all those books weren’t necessary after all!” He smiled and touched me lightly on the shoulder. Then, “Let’s carry on,” he added, and we resumed our climb.

            “So. Raskolnikov. Sonia Marmeladova. Myshkin. Aglaya. Stavrogin. Old man Karamazov and his sons. The blessed Elder Zosima. It’s true, none of them ever existed, not in the way a living flesh-and-blood human being existed—and, by the way, you won’t get anywhere if you try to understand them by discovering the so-called real-life characters that some people think they were based on, whatever that means. That’s not how writing works. But it doesn’t follow that they’re not real. Maybe they’re even more real in a certain sense. As I’ve said before, being true to life isn’t the same as just holding up a camera to everyday reality. Genuine realism means looking beyond the external appearance and seeing what it is that makes those appearances appear as they do, seeing what makes reality tick, as I think your contemporaries might put it. It’s what I call a higher realism.”

            I nodded.

            “So it’s a bit like what you were saying when we talked about the Bible; that these characters are rather like archetypes.”

            “Yes—but archetypes as they appear in life. As I wrote somewhere, you’ve maybe never ever met anyone who’s exactly like one of my characters but once you’ve become acquainted with them through my novels you suddenly realize that this is a true portrait of someone you really do know—and maybe you understand them for the very first time.” 

            “The play’s the thing …”

            “Exactly. Shakespeare understood this very well. You’ve probably never known a would-be terrorist who’s just like Raskolnikov, for example, but you’ve probably known many a disillusioned and angry young man who is a Raskolnikov at heart—even though he’d never hurt a fly, let alone murder two defenceless women. And, equally, you’ve probably never met a saint like Zosima, but through Zosima you see the saintliness in all the people you have met who are at least on their way to saintliness.”

            “The mirror of art,” I murmured. Thinking through what he’d been saying it struck me that this wasn’t only true of the characters in his novels, it was also true of the situations in them. “At first, I’d found many of the scandal scenes he describes very extreme, very melodramatic, very Russian. But more recently I’d come to realize that, actually, they’re fairly accurate descriptions of some of the rows that have happened in my own family life. Of course, all the details are entirely different, but what he described is just what we experience. I said this to him, adding that this was true despite us all being very English. 

            He laughed.

            “Yes, you don’t need axes or pistols for human passions to reveal their destructiveness, just as it’s not necessary for hell to be fitted out with hooks or pits of fire. Sometimes just a quiet word can condemn a person to endless torment. As I say, it’s not the struggle against physical entropy that matters: it’s the effort to achieve and maintain spiritual remembrance. The mirror of art, as you called it, points in two directions: towards the everyday world (my nineteenth century world, your twenty-first century world), but also towards … well, what I’d call the true world.”

            “A kind of magic mirror, then,” I said.

            “How so?”

            “You think you’re looking at one thing—St Petersburg in 1866, for example—and you’re actually looking at something different, something spiritual, metaphysical maybe?”

            “Yes, yes, yes. That’s very interesting. Yes, I think so.”

            I thought for a moment or two. When we’d been talking with Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov we’d touched on Platonism and Plato’s idea of reality being defined by eternal ideas or archetypes. 

            “So are you a Platonist?” I asked Fyodor Mikhailovich.

            “A Platonist? Would that be a bad thing?”

            “I didn’t say it was a bad thing, exactly, but it does seem to devalue the world, the everyday world, what most people call the real world, in favour of what you call spiritual truths—ideas—archetypes … As if our life in this world is just a kind of stepping-stone to something else … Surely this life earthly matters in its own right … and surely it mattered to you, otherwise you couldn’t have described it or recreated it in such detail, so, well, realistically?”

            “Thank you, thank you,” Fyodor Mikhailovich replied. “And you’re right, obviously. This world—your world—matters. We’ve discussed this several times. It’s where we begin to learn what love is and how to love. If we don’t start there, we won’t start anywhere. Remember what we said before about the earth and being true to the earth. Heaven is not unconnected to earth but heaven and earth are inseparably and eternally bound up together. What you call Platonism isn’t turning away from earth: it’s seeing earth in the light of eternity.”

            I wasn’t too sure about this. I wasn’t a philosopher and certainly not a Plato specialist, but from everything I’d read it did seem to me that Plato wanted us to forget about the material world for the sake of the eternal ideas. When I’d raised this with Vladimir Sergeyevich he seemed to half-concede the point.

            “I see what you’re saying, Fyodor Mikhailovich,” I began, cautiously, “but I’m not sure if that’s really what Plato was saying. I think he really did want us to turn away from earth and everything sensual.”

            He stopped and shook his head.

            “No. You’re probably right—and since neither of us is a philosopher perhaps we’d better leave it there. But even if it’s not what Plato taught, it’s how Christianity—how the blessed apostle John—applied Plato. Not just the idea—that is, the Word—but the Word incarnate. Made flesh. Not turning away from the world but showing what the world could be; that is, what we, each of us, could be—the ideas, the words, the truths we could make our own and live by. The idea becoming true by becoming life! Yes,” he paused and thought for a moment, “You’ll find this all in John’s gospel: In the beginning was the Word, and the word became flesh, in him was life and the life was the light of men.”

            I felt myself being carried along by his words, but my critical habits couldn’t be so easily overcome.

            “I’m not disagreeing with you, but a lot of people—a lot of people I know—would say that it was precisely John who turned the gospel of Jesus into a kind of popular version of Greek philosophy. Platonism for the people, as Nietzsche said.”

            “A lot of people say all sort of things,” said Fyodor Mikhailovich rather dismissively. “But John didn’t forget—in fact, he insisted—that the Word must become incarnate. To put it in terms we’ve talked about, the Christ who passed through Russia dressed like a Russian peasant and enduring all the indignities that the Russian peasant endured is just as truly Christ as the Christ whose light lit up the heavenly banquet of Cana of Galilee, a light no human can ever directly see. Whatever people—and whatever poor dear Nietzsche said—John understood that perfectly.”

Conversation 7: ‘We are all here’. Episode 1

I crossed the Bridge of Sighs. 

            And no, I wasn’t in Venice.

            I was in Glasgow.

            It was Easter Saturday morning, and I’d decided to take a walk out to the Necropolis—the Bridge of Sighs being what they rather grandly call the short service road leading to the entrance gates. Laura was in town having her hair done and we were meeting up for an early lunch in the Merchant City, giving me just over an hour to spare. 

            Glasgow’s Necropolis isn’t just any old graveyard but a real city of the dead, a mass of columns, obelisks, mausoleums, chapels, crypts, rotundas, and urns clustered on the sides of a steep hill that lowers over the great grey cathedral. From the top of a towering column blackened by a hundred years’ worth of soot the grim reformer John Knox looks down on the whole assembly as if announcing the triumph of eternity over time – and I suppose that the well-heeled Victorian townsmen who paid for it all really did hope that these monuments would ensure that their civic deeds and private griefs would live on forever in marble, granite, and stone. But the respectable dead who are taking their eternal rest here were serious Protestants and there aren’t too many weeping angels, tearful infants, or other concessions to emotion such as you’re likely to see south of the border. It’s all very solemn and straight-faced and always seemed to me to speak more of mortality than resurrection.

            Having got all that off my chest, the fact is that there aren’t many better views over the city, especially on a beautiful April morning like this. Down there it was a normal Saturday, humming with the noise of traffic and shoppers, but up here it all blended into a gentle distant murmur. There was a hint of warmth in the sun that occasionally broke through from behind the drifting mounds of picture-book clouds and I even had to take off my scarf and loosen my jacket. Not bad for Scotland in early April. The trees that sheltered the winding paths that led up to the crest of the hill were freshly in leaf and there were clumps of daffodils and narcissi in full flower. Nature, at least, seemed to know something about resurrection. 

            It might not be the most romantic of graveyards, but it still, inevitably, prompts thoughts about mortality. It has several times struck me that if those who paid for all this stoneware really thought their money would buy them an eternal memory, they were very, very wrong. Just a hundred and fifty years on and many of the inscriptions have already been eroded to the point of illegibility, mausoleum gates have rusted and come off their hinges, stonework has peeled and cracked, and vandalism and graffiti have mocked the devout hopes of the subterranean inhabitants.

            Nothing last for ever. That’s it. What more is there to say? Well … for a start there was Dostoevsky. If nothing lasts forever, if death is just the end and nothing more, what was he doing in my life? Dostoevsky … Solovyov … who else was going to start turning up from … from—where, exactly? Weren’t his visits some kind of proof of … well, something?

            I wasn’t surprised—it was predictable almost—that, as I thought these thoughts, I became aware that someone was standing next to me: someone—that is, Fyodor Mikhailovich. I turned to look at him but he too appeared to be absorbed in looking out over the city, holding his hat to his chest while the light wind ruffled his straggly hair. For some minutes we both stood in silence.

            Eventually I was the one to speak.

            “So. If you weren’t standing next to me, Fyodor Mikhailovich, I’d be tempted to say ‘That’s it’. The end. I mean death. But here you are.”

            He didn’t respond immediately but continued contemplating the view, though he did nod his head in acknowledgement.

            “I mean, all these people wanting to be remembered for ever, but for the most part, no one now really knows who any of them were. I suppose their children remembered them, and maybe their grandchildren, but most of their grandchildren probably died a century ago. Everything gets forgotten in the end. All the effort they put into these monuments … all their protestations about eternal memory … all in vain, really.”

            “Memory’s never in vain,” said Fyodor Mikhailovich softly, without turning towards me.

            “Yes, but even memory gets forgotten in the end, doesn’t it? I mean we remember people like you or Beethoven or Shakespeare or Caesar … but the vast majority of us just get forgotten. And even if our names appear on some gravestone or can be found in some archive, no one really knows anything about the life represented by that name, do they?”

            “You’re in a very sombre mood today—and after everything we’ve talked about,” Fyodor Mikhailovich remarked.

            “I don’t know. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not depressed or anything. It just seems to me that this is how it is. It’s simply a matter of facing facts.”

            “And these facts don’t affect you now the way they did back in November?”

            I grimaced.

            “Maybe it’s the spring weather that makes the difference?” I said a little shamefacedly, remembering the somewhat melodramatic thoughts about death and the meaninglessness of life that were the starting-point of our conversations.

            “Hmm,” he said, “if only everybody’s existential despair was as easily cured as that.”

            “I’m sure our conversations have helped,” I replied quickly, not wanting him to get the wrong impression.

            He raised his eyebrows and breathed deeply.

            “So what do you think? Is it worthwhile remembering the dead? Or should we just forget them, seeing that they’ll all be forgotten in the end anyway, the sooner the better?”

            “No, not at all. We can’t help remembering them. I often find myself thinking of my parents and others I’ve known who’ve died. It’s part of being human, I suppose. But I don’t think it really leads anywhere. I mean, it doesn’t prove anything, does it?”

            “Should it have to ‘lead anywhere’ or ‘prove anything’?”

            “You mean, it’s worth doing for its own sake?”

            “As you say, it’s part of being human … to remember one another, to keep each other in mind. And even if it doesn’t prove anything, isn’t that the very heart of love? Perhaps you’ve heard the saying that forgetfulness leads to exile and memory to redemption? I didn’t write it, but it isn’t a bad summary of some of my ideas.”

            “Redemption? That’s quite strong, isn’t it?”

            “Let’s walk a bit,” said Fyodor Mikhailovich. I nodded and we turned and continued slowly along a gently curving path leading up the hill.

            “Let me put it like this,” he continued, putting on his hat, “much of what goes wrong in the world goes wrong because people forget. Did you notice what I said about old man Karamazov, that he almost forgot his children when they were growing up and the truth is that his forgetfulness and neglect did as much to set the whole catastrophe in motion as his drunkenness and lechery. And that’s also why Alyosha taught his young disciples to treasure the memory of the good deed they’d shared and why he insisted that such a memory can nourish us throughout our lives and go on giving us hope—not only that life is worth living but also that it’s worth opening up to each other in love. Remembering those moments of goodness reminds us that if we can experience love once, we can experience it again.”

            “Yes, yes,” I agreed, thinking back to The Brothers Karamazov. “And Zosima too, doesn’t he talk about the importance of memory, especially childhood memories, like his own memories of going to church or reading Bible stories?”

            “Exactly. Those are the kind of memories that provide the basis for a good and wholesome life.” He sighed and then paused. For a minute or two we walked on in silence. It was getting towards midday and I could feel actual warmth from the sun (in Scotland, after months of winter, that’s worth mentioning).

            “The sorrow of it is,” he resumed, “that some children have few enough such memories and many have even more powerful memories of cruelty, sickness, or loss—though perhaps—I like to think—there’s no life completely devoid of some good memory, if only we know how to find it and hold on to it and treasure it. That kind of remembering may even be a more effective route to healing than reliving our traumas. In fact, if we don’t have the perspective of some good memory, remembering our traumas is probably only ever going to be destructive. Fixating on evil and forgetting the good is just what the Devil wants.”

            I was tempted to say that ‘fixating on evil’ was what some of Dostoevsky’s critics had complained of in his writing, but we’d touched on that in an earlier conversation and, anyway, a more interesting question suggested itself to me.

            “But how do we know which memories are good and which are the ones we should be holding on to?” I asked. “I mean, some memories are obviously bad and maybe some are obviously good, but what about Alyosha’s early childhood memory of being held up by his mother to the icon with the light streaming through the window? That sounds like a good memory at first—but, then, at the same time, she was having one of her hysterical fits and someone comes in and snatches him from her, which, I imagine, would have been terrifying for a small child. You seem to suggest that this memory played an important part in shaping his personality, but how could a memory like that lead to something good?”

            Again he fell silent.

            “Yes, yes, yes. Human life is always mixed. But I think that what he remembered was the icon, the light, and his mother’s love—even though her love was perhaps unbalanced, confused, and desperate, as human loves often are.”

            “So maybe it’s a good memory because of the way he remembered it  … because he remembered it with love.”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich punched his right fist emphatically into the palm of his left hand and shook his clenched hands energetically.

            “Exactly! If we remember with love, then what we remember will be love!”

            “But that’s circular …”

            “And why not? Love begets love. How else would it work? But we mustn’t stop there … with the childhood memories that is. We must do all we can to remember the good—the love—in each other throughout our lives. Even remembering the good in those we don’t know.”

            “How do you mean?”

            “Don’t you remember how Zosima told the monks that when they prayed, they should pray for all those who, unknown to them, were dying at that very moment. Even if you can’t name them, even if you know nothing about them, even if no one knows anything about them and they’ve been forgotten by the whole world, remembering them before God is a good thing.”

            “But does it achieve anything?” I couldn’t help asking—again.

            “Who knows? What do any of us know of the consequences of what we do and don’t do—but it’s a good thing. It increases love. It binds us that little bit more closely together. It keeps us connected to God. But living like that, keeping humanity connected in loving prayer isn’t at all easy. It’s hard enough remembering what we should be remembering in our own lives. Even Alyosha, so nearly a saint—and perhaps he would have grown up to become a saint if I’d managed to finish his story—even Alyosha forgot about his brother Dmitri at a crucial moment and so he too contributed to the final denouement. As for me, if I’d really remembered what Anna Grigoryevna needed and deserved from me, then I’d never have gone to the roulette hall. I was so busy pursuing my idea of becoming fantastically wealthy or, at least, escaping my debts, that I simply forgot about this real, living person who loved me so much and to whom I owed so much. No, remembering isn’t easy. Truthful remembrance is only possible if you’re prepared to face up to your guilt and responsibility—as I said in our very first conversation. But when we forget, that’s when things go really wrong.”

            He paused and turned round again to look back towards the city. When he continued, it was almost as if he was talking to himself.

            “I think that science tells us that all matter is subject to entropy, everything is gradually slowing down and will end by collapsing into an unmoving and immoveable mass. I don’t believe that—science has been wrong before—but it does seem to me that it’s a good image of what remembering is like, an unending struggle against entropy. In the spiritual sense, of course. 

            “And, naturally, it isn’t easy. We all need help; trying to struggle forward on our own is never going to succeed. This is what’s so difficult for you children of Western individualism to grasp—you all want to do it in your own way. You may argue about what the prayers of the Church can achieve, but one thing they do achieve is that you’re not left to remember on your own—and our individual memories are not so very strong. But the Church prays for all and reminds us, each of us, to pray for all, to pray for our dead, for example, for all sufferers, for those we love, and for our enemies.”

            He gestured towards a nearby gravestone that was etched with the image of a downturned torch.

            “In the ancient world, as I’m sure you know, the dead had to pass through the water of forgetfulness on their way into the underworld, forgetting the world they’d left behind and being forgotten by it.  But if, as Christians, our hope is that we will rise and be with Christ, sharing the light in which he lives, then we must strive to overcome forgetfulness and remember.”

            “Remember what, exactly?” I interjected.

            He laughed.

            “Ideally, everything! All that has been, all that is, and all that will be! But seeing it all in His light.  ‘Do this in remembrance of me,’ He said, meaning that we might start by remembering Him. Even when we’re burning in the furnace of doubt.”

            After another brief pause, he continued again.

            “You see, that’s what I was trying to do in my novels. Just that.”

            “Sorry, I don’t follow—just what?”

            “Remember everything. And remember it in His light and in such a way that my readers could share those memories too.”

            “I still don’t follow … Weren’t your novels fictions—you yourself said in our first conversation that they were all ‘made up’? I remember that quite clearly. I think you even said they were lies. So how can they be memories? And even if they were your memories, they’re not my memories, so how could they help me remember everything in my life in ‘his light’, as you put it?”

            As on several previous occasions, I realized even at the time that my questions could have come across as quite aggressive, but I also sensed that he wanted me to be honest and say what I thought—to be less ‘English’, as he’d said on one occasion.

            “You’re right,” he said. “This needs some explaining. If you bear with me, I’ll do the best I can; though, remember, I was never a philosopher, only a novelist, a writer—of fictions!”

Looking forward to the New Year

‘Conversations with Dostoevsky’ will be on pause until after the Christmas/ New Year vacation. The next post will go up on January 7th 2022 and will be the first episode of the final conversation, entitled ‘We are all here’.

Meanwhile, I wish all readers a Joyful Christmas – whether December 25th or January 6th – and a happy New Year. If you don’t observe Christmas, I hope that you nevertheless have a peaceful and renewing festive season.

Conversation 6: ‘The Jewish Question’. Episode 5

“Are we going to talk?” I asked, not quite sure how to begin. “I appreciate this must have been a rather difficult hour for you.”

            “Difficult—yes. And—talk? Yes. That’s why I came—I’ve heard all the arguments before, of course, but there are still things I need to say. I’ll walk down the road with you and we can talk as we go.”

            The light was starting to fade and although there were clear signs of spring there was also a chill in the air. We turned towards the main gates of the campus in the shadow of the towering Victorian edifice that was the main university building. 

            I soon discovered that walking with Fyodor Mikhailovich was not entirely straightforward. At moments he strode along quite quickly and the faster he went the more rapidly he spoke. Then he would slow down as he worked through a difficult idea and even stop altogether to deliver an especially momentous conclusion. I got an early warning of this when he came to a more or less immediate halt after just a couple of steps and, looking straight ahead, put his hand on my shoulder and made the following declaration.

            “The very first thing to say is that I am not going to defend myself. Each of us is guilty of everything, before everyone, and I most of all. Do you remember that?” 

            I nodded. 

            “Naturally, that applies to me as much as to anyone else. I am guilty, most of all. Whatever else I have to say, remember that. Even if it sounds like I’m making excuses, I know that I’m guilty. This has to be where we start from, as we already discussed. Each of us. But,” (and he now began walking, pulling me gently with him) “at the same time I would ask you to remember the context. Not what the professor said about everybody being Anti-Semitic, which certainly doesn’t make anything better, the lecturer was right there, but the fact that the bloody pogroms had not yet started. That was only after my death. Of course, we knew such things had happened in the past but, really, whatever our arguments with Jews or theirs with us, we had no conception of the violence that was to come—in Russia or across Europe. Each of us is guilty—I’m not forgetting that and, as a writer, I more than anyone should have been alert to the power of words. We cannot just say things and imagine our words will float off into the air and evaporate. Words have effects. Perhaps in what I wrote about the Jewish question I attempted a bit of banter, as if it was a light-hearted matter that civilized men could talk about in an ironic-humorous manner—but, of course, it was not light-hearted at all.”

            “You’re absolutely right there, at least.” I said, realizing I was actually quite angry, despite Fyodor Mikhailovich’s acknowledgement of guilt. “Some of your expressions were really horrible. I don’t see how you could really have thought of them as light-hearted.”

            “Yes, yes, yes—again, you’re right. I’m saying this was my mistake—one of them. But even then I was learning.”

            “How, learning?”

            “As I said in my articles, I wrote what I wrote in response to those Jewish readers who upbraided me for what I’d written about their people in The Diary (though, I should say, none of them ever complained to me about the characters in my fiction). And what your speaker didn’t say was that it was one of them, Sofia Efimovna Luria, who sent me the story about the doctor. In fact, it’s her words I printed in The Diary, as I made clear. I didn’t tell that story. She did.”

            When he mentioned Sofia Luria he looked rather wistful, as if her name conjured a good memory.

            “You see, she’d written to me long before that and even came to see me several times when she was still at school—a very clever, very proud, and, I think, noble spirit. She was wanting to give up her studies and to volunteer as a nurse for the Balkans. I couldn’t help admiring her courage, her spirit, her readiness to give herself to the Russian cause. And, for me, whether a person was Jewish or Muslim, what mattered was whether they saw themselves as Russian. if they were ready to stand with Russia and with the Russian people, then that, as far as I was concerned, was that. And remember, when I edited Time, we took the side of the Jews against the anti-Semitic reactionaries. That’s not unimportant, is it? But Sofia Efimovna. I greatly admired her spirit, as I’ve just said, but I was sensible. I counselled her to finish her studies. There would be other opportunities for sacrifice. But she was determined—though, in the end, her father’s wishes prevailed, which was perhaps as it should be. So, of course, when she sent me this story, I had to print it. Your speaker complained of my denying the Jews any agency but, really, the whole thing was down to her. As for me, I was just listening, or, at least, trying to listen. Other people’s prejudices are always easy to expose, but it’s not so easy to face up to your own.”

            “Still, you seemed sceptical about whether the Jewish child for whom the old doctor gave up his shirt would do likewise if, one day, he encountered a Christian in need.”

            “Yes, yes, yes, but that was nothing to do with his being Jewish. That’s how life goes. It’s like the ten lepers cured by Christ: only one returned to give thanks. As I explained, such stories create a memory and it is those good memories that provide us with a basis for going out to do good in our own lives, especially memories from childhood and youth. But then it’s down to each individual person whether those memories bear fruit—you remember the parable of the sower. Sometimes the seed falls on the bare rock, sometimes it falls on the good fertile soil. Mostly, I think, it falls on bare rock—and that’s a true of gentiles as it is of Jews. Few of us really realize the possibilities we have been given. Fewer still act on them. But each of us can—if we are prepared for self-sacrifice. As, I think, Sofia Efimovna was. And there were other Jews who fell in Russia’s cause.”

            He fell silent and seemed thoughtful.

            “Fyodor Mikhailovich,” I began, trying to sound a little light-hearted, “I think you were rather susceptible to these ardent and beautiful young women admirers!”

            He shook his head.

            “Maybe that’s true, but is it a bad thing? I also wrote that the future was going to be shaped by young women like that and perhaps it was right that we of the older generation should listen to them. We had the past, but they were already seeing what was to come. They saw beyond some of the lines of division that we thought were immutable. Who knows?”

            We walked on for a few moments in silence.

            “I thought what he said about Isay Fomitch was a bit unfair,” I said. “I didn’t remember the passages he discussed that clearly, but it seemed to me that he was in some ways a sympathetic character—even if you did make him a bit of a caricature.”

            “Yes, of course he was! Sympathetic, that is. I thought I made it clear that we all loved him. As the prisoners said he was ‘our Jew’ and, in prison, there were only two classes of people, us and them, and if you were one of us, that was all that needed to be said. As you’ve probably realized by now, I can’t help developing a story when I think it needs developing and, strictly speaking, he wasn’t the only Jewish prisoner. And maybe I did exaggerate a bit … and throw in a couple of literary allusions that could have been received badly … And, yes, when he first appeared among us, the prisoners said some fairly brutal things to him, which, I should say, I had to tone down for publication. You can imagine what men like that might say—and you could see that he was fairly scared. But they gave some of us political prisoners a hard time too. It’s what happens in that sort of environment. As for Isay Fomitch, he stood up for himself and, after that, they respected him. And, yes, he was a money-lender—that’s what he was, why hide it—and he had special privileges, especially when it came to practicing his religion. You might have thought the other prisoners would resent him for that but, actually, I think they liked to see that there was a limit to the authorities’ power, though no one put it I those words. That time I wrote about, when the major came in and shouted at him while he was saying his prayers and he just carried on—it was priceless; especially what he told me later, that he hadn’t even been aware of the major’s presence at all.”

            Dostoevsky’s description of Isay Fomitch at his prayers suddenly came back to me quite vividly.

            “But isn’t the way you describe the kind of wailing sing-song voice in which he said his prayers a bit ridiculous? Don’t you make him into a figure of fun?”

            “It’s how it was—or how it seemed in that strange, brooding, monotonous world. But remember how I also wrote that when his wailing and sobbing was at its height he would suddenly turn it into a song of joy and how he explained to me that this was a way of remembering that the exile of the Jews would be followed by the joyful return to Jerusalem, meaning that way to joy goes through the deepest despair. It may all have been a bit theatrical, but I learned a lot from it. In a way, it was my own experience. ‘If I forget you, O Jerusalem …’ Some people say I made him seem insincere, but that wasn’t my intention. You must know by now that I often slip in some of my most important points under the guise of some absurdity. Russia is the land of holy fools, remember! We talked a lot. As I said, we loved him. There was no hatred—even though he was very different from the others and really quite peculiar, probably more so than most Jews.”

            We were getting towards the bottom of University Avenue and the large road junction at Byers Road, a broad, busy shopping street with many cafes and bars favoured by students. There was nearly always, as there was now, a large crowd waiting for the lights to change.

            “Look,” Fyodor Mikhailovich resumed, “I’m not going to go through all the passages from the novels that he spoke about. I’m not trying to justify myself at all, as I said at the outset. And though I can’t exactly say that the young man who said that The Diary was only a kind of thought experiment was right there’s something in what he said. And, as I said last time, whoever the narrator in any given novel is, he is, by definition, a Russian man—and one time a woman—of the nineteenth century. Whatever we see, we see through a nineteenth century Russian narrator’s eyes, whether that is me or, as in The Brothers Karamazov, a person in the novel. Whatever is said about the Jews on any particular occasion is never the last word. Never.”

            We had now joined the crowd waiting to cross the road and I should explain that, in Glasgow, the traffic lights at major crossroads are timed so that pedestrians can cross from all directions at once—and do. It seems like a ridiculously small thing, but it creates a sense of quite extraordinary elation when a busy road is suddenly flooded with people walking from all sides. Knowing the sequence of the lights, I could tell it would soon be our turn to cross.

            “But, all the same,” I said, trying to keep close to him in the seething, murmuring crowd, “if Russia was some kind of chosen people, as you believed, doesn’t that mean God must have rejected the Jews? You can’t have two chosen peoples can you? Isn’t there necessarily going to be conflict between them?” 

            At that moment the lights changed and we all started to move, carried in a surge towards the waves of other pedestrians coming from right and left and straight ahead.

            “Don’t worry,” he said, as we wove an awkward path across the road. “Vladimir Sergeyevich had some theories about how that could be resolved. I dare say he’s right. He’s very clever. But”—at that moment we were separated by having to manoeuvre round a very slow moving old couple—“but, you know, they probably are a chosen people. If you could understand the Jewish people, you could probably understand God. As for me, I’ve never been able to imagine a Jew without God, even those amongst them who call themselves atheists.”

            “Ah! God!” I exclaimed. “That’s what we started talking about all those weeks—months—ago but now we always seem to be talking about something else,” I said, shifting to the right to avoid a large man in painter’s overalls who was in my way.

            We’d momentarily lost contact several times in the short crossing and I fully expected to see him again at the other side, but, reaching the pavement and looking around, I couldn’t spot him anywhere. The lights were now changing and the crowd was thinning out. But he was nowhere to be seen. His words ‘I’ve never been able to imagine a Jew without God’ were ringing in my ears. But what about God? What was it to be with God or, for that matter, without God? Whether you were Jewish, Russian, Orthodox, Catholic—or just a semi-secular Anglo-Scot like me? Could we non-Jews live without God? Perhaps we’d been living without God for a long time? Perhaps we hadn’t even noticed he’d gone? So what to do when we want to find him again? Where could we begin?