Conversations with Dostoevsky will be taking a break after Conversation 3 Episode 7. The conversations will resume on Friday August 13th and continue for a further 4 conversations. Topics will include Dostoevsky and existentialism, the ‘woman question’, Church and State (and Russia), the Jewish question, immortality and God. And more besides.
“Sorry,” I said, “can we go back a step?” (Fyodor Mikhailovich nodded.) “Right. I kind of half get this. I mean, I do realize that you sometimes have to approach a person or a subject with a certain sympathy or even love before you can fully understand them. No one’s ever going to tell their secrets to someone who’s consistently hostile or indifferent to them. A good counseller is going to get more out of you than a torturer. So, if I’m completely closed to the idea of Christ, that’s it, end of story. Nada. I have to be open and willing to learn, I accept that, but—and it’s a big ‘but’—I must have some idea of who he is before I can even begin to think about whether I love him or not. Where am I going to get this idea from?”
“There are the gospels—if you actually had a copy of the Bible on your shelves.”
“Point taken—and I should say that I did actually pick up a copy of the Bible to keep at home after our last conversation!” (I’d ‘picked it up’ from a charity bookshop round the corner.) He smiled. “But will that be enough?” I continued. “As I said then, I’ve known the main gospel stories, the parables, the sermon on the Mount, the Passion nearly all of my life. All the same, as of now, that doesn’t make the earth move for me. After all, it’s just a book and, who knows, maybe it’s all just a collection of myths and legends built around someone who maybe wasn’t really like that at all. I don’t know if any of it is even true. What I need is something more immediate, something that would show me the kind of difference it would make if someone like that had really existed: if someone like that really did exist, now. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“You mean—perhaps—meeting someone who was Christ-like in actual life?”
“I understand. For me too, Christ was also just an idea in a book, a dream of a better world, a utopia, until I saw the living quality of Christian love amongst the poor, oppressed slaves with whom I lived in prison. Of course, many of them were not good men, I’ve never pretended otherwise. But they reminded me of the truly Christian love, the gentleness, the readiness to forgive that one encountered in some of our people, no matter how materially impoverished or brutally treated by their masters. And then, as one of the venerable Church Fathers said, a King is never without his army, meaning that Christ’s love continues to be manifest in the saints in all the very different circumstances in which the saints found themselves living. Perhaps, then, that’s the first thing to do: to think about those people and those occasions who have shown you what self-giving love really is like—and their love will point you to Christ.”
I thought for a moment. Again, I ‘half’ got it, but the problem was that although I’d probably met many people in my life who you could describe as ‘loving’, I’m not sure that any of them really showed anything you could call Christ-like. Nicer than average, perhaps—but scarcely divine. As for the saints, I don’t think I’d met any of them and the ones I’d read about all seemed too long ago and faraway to connect with my middle-class life in the early twenty-first century.
“Saints,” I said vaguely, “but who are the saints? How do you get to meet them?”
“I don’t think Christ is ever without his witnesses,” Fyodor Mikhailovich said calmly, “but you may have to make an effort to find them. Perhaps you need to become a pilgrim?”
I had, of course, already thought about that.
“That’s a nice idea,” I said, “but my job doesn’t give me time for that kind of luxury! In any case, it’s not just about me. I’m just one example, me and thousands—millions—of others. We just don’t live in a world of saints—and most of those who do set themselves up as gurus or teachers turn out to be fake! Where can I even start looking?”
“I’m not sure that you’re right,” Fyodor Mikhailovich said gently, “but let’s assume that you are. So where is it you get your ideas of good and evil from? How have you learned what it means to love? If you have any ideal over and above earning your salary and enjoying ‘oysters and champagne’, where did you get it from?”
“I suppose from my parents and family, in the first instance—my teachers and, yes, maybe what I learned at church. But I’m not sure that what I learned amounted to much more than trying to be a reasonably good citizen and neighbour and fit in with what was expected from me. Nothing saint-like—that would be much too extreme for middle England!”
“So why are we even having this conversation? If that was all there was to it, wouldn’t you now be contentedly getting on with your life instead of worrying over the eternal questions like a nineteenth-century Russian boy?”
“We’re having this conversation because you turned up in my life!” I couldn’t help saying, hopefully with humour. Fortunately, he got it and chuckled.
“I suppose I did. But I wouldn’t have turned up (as you put it) if you hadn’t wanted me to. So, why did you want me to?”
Had I really wanted him to turn up? I wondered. His being here certainly wasn’t making anything easier. But, then again, what reader of Dostoevsky (or Dickens, or Flaubert, or whoever else) wouldn’t want the chance to speak with the man himself?
“Because I’d read your books … because they stirred something in me that I wouldn’t otherwise have had words for … ”
“Which was? What you call your existential despair?”
“Yes, that … but not just that. Also …” I was struggling to find the right words here. “also that there’s a way through that to something else … something more than just settling down and conforming to what society expects … In terms of what we’ve been talking about, I suppose you could just say it’s Christ. Yes, Christ.”
Fyodor Mikhailovich sighed, though sympathetically.
“But if you want to find Christ, you must find him for yourself—though I’ve made some suggestions,” he said gently.
“I know, I know!” I exclaimed. “But how would I even recognize him! The people of Seville in the time of the Grand Inquisitor and your Russian peasants lived in religious societies, so perhaps they were tuned in to the right wavelength by upbringing. But how would you even begin to recognize Christ if he came again urban, industrial, capitalist, modern—postmodern—world?”
“Again, I can’t answer that question,” Fyodor Mikhailovich said, nodding. “What Christ means in your time is up to you who live in it. But I understand the question. In a way, it was the same question I tried to address in my time. And for all the differences between my time and yours, I see a lot of similarities, some of which we’ve already spoken about: the mad pursuit of wealth and the ruthless competition it engenders, the constant shaking-up of social relations that follows, and the desperate attempt to make ourselves into our own gods and believing that science can tell us how to be better human beings—not to mention the ruination of our environment for short-term financial gain. How one can recognize Christ when one is under the spell of all this—that’s a difficult question. Perhaps he would be unrecognizable, absurd or even pathetic—at least in the eyes of those who are wedded to the values of the present age.”
I thought for a moment. What Fyodor Mikhailovich had just said reminded me of a seminar in which the famous philosopher who was speaking said that the only form in which God could appear in our world today would be like Shakespeare’s ‘Poor Tom’ or Dostoevsky’s ‘Idiot’. In other words, he’d be someone who couldn’t make himself understood to his contemporaries. Incomprehensible. A madman or an idiot. And it wouldn’t end any better than last time, even though our world has supposedly been modelled on his teachings.
“Like your idiot, then?”
“But if that’s right, then we come back to the same problem as with the Christ in ‘The Grand Inquisitor’. Myshkin only half fits the bill. He offers unconditional love, granted, especially to fallen or falsely accused women, but he doesn’t seem capable of action. He just stands there while everything around him falls apart. No one gets saved and, if anything, his behaviour just makes it worse. Don’t get me wrong. I think he’s an amazing character. He’s always appealed to me in a special way. I think you also spoke of him as a ‘beautiful’ personality and I get that—but it’s a beauty ‘not of this world’. And, I should add, I’m not ‘against’ your—Ivan’s—Christ either. In fact, it appeals more to me than the kind of Christ you sometimes hear about in church. But that’s my point: it’s not the same Christ as we read about in the gospels. So you’ll tell me: go back to the gospels, then—to which I say that this is the problem: they don’t belong to our world, they don’t tell me what it would mean to encounter Christ today, in the world as it really is.”
As he listened he continued quietly smiling, but I felt there was something sad about that smile.
“Again, I have to say that I don’t entirely agree,” he began. “As regards my ‘Idiot’ he was never meant to be Christ nor is he an allegory. I know that people often say that he was my attempt to create a ‘Christ figure’, as you call it, but that I failed—for the kind of reasons you spell out very clearly—not to say brutally. But I do wish people would stick to the books I actually did write rather than criticize me for not having written the books they think I wanted to write. Myshkin was doomed to fail from the outset—and precisely because he was never sufficiently grounded in our Russian reality. Doesn’t Christianity say that Christ had to become fully man if he was to save us? But what does that mean if not to belong fully and identify fully with a particular time and place. In that regard Sonia Marmeladova is more Christ-like, but perhaps we’ll speak more of her another time. In any case, neither she nor Myshkin are meant to ‘be’ Christ, but they each reveal a single ray of his light, so to speak. No character in a novel could ever be the full Christ. It’s interesting that you don’t mention Zosima or Alyosha, whom some people also talk about as Christ-like, but neither of them were weak or helpless. Zosima helped many, didn’t he? And Alyosha—well, we don’t know yet what Alyosha’s capable of, but even in the novel I managed to write, he brings people together, helps enemies become friends, humbles the proud, and reconciles the resentful.”
“I suppose he does—and his speech at the end, where he talks about using our good memories from childhood to be the basis for a better life is as good a sermon as I’ve ever read. But it doesn’t really require any kind of belief in God, let alone miracles—you could almost call it is a secular sermon, as far as I can see. And, anyway, I don’t personally see Alyosha as a Christ-figure. To put it at its simplest, he’s just a really nice guy, a thoroughly decent young man, who has a good effect on others.” I sighed. “Your novels, Fyodor Mikhailovich, help. And I’m not saying there are other novels that do better. Most of the twentieth century novelists who tried to produce Christ-figures (and several of them, I think, were in any case influenced by you) also ended up with ‘Christs’ who were too weak, sick, or mad to save anyone else. Novelists can re-imagine or re-invent old stories—like we were saying last time—but perhaps there’s a limit to what any novelist—even you—can do.”
He laughed and even seemed rather pleased by my little speech.
“Of course,” he said, “yes, yes, yes—of course, there’s a limit to what any novelist can do. That’s what I’ve been saying all along. And, as we also said last time, the novelist can only confront you with the truth when the story he’s telling or, if you like, retelling—no matter how fantastical it might seem—is itself the truth.”
“But there we are again! The truth! I suppose the Grand Inquisitor and your ‘idiot’ make us think about how Christ might be if he were to come again and that’s an extraordinary idea to play with. But what I want is someone who can really persuade me that Christ’s ‘love’ isn’t just a nice ideal: it’s a universal law, someone, that is, who really can say ‘Love one another’ and say it convincingly.”
“You’re thinking about the ending of A Gentle Spirit again?”
“Exactly. It seems to me that if the world is to be more than the infinite succession of cause and effect—‘beneath a dead sun’—then we need to hear something more than a fragment of ancient history, something more than what the church has been repeating for generation after generation, and even something more than anything a novel can tell us. Where do we find it? Where am I going to hear that voice? When—how—do I get to see the truth?”
Our conversation was at a crux. From time to time it had been in danger of slipping into the mode of a fairly detached academic conversation. A question-and-answer session with a great writer. The stuff of book festivals. And sometimes I’d been in danger of forgetting that this wasn’t just a matter of finding out what Fyodor Mikhailovich really thought but of getting an answer to my original question as to how to go on living if the world really was a moral desert or, to be a little less melodramatic, how to live with purpose, strength, and joy in a world that was essentially indifferent to our humanity. But was the world like that or was there someone capable of commanding us to love one another? Someone like Christ? No, not ‘like Christ’—Christ. So why beat about the bush? Why go on with my more or less (mostly less) clever cross-examination? There was an obvious shortcut that was staring me in the face or, at least, sitting opposite and waiting for me to speak. The question seemed impertinent, even to me. But I had to ask.
“Fyodor Mikhailovich … excuse me, this may seem a completely stupid question but you—now—do you see Him?”
Dostoevsky pursed his lips and breathed deeply. He was not angry, as I’d feared he might be. The light that I’d once glimpsed deep in his eyes seemed suddenly to shine out in with almost tangible brightness and his face became somehow radiant, even though his expression had scarcely changed. It was as if his whole energy was becoming manifest in his face, which seemed to grow larger in relation to his body. It was almost frightening and I scarcely dared look at him. Some seconds passed and the phenomenon grew even more intense. Abashed, I looked down.
Suddenly, the atmosphere eased. Raising my head, I almost expected him to have gone, but he was still there, looking more like he normally did (if ‘normally’ is the right word to describe a visitor from another world), but, as it were, refreshed.
“What can I say?” he said gently. Taking a deep breath, he added, “I think it’s time to go.”
I wanted to shout out ‘Stay!’ We were so near, and I needed to make sense both of what he’d been saying and what I’d seen. At the same time, I knew that arguing would be pointless. There was a firmness in his voice that would not be contradicted.
“Will I see you again?”
“When the time is right.”
I wanted to press him as to when that would be—all the while knowing that such a question would remain unanswered. I remained silent.
I didn’t really know what to expect next. Would he dematerialize in some kind of way, like someone in a science-fiction movie being teleported? Would he gradually fade, leaving only an outline that would slowly disappear? None of the above.
“Now I’ll go,” he said, standing up. “Thank you for the beer. I have enjoyed our conversation. I hope you have.”
Politely, I stood up. “Thank you,” I said, not quite sure what I was thanking him for exactly.
“No, stay,” he said, “I’ll let myself out.”
I watched him walk to the door and go out into the hall. He was gone.
I sat back down and breathed out, long and slow. Something extraordinary had happened. But what?
Nevertheless, that didn’t seem to solve the problem. The world we inhabit is this world, here and now, ‘on this bank and shoal of time’, as the eponymous hero of the Scottish play put it. Even if there is an alternative view, a ‘heavenly’ view, so to speak, how is that going to make a difference? I was sure Fyodor Mikhailovich had more to say and pressed him further.
“Fyodor Mikhailovich,” I began, “that’s powerful stuff, but if the only Christ we’re able to know here on earth is the suffering Christ, this not only makes Christianity into a tragic view of life, it also makes it ineffective. I mean, this isn’t a Christ who can help us, it’s a Christ who needs our help—just to stay alive. He’s become too weak, which, I have to say, is what a lot of critics have complained about in relation to your story of the Grand Inquisitor …”
“Not my story—Ivan Karamazov’s story.”
“Very well. Ivan Karamazov’s story, but, either way, the Christ who appears in that story and comes back to Seville in the middle of the Spanish Inquisition seems very weak, almost bloodless. Jesus denounced the Pharisees and tax-collectors and drove the profiteers out of the Temple with a whip, but your Christ—Ivan Karamazov’s Christ—just stands silently in front of the Inquisitor and listens without saying anything to his long, rambling, self-justifying speech. He doesn’t say or do anything.”
“Yet we are told that Christ himself remained silent before his accusers.”
“But he did break his silence in the end. He told Pilate that his Kingdom wasn’t of this world.”
“And mine kisses the Inquisitor on the lips. Isn’t that ‘doing’ something?”
“I suppose that it shows that he loves and accepts the Inquisitor despite the fact that he’s busy destroying the whole idea that Christ represented on earth. But that’s part of the problem: shouldn’t he be confronting him with his betrayal, speaking truth to power, rather than just standing there, silently? That’s why your critics say he’s too weak: a suffering Christ who loves—but doesn’t save. Maybe even can’t save. But if Christ is to be any use to us, doesn’t he have to be ‘strong to save’ as one of our hymns puts it?”
I knew that the figure of Christ was very precious to Dostoevsky and, reading these words now, I’m rather appalled that I could have so brutally attacked the idea of Christ that appears in his novels. Probably what I actually said was not quite so sharp as I’ve put it here, but the point was, I think, unambiguous. Nevertheless, Fyodor Mikhailovich appeared unperturbed, though he grew increasingly thoughtful as I spoke.
“Come,” he said, “let’s sit down and finish that beer. This needs careful consideration”
We sat down as he suggested and I was relieved to take another mouthful of beer, losing myself for a moment in the bitter-sweet taste and getting a respite from big issues that were in danger of getting a little too big.
“Now, think carefully,” Fyodor Mikhailovich began, after putting his glass back down. “We agreed that what connects us to Christ is and can only be love. Christ isn’t the answer to our problems—not the problems of politics, not the problems of psychology. He is love. But the only way you can communicate love is: love. I don’t see any other way. Yes, he could have turned stones into bread and made himself universally popular; he could have performed spectacular miracles and made himself an object of worship; and he could have called upon his legions of angels and taken control of the nations of the world. But if he’d done those things, if he’d compelled people’s love or tricked them into loving him, then it wouldn’t have been love. The Roman Emperors used bread and circuses to keep the loyalty of the crowd, but they never even pretended to rule through love—let alone freedom. And, just to be clear, although I shocked you by saying that love was even more important and even more basic than freedom, it has to be freely given and freely received. There can’t be any compulsion or deceit.”
I thought for a moment.
“I like all this,” I said. “I can understand … OK, not ‘understand’ … and I’m drawn to the kind of Christ you’re talking about, but it seems to me that this is not only a very human but even a humanistic Christ. In other words, I don’t see why we should regard him as essentially different from any of the other great reformers or teachers of humanity. Perhaps the way in which his life embodied his teaching and the fact that love is ultimately more attractive than knowledge or duty might make us rank him above some of the others, but that doesn’t make him God. Yet that’s the point, isn’t it?”
“Yes, yes, yes, that’s the point. That’s why Renan and none of the others who’ve tried to portray him as simply a historical figure never get close to understanding him.”
“But what does it mean to say that he’s God?”
As so often, Fyodor Mikhailovich seemed not to answer my question directly but to start off on a new subject.
“Have you ever met, have you ever read about, anyone who could really unconditionally love another person?”
“I don’t know. I’ve certainly met people who were capable of loving deeply.”
“I’m not sure that I even know what that would mean.”
“I’m not surprised. It’s impossible.”
“Impossible? But why?”
“Because everyone of us is an ‘I’ and being an ‘I’ necessarily limits us in relation to others. Overcoming that limitation is more than the work of a lifetime and it is only in the perspective of eternity that we really see ourselves for what we are in our infinite connection to the whole and, in the whole, to all those other ‘I’s. Only at that point can we give up our identification with just this little ‘I’ and rejoice equally in every possible manifestation of the whole. Only at that point does egoism cease.”
“Precisely because he is Christ from all eternity means that even in the limitations of human flesh he is not limited by his own ‘I’ and can be equally loving to all. The rest of us can only shed this ‘I’ through a long, slow, process … perhaps even an eternal process lasting until the end of time or even beyond time. This life is only a beginning, but Christ opened the way and showed us the end, the goal that is set before us. And, again, that’s why historians can never grasp him because they are always bound to think of him as some kind of ego-centred personality, whether that’s the Strauss’s mythical Christ, Renan’s noble sentimentalist, Lev Nikolaevich’s moral teacher, or the revolutionary insurgent who became popular in the twentieth century. All of these maybe grasped part of the truth—that Christ put the good of humanity before his own individual ego—but none of them show how he was able to do this. There’s the miracle.”
“But why’s it a miracle? Isn’t it possible to become enlightened through meditation, without any miracles, like the Buddha?”
“That’s a comfortable modern Western view of the Buddha, to be sure,” smiled Fyodor Mikhailovich, “but don’t the Buddhists themselves say that he could only achieve that because of all he’d learned and what he’d become through his previous incarnations. He didn’t start his last incarnation as a tabula rasa. But this is not a competition between religions. This is about how you find love, how you become capable of love, and you become capable of love through experiencing it—and if you’re to become capable of unconditional love then it’s only by experiencing unconditional love.”
“I see.” I saw (I think). But maybe I wasn’t yet persuaded. As if sensing my doubts, Fyodor Mikhailovich held up an admonitory finger.
“Do you? I wonder. In any case, let me just say that although you described ‘my’ Christ as weak and powerless, he is neither weak nor powerless in the eyes of those who recognize Him for who He is. Even in the story of ‘The Grand Inquisitor’, the common people immediately recognize and love Him when He first appears in Seville—and because they recognize and love Him he is able to heal them and raise their dead. The Inquisitor himself recognizes Him but he doesn’t love Him. For him, therefore, Christ becomes just one more helpless prisoner to feed the flames of his magnificent Auto da Fé.”
“So I must love Him before I can know Him and see Him for who He is?”
“Exactly so.” Fyodor Mikhailovich smiled and folded his hands together in his lap, as if he had finished saying what he had to say and was waiting for me to make the next move. As if he was expecting something from me. Surely not a confession of faith? If that was what he wanted, the most I’d manage would be like the person in the gospels who called out ‘I believe. Help my unbelief.’ But my unbelief needed a lot more help before I could even begin to talk about belief.
Silence fell. Outside the traffic was still quite busy and there were occasional bursts of talking and laughter from groups of people going up and down the road. But, in a strange way, that just made the silence in the room all the more intense. Fyodor Mikhailovich twitched the curtain again and peered out.
“You have a good view into other people’s apartments from here,” he remarked.
I laughed. “I suppose we do, though I try to avoid looking if I can help it—no one seems to bother too much with curtains, not above the first floor, anyway!”
“No, but it’s nice to see all the Christmas trees, isn’t it?”
“Yes, I suppose it is.”
“But you don’t have one?”
“No. We did when James was young, but we stopped a couple of years ago. I think of it as something for the children.”
“That’s a shame. I like a Christmas tree.”
“Really? Excuse my ignorance, but did they have Christmas trees in Russia in your time? I always think of them as more German.”
“Maybe they started in Germany but, yes, they were quite popular, at least in Petersburg. In fact, I even wrote a story about one.”
“You did? Really? I don’t know it.”
“That’s because you haven’t read my Diary of a Writer,” he responded, smiling broadly and, I thought, rather wickedly. “Though it’s also in one of those collections of stories you have on your shelves. But perhaps you haven’t read them either?”
“I’ve dipped in,” I said weakly.
“It’s a good story,” he said, “and, I think, rather important. It’s about a little boy. His mother has brought him to the city, but they have no money to buy food and, as always happens, she dies of cold and hunger in the basement where they’d lived. The boy, who maybe doesn’t even know she’s dead, goes out into the streets and, as he wanders about, he sees the brightly lit windows of the wealthy houses with their Christmas trees and parties. He even tries to go in to one of them but is quickly shown the door, as you can imagine. How he’d love to be amongst the girls and boys gathered round the tree, receiving their gifts. Then, he falls asleep behind a woodpile. In his dreams he finds himself flying up to heaven and there is Christ with a Christmas tree he has prepared for all the orphaned children, where they can be reunited with their poor sinful mothers. In the morning, they find him—dead. Naturally, the way I wrote it is more detailed, quite a tear-jerker, if I may say so, though it’s just a story, a made-up story—but one that’s happened many times.”
Even in that brief summary, the story about the dying boy and the Christmas tree jogged a distant memory of having once heard it read in a Christmas service on television. But it was a long time ago.
“I can imagine that you tell it very powerfully,” I said, adding that I promised to read it this Christmas. However, I did want to know a bit more than what Fyodor Mikhailovich had told me. “But look,” I continued, “on the basis of what you’ve said, it sounds almost like an anti-Christmas story, as if all the stuff about Christ’s Christmas tree is just a fantasy and powerless against the reality of suffering?”
We were now standing quite close together, looking out at the apartments opposite, about half-a-dozen of which had brightly lit Christmas trees in their windows. Fyodor Mikhailovich spoke very quietly, very deliberately.
“As I say at the end of that story and as I said to you during our first meeting, I’m only a writer. I make things up—though I have to admit that I got the idea for this from a German poet, but then (of course) I made some changes over and above transferring the story to Petersburg.”
“In the German’s version—a bit like Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘Little Match Girl’—the child dies and goes to heaven. That, you see, is sentimentality, as you’d call it. Unearned emotional gratification. But writers can’t tell you anything about the next life and they shouldn’t try to make us forget the terrible suffering that life on earth is for many, many, far too many people. What they can and should do is to show another possibility, to show that there’s more to life than the sum of facts about the world. There are also dreams and—who knows?—maybe dreams are a conduit for connections to other worlds? But the writer can’t say that is so. He can only suggest, only sow a seed of hope—and then it’s up to you, the reader, to do with it as you will.”
“It still sounds to me like a rather tragic story.”
“Think of it as an icon.”
“An icon? I don’t get it. How?”
Turning back to the room, Fyodor Mikhailovich pointed to a card at the near end of the mantelpiece, which showed the Orthodox icon of the Nativity. I walked over and examined it more closely. In the middle was Mary, lying down with her infant son, in a cave in a mountain, behind which appeared the angels. I could also identify shepherds and a very modestly dressed trio of wise men (no jewels or retinues!), as well as someone who was presumably a midwife, washing the new-born baby.
“It’s an interesting image—but I don’t see the connection to your story. Can you explain?”
“Hmm. As I just said, I should really be leaving it to you, the reader, to work it out—but these are, I suppose, rather unusual circumstances! So … the mother lying in the cave becomes the mother lying in the basement; the child in his mother’s arms becomes the child abandoned and alone; the child to whom wise men offer gifts becomes the child who isn’t allowed to have any presents from the Christmas tree; the child who is the Word of life becomes the child who dies behind the woodpile …”
“But, Fyodor Mikhailovich, that makes your story a complete inversion of the icon, some might even say blasphemous!”
“They might—but they should also remember what He said of the hungry, the naked, and the prisoners: ‘in as much as you do it to the least of these, you do it to me’. This means it is not the lovely well-fed children dancing round the Christmas tree who are the image of Christ, angelic as they are, but the children abandoned by the world, they and their ‘sinful mothers’. The icon shows us how history looks when it is, so to speak, seen from heaven—but if you want to see Christ in the world, that’s where you have to look. Behind the woodpile.”
This was thought-provoking. Somewhere I’d heard icons described as windows onto heaven, but the way Fyodor Mikhailovich put it would be better described as an inverse image of earth that was also, somehow, at the same time, connected with earth, a possibility, a vision of what earth could, perhaps, become …
Fyodor Mikhailovich didn’t answer my last question, but ran his finger slowly along the shelf, as if checking the titles, stopping next to a rather thick paperback. It was a book that was rather popular at that time, Homo Deus. Picking it out, he scrutinized the back-cover, emitting a kind of ‘Hrrumph’. Returning it to its place, he began pacing slowly up and down, several times pausing rather jerkily, as if to try to catch a wayward thought.
“Homo Deus. They still believe that, do they? Yes, yes, yes. They can’t say I didn’t warn them, though! Oh yes, it would be wonderful if we were indeed brothers, if we knew true solidarity—and then perhaps we could become as gods and do so in the way that God meant for us. But that’s not how the world is, is it? There are always some people who imagine that they’re closer to being gods than the rest or even that they already are gods or, at least, demi-gods. As for the rest, they don’t know what’s best for them, and so it happens as it has to happen. Either the superior ones have to leave them behind or else they try to drag them along. So far so good. The problem is that because the inferior ones don’t know what’s best for them (or so the superior ones think) they will either have to be compelled or lied to. Usually, there’s bloodshed. It’s not a new story, of course, but the funny thing is that every generation since the tower of Babel thinks it’s new.”
“But don’t you think it really is different now? Even compared to your time, science can do things that then seemed impossible. We have gone into space, we have split the atom, we can even the shape the basic structures of life. There are so many new powers at our fingertips that perhaps we will at least be able to become supermen, if not gods. All things really are possible now.”
Fyodor Mikhailovich looked at me with some surprise. Very probably, he hadn’t expected me to be quite such a scientific utopian. I was, I admit, playing devil’s advocate. All the same, it really does seem (and in a way that no one in the nineteenth century could have anticipated) that science was in the process of changing not just what we can do but what we are.
Fyodor Mikhailovich turned his back, lifted the curtain aside and peered out. After a minute or so he let it drop back into place, and, still with his back to me, resumed his speech, only gradually turning to face me.
“If you really believe that,” he began, “I won’t be able to persuade you otherwise. And, please, don’t think that I was ever against science. I was, after all, an engineer. But whatever new powers science may be able to give to humankind, everything depends on how we—or you—want to use them. You’ve maybe never heard of Nikolai Fedorov’s idea that science would one day be able to help raise the ancestors. Of course, it was a crazy idea, but it seemed to me that there was real humanity in it, the feeling that history’s victims and the ancestors to whom we owe so much should not be left behind. Whatever progress is, it’s only human progress if it embraces all. All. Just wanting to march off to conquer new planets in the same way that you conquered America, Africa, India and the Pacific islands or extending your lifespan until you rival the patriarchs, excluding new generations from coming forth and living their lives of passion and joy—this is not human progress, it’s just the refining of a machine, and a rather lethal machine, if I may say so. It’s the machine that gives you bread today and war tomorrow. It’s power for power’s sake, not for the sake of living, not for the sake of life. And that’s before we even begin to look at how human beings have been dealing with the living world around them, the forest, the rivers, the oceans, the teeming creatures given to us as companions in life. You race into the future and all the while the creatures around you are dying. Just think of the birdsong … how could we ever be happy without that wonderful music to accompany us?”
“So not onward and upward, then?”
“Not onward and upward. Let’s go back to your question: what is Christmas?” Not waiting for my answer, he continued: “Christmas is honouring one who was equal to God but emptied himself and appeared in the form of a servant, ready to give up all that divine knowledge, all that divine power, and all that divine glory so as to be with the sufferers in their suffering, to humble himself and be obedient unto death, even death on the cross. I think we touched on that last time. But, I ask you, has the world ever seen such an extraordinary act of renunciation? If you really want to be as gods, that’s the kind of god you have to be—the self-renouncing God, suffering and dying with us. God born in a cave.”
I supposed this referred to the Orthodox Church’s icon of the Nativity that shows Mary and her infant in a cave rather than the thatched annex typical of Western art. I didn’t really know much about icons, but a couple of our cards that year had used this image. I couldn’t help the odd thought, probably irrelevant, that once, on a holiday in Crete, I’d been shown the cave where, supposedly, Zeus was born. Yes, that was, probably, irrelevant. Interesting, though. Perhaps gods really should be born in caves, out of the depths of the earth … ?
In any case, as I’d told Fyodor Mikhailovich, I did try to go to Church at Christmas most years. Perhaps it was something in this story of an infinite, almighty, all-knowing God coming down (so to say) and giving all that God-ness up so as to become the most helpless thing in the world, a new-born baby, that touched me. With or without the cave. Whether or not it was true. Whatever truth meant in a case like this. At the same time, I had baulked, as I always do, when he got round to the ‘obedient unto death on the cross’ part.
“I understand that, Fyodor Mikhailovich,” I began, but was immediately interrupted.
“You understand it! Congratulations! I wish I did! I don’t understand it, but I rejoice in it!”
He was right, of course. I didn’t ‘understand’ it, if you want to be strict about the meaning of ‘understand’.
“I stand corrected. What can I say? I’m moved by it, it speaks to me the way a poem speaks to me. Or something like that.”
He nodded. Placated. I continued.
“You see, it’s not Christmas that bothers me. It’s Good Friday. Why does he have to be obedient unto death, why the death on the cross? A few years ago, I almost came back to Christianity at the time when the Alpha course was big. A friend of mine had been very in to it. It seemed warmer, more approachable than the kind of moralistic preaching that I’d heard as a teenager. But when it came to the crunch, they had the same complicated and frankly unbelievable theory about how Jesus had to die on the cross because God had been offended by human sin and the devil had to be paid a ransom to let us go, so Jesus had to die instead of us because he was sinless and only the voluntary death of a sinless human being was enough to placate God and pay off the devil. I mean, I’m probably not putting it quite correctly, but it was along those lines. A weird God, too much sin, too much of the devil, and too much suffering to my mind. It just didn’t make sense. It almost made me want to be a Muslim: ‘Allah says’ and it’s done and that’s all there is to it. And if God is Almighty—why not? It’s a lot simpler, anyway.”
Apart from a gruff “Hmmm”, Fyodor Mikhailovich seemed almost to ignore this tirade, confession, call it what you will. Once more he looked out of the window, perhaps for even longer than before. When he did speak, there was a tenderness in his voice but also a kind of rigour, you could almost say severity, that I hadn’t noticed before.
“Yes, yes, yes. I agree. That is, I agree about placating God and paying the devil a ransom. These are the kinds of theories that some of the clergy like to invent so as to keep the flock in their place. But God doesn’t need to be placated. God is love. And the devil has no power over human souls that cannot be broken by love. Do you remember how Zosima defined hell?”
“The inability to love.” (This was one line from The Brothers Karamazov that had remained with me since the first time I read it.)
“Exactly so! The moment we begin to love—even when your love is no bigger than an onion—in that same moment the devil has lost all his power over you. But” (he began to sound almost school-masterly) “I can’t entirely agree with you about suffering. Of course, He has to suffer, not because He had to placate God or pay off the devil but because the people He came to, the people He accepted and loved as his brothers (and, of course, sisters) were sufferers. Even the ones who thought they were superior, the supermen who wanted to lead humanity into a new era, even they, behind all their big words, were sufferers, afraid to love life as it was and trying to hide their fears by dreaming up imaginary utopias.” He suddenly stopped and gave a little laugh. “Imagine, I’d never really thought of this before, but the way you put it just now made me think that those theories you described weren’t so very different from Kirillov’s.”
“Kirillov? The nihilist who thought he could become God by committing suicide and freeing humanity from the fear of death?”
“Where’s the similarity?”
“Don’t you see? Both believe that what matters most is that salvation is only possible if death can be made into an act of complete and sovereign freedom. I don’t say Christ didn’t freely consent to the cross, but it wasn’t only about freedom. It was about love, and freedom doesn’t mean anything unless it’s directed by love—indeed, freedom without love: that, quite simply, is nihilism. And remember, even on the cross he was love. ‘Father, forgive them’ for those who crucified him, and, to the thief who hung there with him—quite probably a murderer into the bargain—‘Tonight you will be with me in paradise’. And if the other thief had just for a moment stopped shouting and swearing maybe he too would have joined them in paradise.”
“So all the stuff about paying the price of sin is just superfluous to requirements?”
“You could put it like that, I suppose. Yes.”
“And the cross isn’t there to make us feel like guilty sinners but simply a sign of God’s love?”
“In a way, yes—but …” He shook his head solemnly.
“I see you’re back on your theme of guilt again! Please note, I didn’t bring it up!”
“Noted—but it was you who made it central in the words you gave to Markel and Zosima.”
“And it is central. Just not in the way you think. Yes, we should feel guilty before the cross. We do feel guilty before the cross, if—when—we love. It’s not as if the cross washes away your guilt so that you’re then free to love, which, I think, is the view you’re objecting to?” I nodded. “We’re agreed. then. But if you love, if you love Christ, then seeing him nailed to the cross will pierce you to the heart. Then, maybe for the first time, you’ll really know what it is to be guilty.”
“That doesn’t seem like a good outcome, though. Wouldn’t it be better for love to do away with guilt rather than creating it? I don’t get it.”
“It’s quite easy, really. It’s just a matter of psychology. Imagine that your house caught fire. Your brother is also in the house at the time. You escape, but he doesn’t. Everyone who’s been in that kind of situation, whether as a result of war, persecution, plague or just some accident, they all feel guilt, as if it they were the ones who should have died—even if it wasn’t their fault and they did all they could to rescue the ones who perished. That’s how it is when you love someone. A part of you always belongs to them and, in such cases, that part remains bound to their terrible fate. It’s a kind of debt you owe them, and that debt is guilt. It has been said that grief is the price we pay for love, but so too is guilt.”
“OK. I admit that a lot of people do experience that. But isn’t it something they need to get over and leave behind? Isn’t it what people go to their therapist for?”
“Ha! More psychology again! Of course—I admit—you can use psychology for just about anything and I also admit that there may be cases where people have the most fantastic and mistaken views about being to blame for their brother’s or friend’s death. And, of course, people like that need help. But don’t you see that there is a very fundamental level at which we all need to acknowledge that we are each of us part of the whole network of causes and relationships that are involved in bringing about whatever comes to pass in history and society—including all that goes wrong in it. That doesn’t demean us. It brings us closer.”
“But that sounds more like a tragic view of life than Christianity?”
“Does it have to be one or the other? Are you saying that tragedy and Christianity are incompatible? I think I’d turn the argument round and say that Christianity presupposes a tragic view of life. And then—‘tonight you will be with me in paradise’.”
Birth and death. The parameters of human existence. Binding us to the earth, irrespective of our wants and wishes. Fyodor Mikhailovich was right: if you held onto that, you’d probably have no difficulty in practicing humility. But there was a problem.
“Humility,” I said, “isn’t a very fashionable virtue. In fact, you could say that most people today actually regard it as a failing. Working in a university I’m actively encouraged, you could even say compelled, to be the opposite of humble. It’s no longer enough to teach and keep up with developments in your field, you have to keep telling the world how world-beating and world-changing your teaching and research is. It’s not good enough to be good enough—it has to be better than anything else that’s going on, which it obviously isn’t because everybody else is having to say the same about their work.” I saw him looking rather quizzically at me. “No, really, this is what we actually have to do, every time we apply for a grant or just when we have our work reviewed every year. And it’s not just universities, it’s the same in business, sport, politics … everywhere. I suppose politics always has been about ambition and self-promotion, but these days it often looks more like a celebrity gameshow.” I getting a bit carried away, but realized that he might not have a clue as to what I was talking about—especially the celebrity gameshow part.
“Sorry,” I broke off, “that was probably all a bit irrelevant. I don’t suppose you want to waste your time here listening to me banging on about my work troubles!”
“Not at all, not all,” he replied, as politely as ever. “But, I assure you, it was much the same in my time, even if we didn’t have ‘celebrity gameshows’, whatever they are. And, of course, I have to admit that there was a lot of self-promotion and vanity in the world of literature—and I can’t claim that I was immune. When you’re desperate for recognition, even a little success can make you lose your head.” He shook his head and smiled wryly. He took another small sip of his beer. “But that’s as may be. What is certainly true is that humility is and always has been the basis of any truly Christian life—just look at the teaching of any of the Church Fathers or the lives of any of the saints. Some people have thought my portrait of Zosima was exaggerated, but it wasn’t at all. There are many Zosimas amongst the saints and I myself met people—and not only Elders and monks—who showed that kind of humility. Of course, there have always been Church leaders and spiritual teachers who like to dress in fine robes and find their pleasure in honorific titles; Princes of the Church, as they say, who talk down to those in their care as if they were God himself on his heavenly throne when, really, they’re no better than lackeys, desperately anxious to let you know how familiar they are with the great men of this world, dropping the names of princes, generals, and millionaires. But none of the true teachers of the Church has ever been like that. The true Elder makes no distinction between great and small. All he ever sees before him is a child of God, a suffering being crying out for fulness of life—in other words, someone who is no different from himself. What, then, can he do for them if he is in the same predicament, you might ask? What can he do? He can pray with them, pray for them, and ask them to pray for him. Perhaps the only difference, if difference there is, is that he believes God hears, though he doesn’t know any more than they do how God will act. But the prayers themselves, the prayers have already sowed a little seed of love.”
“I see all that,” I said, “and Zosima is a beautiful model of that kind of humility. But the fact is that most charismatic religious leaders seem to end up being like those Princes of the Church you described, with their TV shows and Mega-Churches. But even if a Zosima-like saint were to appear in our time, how would that work out in everyday life? I mean, we’re not likely to start going around prostrating to each other, like he did to Dmitri. That sort of thing doesn’t mean anything in our society. It just doesn’t happen. People would say it was religious mania—and even in your novel many of those who encountered him saw pride rather than holiness.”
“Yes, yes, yes—of course, you’re correct, entirely correct. “But remember, Zosima himself insisted that his disciple Alyosha was going to have to leave the monastery and live in the world. That’s what Zosima himself wanted. He knew that we can’t copy how things were in the past. We—or rather, you—have to find our own path. This beer is good by the way, I like it. Now …” he stretched himself and stood up. Was he about to go?
“Now, I think I’d be more comfortable standing. Do you mind?”
“Of course not.” I made to stand up too, but he waved me back.
“No, no, do carry on sitting, I just need to move about a little.”
He took a couple of steps, turned, and bending forward looked me full on, leaning his hands against the edge of the sofa that was at right angles to our chairs.
“You see, humility does not come from the head but from the heart. It’s not an idea that you have to put into practice: it’s a whole way of life. It’s rather like the Frenchman’s liberté, égalité, and fraternité. Leaving liberté and égalité to one side (though we may come back to them), it always seemed to me that their vaunted fraternité was for the most part an empty word. Do you really think the rich bourgeois sipping his Château Lafitte actually feels any fraternitéwith the street cleaner out there in the rain and snow or with the old woman in the poorhouse—let alone with his African ‘brother’? Of course, you’ll say that it’s different now, that is, in your time. Now you have democracy. Everybody is on first name terms, everyone’s as good as anyone else. Well, I don’t—I can’t—follow every detail of how the world has changed since my lifetime, but it seems to me that those who are rich in this world’s goods are no more fraternal in their dealings with the underpaid, the unemployed, the homeless, the blacks and all the rest who can’t afford Château Lafitte and cigars than they were in my lifetime.”
“You don’t have to persuade me,” I replied. “I’m sure you’re right. Even in this country, this wealthy country, they’re talking about the new slavery and the poor are having to use food banks, which certainly don’t stock Château Lafitte! But ‘what is to be done?’ Socialism? That wasn’t a good word in your vocabulary, was it?”
Fyodor Mikhailovich looked sharply at me and stepped over to the bookcase where he tapped the spine of a well-worn and rather thick paperback. I recognized it straight away as Marx’s Capital (though I should admit that its being well-worn is more down to the fact that it was a second-hand copy rather than to intensive study on my part).
“Socialism,” he said solemnly. “No, that’s not a bad word. Bad things have been done in its name, of course. As I just said, I don’t follow what has been happening in your world in any detail, but I know what my country, my Russia, suffered for seventy years. Alas, that was how it had to be because the socialists had forgotten or denied that before you can have socialism you have to have brotherhood and brotherhood is not an ideal: it is an immediate conviction of the heart. You don’t have to worry about whether your brother really is your brother or not, he just is your brother. And you don’t first have to persuade yourself that every other human being is your brother or sister before you start treating them that way. You just have to see that that’s how it is and that you owe everyone everything you owe to a brother. It’s who we are. The moment you start asking yourself ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ you’ve already forgotten what the words mean. Instead of ‘I’m just as good as the next man’, which was what people were saying in my time (and what to my mind is what the French égalité mostly comes down to), it’s ‘every man is as good as me’.”
He breathed deeply and smiled what seemed to me to be a rather melancholy smile.
“And this,” he continued, “is what our uneducated and coarse peasants knew by instinct, even the convicts, and it’s what we educated men and city-dwellers forgot, corrupted as we were by …” he paused again and tapped the spine of Capital again. Rather meaningfully.
“Capitalism,” I suggested.
“Capitalism. Money. The most universal and insidious form of the lie, especially the lie that money can make you free. That’s what the convicts in the camp believed, and every time it let them down. If they got money, they spent it on vodka and then—extra punishment followed as sure as night follows day. Money doesn’t make you free, it just binds you all the more surely to a world of lies. So it’s no wonder that you find yourself having to shout louder than the others and make all sorts of ridiculous claims about your work if you want to sell your wares. That’s the market and, to put it frankly, capitalism and humility are quite simply incompatible.”
“So socialism without fraternity isn’t socialism and Christianity without humility isn’t Christianity. But if humility is incompatible with capitalism, that also implies that capitalism and Christianity are incompatible, doesn’t it?”
He raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips but said nothing.
“And yet,” I continued, talking so myself as much as to him, “many of our politicians today still spout the rational egoism you already denounced so long ago, always telling us that economic self-interest is the real motive power of social change and improvement. They say that society improves by calculating what makes each of us individually better off. It’s all economics. By the way, do you know that it’s now well-known that public policy is decided by the application of algorithms—just like you predicted.”
“I’m delighted you noticed—I don’t think all translations pick up on that. And, indeed, brothers don’t need algorithms to tell them that they belong together.”
“And where does this leave Christmas,” I wondered aloud, “where’s the humility, where’s the Christianity, in a month-long fest of capitalist values?”
Fyodor Mikhailovich was watching me closely and, after a full half-a-minute, remarked that the picture had been very important to him when he was living in Florence. “Indeed,” he said, “I spent many hours in front of it. It needs a lot of time to take in and, fortunately, Anna Grigorievna and I were living only a few minutes from where it was on show.”
“Where was that?”
“The Pitti Palace,” Fyodor Mikhailovich replied.
I’d been to the Pitti Palace myself but couldn’t remember seeing this particular painting amongst the many hundreds of religious paintings that covered its walls, mostly in the mannerist style that I don’t like much. I didn’t mention this, however.
“But, Fyodor Mikhailovich,” I began, in some puzzlement, “I’d have thought this was just the sort of religious art you wouldn’t like—isn’t it too, Western, too humanistic, and, dare I say, too Catholic?” (I was hesitant about bringing Catholicism into it as I knew he’d been strongly, even violently anti-Catholic in his lifetime.)
“That’s all true,” he said, smiling thoughtfully and nodding. “It is very Western, very humanist, very Catholic—but why should that mean I can’t like it? Remember last time, when we talked about Dickens? Dickens was very Western, very humanist, and very Protestant—and, as you can imagine, I didn’t have a very high opinion of Protestantism either. But if I can enjoy Dickens and even borrow a little from him in my own writing, why not Raphael? Didn’t I even say that I thought Raphael and Shakespeare were worth more than the entire output of the modern industrial world and its ‘culture industry’—even if I did put the words in the mouth of that feeble and inveterate liar Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky?”
“Yes, of course I remember what we were saying about Dickens. But isn’t there a difference? Dickens wrote about human situations, even if he is sometimes a bit pious. But this is meant to be a religious picture, a picture of the Saviour. However, it seems to me to turn the mystery of salvation into something all-too human. Isn’t it in fact a prime example of art serving a secular agenda, art for the Renaissance Popes in all their worldly splendour—a long way from the stable at Bethlehem.”
Fyodor Mikhailovich sighed, rather like a parent who’s been asked to read a story for the hundredth time.
“May I …?” he asked, indicating that he’d quite like to sit.
“Of course, of course.”
I followed his example and we were back, face to face, in the same seats as on that first night. The next thing he said really surprised me, perhaps more than just about anything else he’d said up to this point in our meetings. Yet it was really the most ordinary remark in the world—which is why, in the circumstances, it was so astonishing.
“That beer looks good—please, carry on. In fact, I wouldn’t mind a glass myself!”
On the evening of his first visit he’d declined a drink and I’d assumed that whatever kind of body he now possessed couldn’t deal with actual food or drink, that it was, perhaps, only a ‘body’ for my benefit, a kind of appearance. Perhaps he really was in some kind of semi-body. After all, he’d just taken a Christmas card off the mantelpiece. Pure spirits don’t do that kind of thing. Of course, I jumped up and quickly got him a glass and poured his drink. He held it to the light and smiled appreciatively.
“That looks very good,” he said, taking a sip and putting the glass down. Settling himself in the chair, he pressed his hands on his legs, just above the knee, and, arms akimbo, launched into a short speech.
“You see,” he began, “people have always misunderstood me on this subject. As I thought about it then (and I don’t think I was entirely wrong: just look at what a good Catholic like Dante had to say about the Church of his time) … as I thought about it then, yes, the Pope had turned the seat of Peter into an earthly throne and was even prepared to use the sword against his enemies, fighting for territory like any earthly monarch. And the Jesuits … the Inquisition … I didn’t make those things up. But I never thought that every Catholic was wicked. In fact, I had no doubt that there were many good Christians amongst them. Take Francis of Assisi—our people would have loved him and understood him as they love and understand their own saints, Seraphim, for example. He and Francis were surely brothers in God’s light. And amongst the common people, especially in Italy, you find the same kindness, the same faith that you find amongst our own. I have never believed that any Church, any institution, can entirely obscure Christ’s call to love. As I just said, I never had any great esteem for Protestantism, but I admired those pious Protestant doctors who worked amongst the poor in Russia, living on next to nothing and taking nothing except what the peasants could freely afford—that is true Christianity, isn’t it?”
“You mean like that old doctor who gave a bag of nuts to Dmitri Karamazov when he was a little boy?”
“Exactly. Dr. Herzenstube I called him, because his faith was from the heart and he could find happiness in a small act of kindness to a young lad who’d been abandoned by his father—and who can ever calculate what goodness comes from such small acts?” He paused and, picking the card up from the table where I’d put it down, looked at it thoughtfully.
“So you see, yes—she is very human. A beautiful young mother and child. There is nothing more human—and there is nothing closer to the mystery of Christ.”
Can spirits be emotional? Even if this too was a performance for my benefit, his voice seemed almost to tremble.
“You know we went to Florence soon after we lost our dear little Sonia; I suppose that this picture had a special meaning at such a time—if only I could have seen my Anna like that, nestling our beloved child on her knee.” He paused and sighed. “As I would see her the next year with Liuba. This is life’s most beautiful moment, don’t you think? Perhaps the smile a mother gives to her child contains the whole secret of faith.”
When Fyodor Mikhailovich spoke of Sonia, he seemed suddenly to become strangely insubstantial, as if he was almost about to fade away but then, at the mention of the mother’s smile, it was almost as if the blood rushed back into his face. Only, of course, it didn’t and couldn’t (I suppose), as he didn’t have any blood. All the same, I wasn’t sure that I agreed. If that was all there was to faith, then maybe all my questions were much ado about nothing. But I nodded, anyway.
Silence fell. An angel flying overhead as my parents used to say.
“I may add,” he continued, almost defiantly, “that I even asked a Catholic priest to say Mass for Sonia when we were in Florence. We are all human beings, after all.” He grimaced. “Of course, he had to refuse.” Gesturing towards the other cards, he continued “But these pictures, where you see the little Mother dressed like a Queen, adored by processions of Kings in velvets, satins, and pearls, with their chests of gold, jewels, and spices, accompanied by their magnificent retinues—what did the gospels say about all that? Forget the gold, the jewels, the velvets, the satins—even the camels (though I admit they might stir the imagination of a child). That’s what Raphael did. He left the gold and showed us a human beauty, the kind of beauty you could probably see in any town or village”.
I have to admit, to my shame, that, as Fyodor Mikhailovich was speaking, I had some rather inappropriate thoughts about Raphael’s amorous liaisons with his models and wondered whether that had happened in this case. Not very Madonna-like, if so. As if reading my thoughts (I hoped he hadn’t), Fyodor Mikhailovich asked if I knew the legend about her.
“No … I have to admit that I’ve never even really looked at the painting very closely.”
“So I guessed,” he smiled, consolingly. “But it’s a good story—the kind of story that the common people used to like back in those days, ours too. I was told it by the attendant, a kind old man with a smiling, wrinkled face and I’m sure he believed every word of it. She was, they say, a peasant girl herself and exceptionally beautiful—as we can see. And she was also known for being exceptionally kind and charitable. One day, it’s said, she helped a poor mendicant who was passing by the village where she lived. In return, he promised her that she would be remembered as the Mother of God, a promise that didn’t make much sense to her, since, like every devout peasant, she knew there was only one Mother of God to whom prayers could be offered and she had no ambition to usurp her place! Nevertheless, some years later, after she’d married and had two small sons, Raphael happened to see her playing with the children in her garden and immediately knew that he must paint her as the Madonna.” (My cynical thoughts about the artist and his models briefly flared up again, but I did my best to suppress them.) “Of course,” Fyodor Mikahilovich continued, “I don’t know whether the story is true—it probably isn’t, but it’s the sort of thing that happened in those magical days when the partition between this world—that is, your world—and the next were not so solid as they are now, more like mist than stone walls. In any case, it’s the sort of story that poor folk like to tell and hear. It reminds me of the story that Flaubert told about John the Hospitaller, who welcomed a leprous beggar, fed him, and warmed him with his body—only for the beggar to reveal himself as Christ. Do you know it?”
I did. It’s one of the Three Tales, though (to my mind) Flaubert used them to play an essentially sceptical game of hide-and-seek between literature and religion in which literature ultimately won out. In some ways (or so it seemed to me) his ideological agenda was almost the exact opposite of Dostoevsky’s.
“Wasn’t Flaubert a bit too much of a modern rationalist for you?”
“Well, maybe—but he was a great writer, wasn’t he? You really do seem convinced that I only ever judged my contemporaries in the light of their religious belief!”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean …”
“No, no, no—don’t worry. Don’t worry. But let’s go back to the point I was making.”
“That if you want to find God don’t try to look outside the world. It’s in the world, amongst the peasants, the poor folk, the beggars, the sick, the outcast, and those who care for them out of simple kindness—that’s where you have to start looking. Christ didn’t take an earthly throne, but, as it says in another legend, he wandered through the Russian land in the guise of a peasant …”
“Yes—there are legends like that in England too: ‘And did those feet, in ancient times, walk upon England’s pleasant mountains green?’”
Immediately I regretted (once again) jumping in, but Fyodor Mikhailovich didn’t seem to mind. He just nodded away, looking thoughtful.
“Yes, yes, yes … perhaps in every country. Remember the onion! You have to look in the right places. So don’t be surprised if the Mother of God looks just like a pretty Italian peasant-girl. That’s much more likely than her looking like some pale lady-in-waiting. Humility. No great choruses of angels, no fireworks or spectacles, just the most basic human reality—that’s where we have to start. Birth. In fact, it’s also where we have to finish. Death.”
My third conversation with Dostoevsky took place about a week before Christmas. Laura was out at her team’s Christmas dinner and I wasn’t expecting her back till late. I had finished my marking and only had one more paper to finish off for a conference in January plus a short review to write. Usually I might have worked on these in the evening, but it had been a long term and, frankly, I was exhausted. I could take a night off. Thinking about nothing. Or nothing much. I hadn’t been thinking about Dostoevsky. The nearest thing to a prompt was a piece about Russian policy in the Middle East in the early evening news. Once again, it seemed, Russia had become our official enemy. Almost unbelievable. Something had gone wrong, and it wasn’t just Putin. After the news I channel-hopped, checked my streaming channels, and skimmed our DVDs, but nothing appealed. Maybe I should just listen to some music. These days, I rarely had the mental space to listen to anything serious in a sustained way unless we actually went out to a concert. What though? Bach? Shostakovich? Pärt? Jazz? Jazz, maybe.
With such deep questions on my mind I went through to the kitchen to get a beer. When I came back he was there.
He was standing in front of the mantelpiece, hands clasped behind his back, bending forward and shaking his head appreciatively, his shoulders bobbing up and down as if in excitement. The cause of his enthusiasm seemed to be one of the Christmas cards (which we’d put up the night before), but I couldn’t immediately see which.
Without turning towards me and almost as if speaking to himself, he said, very quietly, “I like this card. It’s good to see it here.”
“Er … yes … which one?” I lamely replied.
He took the card and opened it.
“It says ‘From Fran and Jack. Maybe next year! Lots of love.’ Old friends?”
“Er … yes …” (I wasn’t doing very well.) “Laura’s friend’s—that is, my wife’s—really … though I know them too, of course. But what’s the picture?”
He handed it to me. Rather awkwardly, I put down my bottle and took a closer look. It was one of those Italian Renaissance Madonna-and-Childs that come in endless variations on the sort of cards sold by big national charities. I have to admit I never look at them all that closely. A bit sentimental for my taste. I still didn’t see anything special about it. Who was the artist?
“Raphael. ‘Madonna della Seggiola’,” I read out from the back of the card.
“Yes,” he said. “Do you like it?”
I had to be honest.
“Er … not especially. I mean, I can see that it’s very finely executed, but if I was going to be blunt, I’d say that it was probably just an excuse for painting a pretty young mother and child. I certainly don’t see anything particularly religious about it, eve if she does have a halo. It’s a very thin one, though.”
“So you’re not sure if you believe in God, you haven’t really read the Bible since childhood, but you like your Christmas cards to be religious?” he asked, teasingly.
“Point taken. But I actually do go to Church—usually—at Christmas. Midnight Mass—even if I don’t take communion. Sometimes I do, if I’m moved.” (Actually, it must have been at least half-a-dozen years since I had.) “Just occasionally you get that sense of wonder you had as a child. It’s a world away from what they now call ‘the holiday season’. I mean, just look at these cards.” I waved my arm, taking in the array of winter landscapes, Christmas trees, blazing fires, tables laden with rich foods, choirboys, and just a few a Nativity scenes that Laura had intentionally grouped together on the mantelpiece. A couple of cards even had images of the senders with their smiling children rather than the traditional ‘Holy Family’—this is the age of the selfie after all!
“And you don’t think this picture is religious—just a pretty mother and child, as you put it?”
“Well, I can see that it’s meant to be Mary and Jesus with John the Baptist, but there’s nothing to tell you that the baby has come to save the World. He’s just a rather big baby. Or maybe a three-year old. As I say, it’s hard to see anything more than a nice young mother and child. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s a beautiful thing to see. An archetypal human image, you could say. But it doesn’t speak to me of God.”
“But I don’t imagine you want an old man in the sky either?”
“No, of course not.”
“Your God can’t be an old man or a young woman, then. He (if he’s a ‘he’) has to be outside the world altogether, quite out of sight—in another world, perhaps?”
Fyodor Mikhailovich had started off almost playfully, but his tone was starting to modulate into something more serious and I began to feel his eyes boring into my thoughts.
I realized that this wasn’t a trick question, but it felt like I was caught in a double-bind. The problem—my problem—was precisely that I couldn’t see any place for God in a world like ours. It wasn’t that I was some kind of misanthrope or fancied myself as a latter-day Schopenhauer. I could see that there was a lot of good in the world, a lot of good in people, but it wasn’t at all evident to me that the goodness was stronger than … well, to use a word I don’t really like using very much: evil. I couldn’t see any law of love directing the course of things and, that being so, there was very little to protect us—to protect me—from the kind of bleak vision with which Dostoevsky had concluded his story A Gentle Spirit. That you’ll remember, was where this all started, and a bleak vision it was—a world without meaning or love, motionless beneath a dead sun. And yet, and yet, and yet! Didn’t there have to be something more? But old-fashioned religiosity with all its talk of miracles and prophecies just seemed naïve and even if someone could prove that there must be some kind of creator, that alone wasn’t going to do the job. I could imagine a beautiful divine mind creating a perfect mathematical universe that would be intellectually satisfying for those who could do the equations, but there would be no reason why such a God would care about human beings and their suffering. Probably even bacteria or viruses have a mathematical beauty. So I suppose that’s why I still had a lingering affection for the Christmas story of a God who could appear on earth in human form, ‘born as one of us’ as one hymn had it, a God you could see and touch but who was still, in some sense, ‘God’. Not that I believed this—but I liked the idea. All the same, this picture was just too ordinary. Why had he singled just this picture out? Why not the Fra Angelico Annunciation that was next to it and that, to my mind, was a much more spiritual?
I looked again. The painting was in roundel form. The Madonna was shown sitting in a chair, with a green embroidered shawl draped over her shoulders and a kind of loose striped turban round her head. I remembered the detail of the green shawl in Crime and Punishment and wondered whether that was why Fyodor Mikhailovich liked it so much. She had the kind of soft regular features you see in a lot of Renaissance paintings and actually still see today in Italy. It wasn’t the kind of contemporary face that’s always ready to smile to camera—the kind of face our children have now learned to put on by the time they go to school. Instead, it was the sort of face you see in photographs from the nineteenth century, a face that wasn’t used to being looked at, a reticent face, not giving everything away at first glance. Her large observant eyes gazed steadily back at me as if to say, “You may look, but keep your distance; no-one can come near my baby unless I invite them.” The baby itself (as I had said) looked more like a three-year old than a new-born infant and did in fact appear rather apprehensive, as if seeking assurance from it mother as to whether I was to be trusted or not. An infant John the Baptist was leaning against the mother’s knee, looking up at what legend supposed to be his cousin. The whole thing was beautifully balanced, very tender, winsome, you could say, but was it anything more than that?
Perhaps I should have expected that answer, but I didn’t.
“The Bible?” I echoed.
“Yes, yes, yes. And, by the way, not only do you not have any Walter Scott, I couldn’t see a Bible on your shelves, either.”
“Really? I’m sure I’ve got one … I’ve certainly got one in my office … there must be one at home.” This was definitely more embarrassing than not having any Scott. But I really was sure that I did have a copy somewhere. Of course, I might have anticipated his answer. I knew that several of his novels used the Bible, as in the scene from Crime and Punishment when Sonia reads the story of the raising of Lazarus to Raskolnikov or when the passage about Christ turning water into wine is read over Zosima’s dead body in The Brothers Karamazov. But apart from dithering over whether I actually had a copy or not, I couldn’t immediately think of anything to add or ask. It wasn’t something I’d thought a lot about. Fortunately, Fyodor Mikhailovich came to my rescue.
Leaning forward, one leg folded over the other and with his hands clasped over his right knee, he seemed almost to be talking to himself. “Could I have written any of my novels without having the Bible in my heart? I don’t think so. And not just because of those passages where my characters quote it. It’s the pattern from which the whole is cut. It is, to borrow what you were saying before, the word in the word, and that word is the power that can make our endlessly recycled words truly ‘new’.”
He nodded to himself, thoughtfully.
“But you,” he asked, “Do you know your Bible?”
I was a bit taken aback but also rather relieved to be able to give a positive answer at last.
“Actually, I do, quite well. I mean, I can’t give you chapter and verse, but I know the main stories. Which is unusual for someone of my generation. The thing is, I went to a Church school where we had Bible stories every day, at least in primary school; we also had several different collections of Bible stories for children at home. So, yes, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, Moses, David … and, of course, the New Testament as well. I suppose I forgot a lot of it later, but it’s all there, somewhere in my mind, so I can recognize when it’s being alluded to. Which,” I added (not that he would necessarily be interested) “is very different from my students. I recently taught a class of literature and philosophy students and not one of them knew who Job was. Only two or three knew anything about Abraham apart from the fact that he was in the Bible—even though some of them, I’m sure, thought of themselves as Christians”.
“That’s good,” he nodded encouragingly; “not what you say about your students, but about hearing and reading the stories as a child. I had a book of ‘A Hundred and Four Stories from the Old and New Testament’—in fact it’s that book I learned to read from. Scarcely anything since has made a deeper impression on me. Those stories already taught me—in a childlike way, of course, not in the way I understand them now—about our human desires, our weaknesses, our lies, and our salvation. Those stories you mentioned just now—think what they contain! They teach us about the power of the lie and, looking many centuries into the future, spell out the lie of our own time, the lie that knowledge is more valuable than life; they teach us how envy engenders murderous intentions, making us forget our duty to be each other’s keepers; it was from these same stories that I not only learned about the titanic pride that claims power over others but also about the wanderers who followed the call of God and whose struggles with God sanctified the land where they finally made their home; about the boy who was sold into slavery by his brothers but, as God had planned, became rich and powerful and was able to rescue them from famine; about a people who cried out for freedom from slavery; and about the King who wasn’t ashamed to dance through the streets in honour of God and who wept humbly and without shame for the death of his treacherous son … all of that and much, much more. Who could have invented such things? Such words unmask the lies with which we are wont to console ourselves but, more than that, they show the world of truth to which we should aspire. Everything is there. But is that true about your students not knowing Job?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so.”
“They don’t know Job! I am sorry for them. Leaving aside what that means for how they understand literature, what will they think, how will they be able to hope when they too lose everything—as he did, as most human beings, sooner or later, lose the best that they have? Will they be able to bless God, to bless the life God has given them, in their suffering? Will they be able to endure and to delight in happiness when it returns?”
I didn’t really have an answer to Fyodor Mikhailovich’s questions but went back to what he’d said about the Bible being the pattern from which the whole of his writing was cut and “everything is there”.
“What you’re saying reminds me of the argument that the Bible is what one critic called the Great Code, an archetypal collection of stories out of which the entirety of Western literature has grown, a kind of collective imaginary?”
“Maybe … but these stories (like all true folk stories) are not just stories; they matter because of the reality they show us. The Bible is not just a collection of stories that the Hebrews told around the campfire or a history of what happened once upon a time: it’s a revelation of who we are. It’s not ancient history: it’s about powers at work in our lives now, powers that we can never contain or manage. It’s an ‘irregular comet’, portending the disturbance of everything comfortable, everything that reeks of self-satisfaction, everything that makes us think we are above reproach. In the end, it is a judgment on us, on us all, and on our literature.”
I thought for a moment. There seemed to be several different issues here and I was having difficulty untangling them. Fyodor Mikhailovich was also starting to sound a bit like the evangelical preachers I’d heard when I was growing up, the ones who used to go on about how we were all going to be judged by the Word of God (by which they meant the Bible) and how, if we didn’t believe this Word, then, to put in bluntly, we were headed for damnation. I hoped this wasn’t what he was wanting to say. It certainly wasn’t what I wanted to hear. A pattern seemed to be emerging here. Last time it was guilt. This time it was judgement.
“Judgement, Fyodor Mikhailovich? Are you saying that if we don’t believe the Bible then we’re damned or something like that?”
He sighed and looked at me with an expression of tolerant frustration.
“Please. Listen to what I’m saying. It’s not the Scriptures that judge us. It’s the reality they reveal. And what is that reality? Did I ever say or write that it was anything other than love, the love that reaches out and embraces even the most wretched—especially the most wretched—of all the insulted and injured on earth? I’ve heard of the kind of preachers you’re thinking about and our Church had them too, preachers for whom belief in Satan is even more important than belief in God. But does Scripture itself ever speak of judgement without also speaking of infinite compassion and tenderness for every ‘unfortunate’? Yes, the voice of judgement is terrifying, especially to those who know just what they deserve, but, as I had that drunkard Marmeladov say, ‘He’ will surely forgive, and He will forgive even those who feel themselves to be swine, ‘made in the image of the Beast and with his mark’. When the arms of love reach out in welcome, what could make us feel our unworthiness more intensely, what judgement could be more unendurable—if those same arms did not also embrace us?”
This was reassuring—though I couldn’t help recalling the passage from ‘A Gentle Spirit’ that spoke so eloquently about the impossibility of love in a world like ours and that had been the starting-point of our conversations. What could make us—make me—believe that the kind of love Fyodor Mikhailovich was talking about was a reality and not just wishful thinking? I wasn’t ready—at four in the afternoon—to push that question further, not yet. But there was another question that interested me and that seemed a bit easier to start with.
“Thank you,” I said. “That’s helpful. But what do you mean when you say that the Bible is a judgement on literature? That’s not exactly an idea I’ve come across before.”
“No? It’s not so very difficult. Think of the words I took as a motto for The Brothers Karamazov: ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit’.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t see the connection.”
“How can I explain? You see, it’s not a matter of holding up a big black book and saying: ‘Believe in this book?’ You need to open the book and shake it so that its words scatter in all directions, like a sower scattering seed. What happens then? The words, you could say, disappear, go underground: they break up and dissolve in the processes of life, but then, when they re-emerge, maybe unrecognizably, they do so in a way that is fruitful and nourishing for those who hear them and make them their own, who love them, no matter what form they take.”
“But how is that a judgement on literature?”
“Look at all these books on your shelves, in your university and public libraries, all your newspapers, all the words written, printed and distributed you’ve ever read. What are they all about? Do they bear fruit? What are they good for? Do they increase love? Do they help the writer’s fellow human beings? Are they even meant to? Or are they exercises in egoism and will to power? Let me be clear, it’s not a matter of quoting the Scriptures, but of expressing the life thy express. Grand Inquisitors and Devils know how to quote the Scriptures, but although Dmitri Karamazov only ever quotes Goethe and Schiller—badly—his misquoted literary words nevertheless lead him towards salvation. The reality of which the Scriptures speak is alive and active in him, as it was alive in Shakespeare, Goethe, and Schiller. Wherever our words become words of life it’s a sign that they’ve sprung from that original seed.”
“So what you’re saying is that even if a literary text never ever mentions or quotes from the Bible, it can still express the spirit of the Bible—and the other way round: that even a text that quotes the Bible may be quite opposed to its spirit?”
“Exactly so. But if a person is moved by the spirit of love that inspired the Scriptures, then they will recognize that spirit in the words they hear, whoever speaks them. And they will also recognize that it is of them that the words are speaking, as Sonia loved the story of Lazarus—because she could see that it was her story.”
“Because she saw it as a promise that she too could be rescued from the dreadful life she was living?” I interrupted. Like many readers of Dostoevsky, the scene in which the prostitute Sonia reads aloud the story of the raising of Lazarus to the murderer Raskolnikov, who is busy going mad in a hell of his own making, had made an indelible impression on me when I first read it (although, I have to admit, I’d more recently come to see it as perhaps a bit too melodramatic).
“No. Because it showed her how a sister’s love could move even the Saviour to do what was impossible for men and bring his friend, her brother, back from death. How you read, shows who you are—and Sonia was probably thinking of her own salvation least of all.”
After a brief pause, Fyodor Mikhailovich continued.
“Don’t think you can keep the Scriptures in the past; once you open them, you will—you must—see the present in a new way, and you will begin to understand just what is at stake in your questions. This is why it was important for me to have my characters read the Scriptures aloud and quote from it in their conversations. The Bible is not a set of proof-texts for convincing waverers of the Church’s dogmas, the way your Western Protestants uses it. They are the words of a living voice, speaking in and to the continuing unfolding of life.” He paused and smiled a little shame-facedly. “I should, of course, say ‘some’ Protestants—you see I’m developing a rather more tolerant view of these things from my present point of view, though even here nothing happens in a flash, just like that. Learning still takes time, even though it’s a different kind of time. ‘Quadrillions of years’ in an instant, you could say. And remember, I’m not for a moment denying what you would call the Bible’s ‘literary’ value, but what’s really miraculous about it is that these words and all they show us about life are written in ways that can arouse the imagination of a child, just as my imagination was aroused by the mention of camels in the story of Job. A child will not understand if you speak of divine infinity, but if you talk of nomads and their camels wandering in an empty desert and seeking a land to call their own, it will understand—and it will remember until the time is right. You don’t need to make every story into a ‘lesson’. Maybe that’s the worst thing you can do.”
“Fyodor Mikhailovich, I can see how all of this makes sense if we’re speaking about the Old Testament and the stories of the Patriarchs and so on. But how does it work for the New Testament? I grant you that the parables of the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, the lost sheep, and so one, and all the stories about Jesus offering forgiveness to sinners or healing the blind, the lame and the lepers have that same story-like quality that you get in the stories about Joseph and his brothers …”
“Yes, these are essential,” he interjected.
“Yes,” I insisted, “I can see that but when we get on to Paul and some of the other parts of the New Testament, doesn’t it all become, how can I say, too ‘theological’, doesn’t it turn the stories into doctrines?”
“Really?” He looked genuinely surprised.
“A lot of people think that. And they’d add that Paul is largely responsible for Christianity’s hatred of the body and, especially, sexuality.”
“Sexuality? I’m not quite sure what that means. I’ve been told that Sigmund Freud read me (rather irresponsibly, from what I hear), but (of course) I never read Freud. But I can’t see how you can be talking about the same Paul who wrote that great hymn to love, explaining how love is greater than knowledge, greater even than faith or hope; the same Paul, who wept with those who wept and rejoiced with those who rejoiced, who was happy to be poor if he could make others rich, content to be weak and to find strength in weakness; the same Paul, who endured beating, stoning, shipwreck, cold, and nakedness for Christ’s sake; Paul, who warned fathers not to provoke their children and urged us to see that we are all members of one another? Is all of this ‘theological’ as you put it? ‘Every creature of God is good and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with thanksgiving.’ What did Plato, or Kant, or Hegel ever say that was more human, more life-affirming than that? How does that lead to hating the body?”
I have to admit that I’d been playing Devil’s advocate to some extent. I was aware of the passages to which Fyodor Mikhailovich referred, at least in a general sort of way and I was aware that even some philosophers were starting to find Paul a rather interesting figure again, although the popular view was still that everything that was wrong with Christianity was to be laid at his door.
“Nevertheless,” I persisted, “wasn’t it Paul who made Christianity into a matter of obedience to authority rather than relying on the spontaneity of love?”
“Authority? Yes: but what kind of authority? The only authority Paul ever speaks of is the authority of one who emptied himself of all his divine glory and was content to be found in the form of a servant. A servant’s authority is, I think you’ll agree, very different from an Emperor’s. Christ, Christ in his humility, in the form of a servant—did Paul ever speak or write of anything else? And Christ—isn’t Christ the one theme of the Scriptures from start to finish? If you can show me anything in Scripture that is not pointing to Christ then I’m happy to let it go. We are judged by Scripture, but Scripture is judged by Christ. You could even say that he is the Word in the word in the word.”
“Like a Russian doll …” I began, but at that moment we were interrupted by the sound of the outer door being unlocked. Laura was home. What would happen next? Would Fyodor Mikhailovich stay? What would I say? “Laura, I’d like you to meet … Fyodor Mikhailovich, this is my wife Laura … “What on earth would she think? Or was he, after all, a hallucination? What would happen when these two realities met?
“Hi,” Laura called out, as she opened the inner door. “It’s only me.”
I looked back to Fyodor Mikhailovich. But he wasn’t there. It wasn’t that he’d vanished. There hadn’t been the kind ‘whoosh’ you get in a film, when ghosts vanish. He just wasn’t there. I was alone. The only sign of his having been was The Old Curiosity Shop lying on the table. I definitely hadn’t got that out. I felt stunned. There was nothing to be done, though. I just had to act normal. As normal as I could be.
“Hi,” I answered, going into the hall to meet her. “How was your day?”
It felt a bit awkward standing there, so I suggested we sit down. Fyodor Mikhailovich didn’t object, so we took the same seats we had occupied on the first evening. He smiled. “This is a very comfortable chair,” he remarked. But the manoeuvring had also interrupted the flow of conversation. After a short but awkward silence, it was Fyodor Mikhailovich who spoke first.
“So. You’re a teacher of literature, but you’ve never read Scott … how can you teach modern literature if you haven’t read Scott?”
“Well, it’s not really my period,” I said rather flustered, feeling that this was a typical academic answer that didn’t throw an especially good light on the academy and its compartmentalizing habits. Trying to recover some lost ground, I did add that I had read Dickens—A Christmas Carol (of course), Great Expectations, Hard Times, and a couple of others. I didn’t mention that I probably knew several of them better from film and television adaptations than from the books themselves.
“But not The Old Curiosity Shop?” he asked.
“No. It’s not one that people read so much now. I think it’s probably too sentimental for our postmodern taste.”
Dostoevsky was still holding the book, marking a page near the end with his finger. He now looked at me more directly than he had at any point in our previous meeting. His look was not exactly questioning but he seemed to be waiting for me to say more. I was aware of feeling rather embarrassed. What I had just said was, I think, undeniably true, but at the same time I knew instinctively that there was something not quite right about it—starting with the fact that I hadn’t actually read it.
After leaving me in a state of discomfort for what seemed like an interminable time (probably no more than half a minute), he spoke again.
“Postmodern? That’s interesting. So you postmodern people don’t like sentimentality and yet, if I’m correct, your contemporaries are always talking about their feelings. That doesn’t seem to make sense.”
“That’s not quite what we mean by sentimental,” I said defensively. “When we say that a book or a picture is ‘sentimental’ we mean that it plays on our feelings without regard to truth.”
“So, for example, your generation would say that the death of Little Nell isn’t true?”
“I suppose that’s right …”
“And do you agree with your generation?”
It was true that I hadn’t read The Old Curiosity Shop but, as I explained to Fyodor Mikhailovich, we’d been given the death of Little Nell for a seminar on mourning in literature back when I was a student. I remembered it as being fairly sickly. I also remembered our tutor saying that people shed more tears over it than over all the rest of nineteenth century literature combined.
“It’s a long time since I read it, but it seemed a bit … well … too much.”
“You haven’t read The Old Curiosity Shop but you’ve read the death of Little Nell. It’s a strange way of reading a novel to read just a small extract like that, if you don’t mind my saying so?”
“I suppose it is, but it happens all the time. Especially in teaching. You have to select. To focus. Otherwise it’s just all too overwhelming, too amorphous for the students.”
Fyodor Mikhailovich sighed and appeared to read in the book.
“The death of Little Nell. So you think it’s too sentimental. ‘Sickly’, you said.”
“Yes … though, OK, maybe that’s a bit strong.”
He began to read, slowly, intensely, enunciating each word very carefully. It was compelling and I could begin to see why his own readings were so popular.
“She was dead. No sleep so beautiful and calm, so free from trace of pain, so fair to look upon. She seemed a creature fresh from the hand of God, and waiting for the breath of life; not one who had lived and suffered death. Her couch was dressed with here and there some winter berries and green leaves, gathered in a spot she had been used to favour. ‘When I die, put near me something that has loved the light, and had the sky above it always.’ Those were her words. She was dead. Dear, gentle, patient, noble Nell was dead. Her little bird—a poor slight thing the pressure of a finger would have crushed—was stirring nimbly in its cage; and the strong heart of its child mistress was mute and motionless for ever. Where were the traces of her early cares, her sufferings, and fatigues? All gone. Sorrow was dead indeed in her, but peace and perfect happiness were born; imaged in her tranquil beauty and profound repose.”
He stopped and, after a pause, looked up at me expectantly. I still had the impression that he was amusing himself at my expense but, at the same time, there was a deep sadness, especially around the set of his mouth.
I have to admit that, against all expectations, I did find it quite moving. In its way. It was, certainly, extraordinary writing. But I wasn’t yet convinced.
“Yes, it’s quite something,” I conceded. “But there’s nothing really beautiful about the death of children, is there? And doesn’t that make it … false? Dishonest, even? I mean you wouldn’t write like that, did you?”
His expression was, I’d say, solemn. And, suddenly, I remembered. He too had lost a child, his three-year old son Alexei, who’d died of an epileptic fit. And, from what I’d read, he’d been crushed by it. Like the father of little Ilusha at the end of The Brothers Karamazov, perhaps; Ilusha, whom he described as lying in his coffin looking beautiful, ‘as though chiselled in marble’. As for myself, I—and hardly any one I knew—had experienced the death of a child. How could we know what that would be like? What would be the ‘right’ feeling?
“Fyodor Mikahilovich,” I blurted out, “I’m so sorry if …”
He held his hand up.
“Please, I understand. We’re talking about literature and it’s all too easy to forget the reality from which it comes. As regards myself and my loss … you know it’s said that Christ still bears the scars of crucifixion in his heavenly body and it’s the same for all of us here who’ve suffered in so many different ways: the scars remain, though we see them in a different light and feel them—differently.”
“But Little Nell,” he continued, more cheerfully. “You know I was so impressed by her that I borrowed her for one of my own novels. I even called my Little Nell ‘Nellie’ and gave her an English grandfather, just in case my readers didn’t make the connection for themselves.”
“Really? And does she die?”
“She does. About the same age as Dickens’s Nell. Thirteen or so. You haven’t read it?”
“No.” He seemed determined to show up my ignorance today. “Which novel is it?”
“The Insulted and the Injured.”
“And what happens?”
“Think of everything that can go wrong in a child’s life: it happened to her. Nellie’s mother was abandoned by her lover and after being rejected by Nellie’s grandfather was left to die in a strange land. The grandfather wouldn’t care for her and even sent her out to beg. When he too dies, she only just escapes being pimped. Aged thirteen, remember. Luckily, she’s rescued by those who become her friends, she even helps them to forgive each other, as if her suffering brings them together.”
“But she dies—so no happy ending?”
“No happy ending. No sentimentality, as you would put it, though I’d be disappointed if the last pages didn’t bring a tear to the reader’s eye. It was one of the passages people most wanted to hear at my readings. Russians aren’t afraid of tears, nor should you be. Her death wasn’t terrible, though. She died surrounded by her friends, she laughed, she joked, as was her way … but death isn’t the worst of it. The worst of it was that she died unforgiving, still unable to forgive her father for ruining her mother’s life. That’s where the tragedy lies. Like Russians, but unlike what you called your postmodern generation, Dickens’s readers weren’t afraid of tears. Even the strongest wept at the death of Little Nell. But they needed there to be some consolation. If not a happy ending, then peace at the last. Reconciliation all round. But even the beauty of death, the beauty there can be in death, is of no help unless there is also reconciliation. Unfortunately, your Victorians had forgotten their own Shakespeare. They couldn’t really believe in tragedy, even though (perhaps because) so many tragedies were happening all around them in their own society. But that’s how things sometimes end in this life—your life. It can’t be denied or avoided. I think Dickens knew that, but his readers didn’t—or didn’t want to. On this point, if nothing else, we Russians know better. We know that suffering can be inconsolable. And we don’t expect our writers to cheat us. And, yes, suffering too can be a lie, but when it is the truth, we mustn’t pretend otherwise.”
“So, in a way, you changed Dickens’s story completely.”
“In a way. But also—I assure you—I couldn’t have written anything if it hadn’t been for Dickens, for Sand, for Balzac, for Hugo, for Schiller, for Goethe, for Cervantes, for Shakespeare and, of course, for Pushkin, Gogol, and Lermontov and many, many others. You can even find inspiration in what some critics would call second-rate literature, not to mention the oral traditions that the people still treasure in their sayings, their songs, and their tales. Only God creates out of nothing. The rest of us have to make do with what we receive. Spinning, weaving, patching, dyeing, re-using, like so many old clothes, you could say.”
I liked that idea. It fitted with the kind of literary theory that made every text into a collage of other texts. I once had an artist friend who said of his own work that he just kept on recycling failure until it became a success. But could you apply that idea to literature as a whole? Was Fyodor Mikhailovich saying there was nothing original about his own work? I felt that I had to protest.
“That’s a nice picture, Fyodor Mikhailovich, and I can see that it allows scope for brilliant new arrangements and wonderful variations on old themes: but what about the ‘new word’ that you and some of your characters talk about? Wasn’t your vocation—Russia’s vocation—to speak a ‘new word’ to the world? But that’s means more than just recycling voices from the past—surely?”
Fyodor Mikhailovich looked round, as if searching for something in the room. It again struck me that he seemed exceptionally good-humoured today and quite undeterred by what could have seemed like rudeness on my part.
Before he could speak, I jumped in with a further point.
“I mean, quite honestly—without getting too theoretical about it, just as a matter of fact—no one had written novels like yours ever before; some of your commentators even said you’d surpassed the whole idea of the novel.”
Lifting his hands in deprecation, Fyodor Mikhailovich spoke slowly and deliberately.
“I am only a writer, not a logician. Yes, Pushkin spoke a ‘new word’ in literature. He put up the sign posts that we could then follow and he discovered the types that we were then able to expand and fill out—Onegin first and then and only then Rudin, Bezukhov, Valkovsky; Tatiana first and then and only then Natasha, Sonya … and, yes, this whole event, what people would call ‘The Russian Novel’, was a new word. We weren’t the only ones to believe it: those Europeans who read us could also see that it was a new word. But this doesn’t mean that we could have spoken it without your Dickens, your Cervantes, or your Shakespeare.”
Pausing briefly for breath, and shaking his index finger in admonition, he continued in almost lecturing style.
“You must also take into account that it was a new word and could only be a new word because it spoke from our knowledge of a reality that, until that time, hadn’t existed: the Russian people.”
“But,” I quickly interjected, “the Russian people had existed for hundreds of years, all the way back to Rus’—hadn’t they? And, surely, there’d been a lot of Russian history happening between Rus’ and Pushkin?”
“Yes, yes, yes,” he responded, shaking his head as if bemused by my slow-wittedness. “But the point is that the Russian people had not yet entered world-history as a people, as Hegel might have said (though, according to him, Siberia never would or ever could enter world-history). And, yes, Russia had from time to time intervened in European affairs, but these were always interventions around dynastic struggles, the affairs of courtiers, generals, and diplomats. It was not yet a matter of the Russian people and it was their reality, their experience, their spirit, their suffering, their Christianity that made our new word possible. Yes, Russia existed, the Russian people existed, but they only entered into history when Bonaparte, unaware of their existence or their strength, thought to impose his will and his will alone as arbiter of their destiny. Yet, in the end, it was Russia that showed him the limits of his power.”
I am not especially nationalistic, neither on behalf of England nor my adoptive Scotland, but I was tempted to remark that maybe Nelson, Wellington and some others had also played a part in checking Napoleon, but I wanted to get back to literature, where I felt on safer ground.
“So what you’re saying is that literature is set in motion by historical events or, at least, real events … that it reflects a reality that pre-exists it … so that if there is to be a new word then something has to happen in the outside world? But if that’s true, then it’s no longer a matter of art being the product of individual genius à la Romanticism but a kind of collective event? The writer isn’t just expressing his own personal vision but bringing into language all that is important in his contemporary reality and using all the resources of literature as a whole to do so?”
“Quite so,” Fyodor Mikhailovich almost chuckled. “But please, I’m not one of your students. I’m only a writer, not a theorist; a writer doesn’t write to answer theoretical questions about the nature of literature, he writes—rather than becoming a businessman or a diplomat—because he reads and it’s because he reads and it’s because he reads that he is able to read ‘the signs of the times’ and give them voice in his writing. If you want to write—read. Read everything.”
“But some books are more important than others, surely?”
“Yes, of course.”
“And the most important?”
He answered without hesitation.