First Conversation: Beneath a Dead Sun

Episode 1

I

Fyodor Mikhailovich smiled. Diffidently. He leaned forward. I couldn’t tell whether it was because he was thinking about how to answer my question or because he was waiting for me to say more. I couldn’t think of anything to add. A minute or more passed. Or so it seemed. Sighing gently, he looked up, not quite meeting my gaze. 

“Faith. Why do you ask me about faith?” he asked, in a quiet, self-deprecating voice, as if he was the last person in the world to have anything important to say on the matter. “You’ve surely read that when it comes to faith I never escaped the crucible of doubt in which my own faith – such as it was – was formed?”

“But Fyodor Mikhailovich,” I replied, suddenly anxious that this moment of opportunity might slip away, “you more than anyone have shown what faith could be in a world such as ours. You saw first-hand some of the worst things that human beings can do to one another and to their fellow creatures; you explored every permutation of human malice; you looked into the abyss; you were face to face with death; you gave voice to the uttermost desolation of the abandoned heart. And yet you believed. You must have seen something, must have received some word to bring back to us?”

He smiled again and seemed politely amused by my little speech, though there was nothing obviously amusing in what I had said, still less in the anxious and agitated way I’d said it. 

“I hope you’re remembering that I am only a writer? A teller of tales? An inventor of stories? As to what I wrote in my novels – I made it all up. I can’t put it more simply than that. Surely you know that?” His eyes twinkled momentarily, teasingly, but then, suddenly, he became more serious, continuing to look at me but as if talking more to himself. “It’s all made up. It’s fiction. It’s not real. You could even say: it’s all lies.” 

“Surely not, Fyodor Mikhailovich! I mean, I don’t agree with everything you wrote (if you don’t mind my saying so) but what about the words you gave to Sonya, to Zosima, to Alyosha? Weren’t they true? Thousands if not millions have thought so.”

Fyodor Mikhailovich stood up, slowly and uncomfortably, like someone who had become stiff from sitting for too long. His breathing seemed slightly laboured. Turning to the window, he looked down at the street below, washed by intermittent gusts of rain. There was little traffic at his hour and only the occasional pedestrian, hood up, head down, hurried past, who knows where. 

“You know,” he said gravely, “even now, even in my present state, there are moments when I could wish for a cigarette.” He gestured with his hand, as if to brush the idea aside.  He continued to look out of the window, talking almost to himself.

            “It’s difficult to explain, you see. Perhaps if you yourself were a writer you would understand. The fact is that even with the best will in the world, even when the artist’s intentions are entirely pure (and what writer dare say that of himself?), a story remains a story, fiction is fiction, and – a lie. You could even say that the truth, once uttered, is a lie, as one of our poets said.”

“Fyodor Mikhailovich,” I protested, feeling that this wasn’t at all helping me get the answers I needed. “Fyodor Mikhailovich, you can’t be saying that everything you wrote, everything you taught us, was nothing but lies? If that was so, then it wouldn’t be any different from the kind of despicable propaganda I know you loathed? Surely you’re not saying that words can never speak the truth?”

“Listen,” he said, quietly but seriously, turning back to me. “You have to think about why you are asking me these things. If the words I wrote in my books were the truth, why shouldn’t they be enough for you? What can I add? If I’d lived another five, ten or twenty years I could probably have said more, but it was not to be. You have to be a peasant or an aristocrat to make four score years. Like Lev Nikolayevich – not that he had much benefit from his old age, alas. Sometimes it’s best to die before you grow too old and get too angry with the world. What I have learned since then – here – I cannot reveal to you. If that’s the kind of knowledge you’re after, you’ll have to ask God and his angels. And even if I could,” he added, almost as an afterthought, “anyone, anyone at all, from this side could tell you as much or as little. We writers turn out to be fairly peripheral figures in the great synthesis.”

At this point, I should probably explain the nature of the conversation I am reporting, which, as readers will be starting to guess, was of a rather peculiar kind. The most obvious peculiarity was that the man talking to me in the sitting room of my Glasgow flat had been dead for over one hundred and twenty years. The second – and to my mind hugely more important – peculiarity was that this man I was talking with, just as I could be talking with you, was the Russian writer Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, a man who had died in the year 1881 and who has been dead ever since. How this was possible I still don’t know, though our final talk would offer some clues. 

            Now when I say that it was all ‘just as I could be talking to you’ this is not quite accurate. I am unable (and, believe me, I’ve tried) to deny that his presence was ‘real’ and that all the time we were talking he was in every way a living human being. Not only could I see him and hear him, I could hear his footsteps when he walked about the room, sometimes touching objects or picking them up, browsing my bookshelves, taking out a book and, as he leaded through it, making small grunts of approval or disapproval, offering occasional comments and asking short questions. He took a particular interest in his own novels, skimming a few lines at a time and sometimes commenting along the lines of “Oh, that’s how they say it in English … very interesting …”

He was, then, ‘real’ – but there was definitely something odd about him. For a start, he didn’t always look exactly the same. Even within the space of a single conversation he might change from the magisterial personage of the Tretyakov Gallery portrait to the traumatized young writer newly arrived back in St Petersburg from his experiences in the labour camp or, sometimes, to the youthful idealist, dreaming of a humanist utopia, and – once or twice – to the awkward unhappy schoolboy who never had enough money for tea. Yet perhaps he didn’t really change any more than any human face changes under the impact of memories and ideas. We’ve all seen old people becoming momentarily young again when they remember a happy event from long ago; death too can wipe away the lines from faces scarred by suffering, restoring a kind of hallucinatory youth. It seems quite plausible, then, that someone now living a more ethereal life might manifest their inner thoughts and feelings still more expressively and spontaneously than we do, bringing about greater physical changes – but that’s only my idea. 

On the subject of his face, it was recognizable from photographs and paintings, but these – even the best – can only ever give a shadowy reflection of the thing itself. It was, strangely, a beautiful face. There was nothing of the half-criminal, half-lunatic, envious and ambitious face famously described by Georg Brandes in the 1880s, a brilliant but partial description that stamped itself on posterity’s image of Dostoevsky as a genius teetering on the brink of madness, sickness, and criminality – the epileptic genius of modernist fantasy.

For the sake of complete accuracy, I should also add that it wasn’t just his face that changed but also his size, even his clothes … though ‘change’ is perhaps too strong a word. Let’s just say they were adaptable – even though at any given moment the stuff of his jacket or the leather of his shoes seemed as tangible as my own. I remembered his own description of the devil appearing to Ivan Karamazov as a shape-shifting down-at-heel sponger, but this was different. Whereas the devil was clearly trying to avoid being pinned down, ‘dodging away’, as a former colleague used to say, Dostoevsky’s ‘changes’ (I can’t think of any other way of describing them) always seemed to bring what he was saying into sharper focus.

A strange interlocutor, you could say. So, how did it all begin? Where? When? And why?

[Next episode will be posted on Friday 12th March]

3 thoughts on “First Conversation: Beneath a Dead Sun

  1. “How this was possible I still don’t know, though our final talk would offer some clues.” Nice hook. Now I’m going to have to keep reading these all the way through to the final talk.

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      1. Hi George. Sorry I missed your reply before, for some reason wordpress didn’t notify me of it and I’m only now stumbling on it by re-reading this episode. I’m not pursuing publication of my thesis. Somehow I got swept up into the busyness of school-teaching and never found the energy or will to pursue that or progression in an academic career seriously. Any spare energy has ended up being spent writing fiction (some of which is published pseudonymously on a blog!) and some of which you can read here if interested: https://www.patreon.com/luketarassenko

        I have the latest episodes of Conversations with Dostoevsky queued up in my email inbox to read when I get some time. I’m really enjoying what I’ve read so far.

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