I’ve already said that– like most of those that followed – this first conversation was taking place in my flat, which is on the second floor of a late nineteenth century tenement block in Glasgow’s West End. Like many Glasgow tenements, ours isn’t unlike those that Dostoevsky would have known in St Petersburg and, unlike most of our neighbours on the close, we’ve never got round to modernizing it. I had the impression that Fyodor Mikhailovich felt quite at ease there and architecture may have had something to do with it. But that’s not the only thing. His Russian city and my Scottish city had both been fashioned by the contradictions and absurdities of capitalism’s hyper-active and misspent nineteenth-century youth. The grotesquely rich and the unbelievably poor, old money and nouveaux riches, the insulted and the injured, revolutionary dreamers, swindlers, spongers, drunkards, down-and-outs, sellers of love, gamblers, mystics, and saints – all of them thrown into the voracious maelstrom generated by the making and losing of money. And then there are the winters … and the rain … and the shadows beyond the streetlights … the footsteps of a solitary walker crossing an empty bridge … the uncanny feeling of someone following you … or maybe you are the one doing the following? Everywhere there is matter for stories in these ‘intentional’ cities, as Dostoevsky himself had described St Petersburg—cities that hadn’t grown up organically from an ancient core but that were invented or re-invented as ‘modern’ cities, overrunning the limits of nature and reason. Glasgow, St Petersburg – both, to my mind, ‘intentional cities’.
Perhaps that’s a bit fanciful. Maybe all this could have happened in any city, town, or village. Perhaps visitors from there feel at ease anywhere in our world. Perhaps I should just keep my thoughts to myself and get on with telling you how it began.
So, there we are, back in my flat on that (inevitably) damp November evening. At that time, I often stayed up for an hour or so after my wife had gone to bed. Whether it was overwork or something more sinister – a late onset mid-life crisis, perhaps – I needed the time to unwind, to read, to listen to some music, or just to think. Sometimes with a glass of whisky. Occasionally, two glasses. But really just a snifter. Scapa, when I could get it. Often, I’d end by switching off the reading light on the side-table and just letting the darkness gather me to itself.
I’d been reading Dostoevsky’s short story ‘A Gentle Spirit’. The story is narrated by a man, a pawnbroker, whose seventeen-year-old wife, goaded by his mental cruelty, has leapt to her death, clutching an icon. All through the night he stands over her body as it is prepared for burial and starts to realize not only what he has lost but also what he himself has destroyed through his own vile behaviour.
His final words are a statement of despair as powerful as the famous speech in which Ivan Karamazov denounced God for creating a world in which the progress of history allowed for and even necessitated the torture and murder of children—crimes that he illustrated in grim detail. Just like Ivan’s ‘rebellion’ (as Dostoevsky called it), the pawnbroker’s words constitute a terrible challenge to Christianity or to any optimistic view of human existence.
“Oh, blind force! Oh, nature! Men are alone on earth—that is what is dreadful. “Is there a living man in the country?” cried the Russian hero. I cry the same, though I am not a hero, and no one answers my cry. They say the sun gives life to the universe. The sun is rising and—look at it, is it not dead? Everything is dead and everywhere there are dead. Men are alone—around them is silence—that is the earth! “Men, love one another”—who said that? Whose commandment is that? The pendulum ticks callously, heartlessly. Two o’clock at night. Her little shoes are standing by the little bed, as though waiting for her … No, seriously, when they take her away tomorrow, what will become of me?”
I first read these words when I was going through a fairly standard phase of student nihilism and it was like finding my own voice for the first time, hearing someone saying what I’d been thinking and feeling but couldn’t find the words to say. Looking back, it’s probably the fact that I heard someone else saying it that stopped me from following the logic of the words themselves all the way to – what? Other Dostoevsky characters who say very similar things kill themselves, or try to, but there are other methods of self-destruction. What one psychologist called ‘chronic suicide’—going on living, but without there being any point or joy in it. Of course, it’s unsurprising that words like these speak to ‘disillusioned youth’, but why should they hit me with such force now, thirty years later, now, when I’ve grown up and found something that I’m mostly convinced is worth living for? I’ve become a fairly normal middle-aged person living a fairly normal middle-class life. My wife wasn’t jumping out of the window but was either reading or sleeping in the next room. Life had its stresses, but nothing out of the ordinary. And anyway, as Fyodor Mikhailovich himself said, it’s only fiction.
It would be ridiculous to try to explain Dostoevsky better than he explains himself and, in any case, every one of us will read these words in their own way. But I ask you: whatever you’ve done or been, haven’t you too had moments when you realized that the world is entirely indifferent to anything you might think, speak, do, or feel; that all the words that you and me and all of us endlessly exchange with one another are, in the end, pointless; that even if you’ve found someone to love and have friends with whom you meet, eat, party, and debate – despite all that, there is a point of ultimate isolation from which you can’t escape, a point at which you are completely alone? And even if you’re happy enough in your life, what difference does your happiness make to the world? It doesn’t—and, once you realize that, then even Christ’s words of love ring hollow. The sun comes up, the sun goes down, night falls – who cares? Short answer: no one.
As it says further down the page – THE END.
I shut the book, keeping my finger in the page. No thoughts came. Or rather, a thousand thoughts came, none of them clear enough to catch hold of. I added a dash of water to my already well-watered whisky and sipped at it, more for something to do than for the mild warming sensation it brought. I dimmed the light and shut my eyes. Again, thoughts that were no thoughts. There was nothing more to think. Half past eleven. Time to go to bed. Putting the book down next to the glass, I stood up, stretching my arms above my head, fingers locked. “So …” I said under my breath.
For a split second I wondered if I was repeating myself, but at some level I knew it wasn’t me speaking. Like many people I sometimes hear voices, usually when I’m very tired or under some kind of influence. But those ‘voices’ normally sound as if they’re coming from far away, like a distant echo of my own thoughts. This “So?” was too present, too physical.
And there wasn’t just a voice, there was someone, a shadowy someone, sitting on the far side of the fireplace from where I’d just got up.
You may sometimes have wondered what you’d do in this kind of situation. Would you grab a poker and chase the intruder away? Would you maintain an impressive silence before slowly and politely asking for an explanation? Would you faint with shock? Or would you just shake your head in disbelief and conclude that you must have dropped off to sleep? However you imagine it, it makes no difference. In real life, you don’t think, you just react. And that means that if someone speaks to you in an averagely polite kind of way, you answer – even when that someone is a shadowy figure who wasn’t there a moment ago, shouldn’t be there, and maybe wasn’t even real.
“So?” There was a challenge there, but the underlying tone was enquiring, humorous, though I also sensed a hint of irony.
“So,” I repeated, “well, the fact is, I just don’t know what to make of it … ‘Men are alone’ … ‘Who said “Love one another”?’ … THE END … Is that really it? Is that all?”
“This is what was in your book?” he asked politely, “Do you want to say more? I can’t answer your questions if I don’t know what they’re about!”
“No, of course, I’m sorry.” I picked the book off the table, an old second-hand edition in a gold-embossed red cloth cover. “It’s by Dostoevsky. Do you know Dostoevsky?”
I was starting to make out that my mysterious interlocutor was probably about my size or a bit shorter and was wearing what might have been a suit made of some heavy wool-like material, not very well-fitting and rather old-fashioned. He seemed neither young nor old and although I could see that he was balding, with wispy strands of hair floating away from the sides of his broad domed forehead, he gave an impression of solidity and energy, not like an old man at all. Although it was impossible at first to make out his expression, I felt his dark eyes fixed on me and, so to speak, holding me in their grip.
“Certainement je le connais,” he replied, in an amused voice. “Je suis Dostoïevski.”
Involuntarily I responded also in French. “Vous êtes Dostoïevski?” Then, feeling that this was rather absurd, repeated in English, “You’re Dostoevsky – the Dostoevsky?”
“Yes, of course,” he replied politely, “Who else would I be?”
“Who else would you be? You could be anyone!”
“Not really. After all, you invited me and I don’t see anyone else here.” He lifted his hand, gently took the book from me and opening it read out the words on the title-page. “Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Eternal Husband and other Stories. Translated from the Russian by CONSTANCE GARNETT. William Heinemann Ltd. Melbourne. London. Toronto. Interesting. Imagine, they even read me in Australia.” He returned the book. “Here. Why don’t you sit down? You’ll be more comfortable.”
As I say, I didn’t think. I just reacted and, being brought up to be averagely polite, answered when spoken to. Up to this point I could probably have dismissed my visitor or tried pretending that he was just an exceptionally vivid daydream, shaken myself and gone to bed. Now, however, I’d gone up a level. I was committed. I wasn’t just answering his questions, I was doing what he said. From this moment on I was conceding his reality, giving him the right not only to play with my thoughts but to take up space in my life. That’s how I see it now, of course. Then, I just did what he said and sat down, still clutching the book.
I was, I admit, lost for words. Who wouldn’t be? We sat silently facing each other for – I don’t know how long. He looked at me attentively, as if waiting for my question. I looked at him, trying to get him, as it were, in focus. Not very successfully as yet. Eventually, he was the one to speak first.
“You had a question, I think?”
“Er … yes .. . of course …” I fell back into silence, struggling to remember what I’d asked just a few minutes beforehand.
“About the human condition, I think?” he added encouragingly.
“Yes … the human condition … We are alone. Are we really alone? Is that true? Sometimes it feels true. And, if it’ true … can love really mean anything? Yes, those were the questions – my questions, your questions, that is, what the husband says, after his wife’s suicide. But they’re powerful words, Mr. Dostoevsky …”
“Please – Fyodor Mikhailovich.”
“Yes, thank, you, of course … Fyodor Mikhailovich. They’re powerful words – and I don’t think you could have written them if you didn’t feel them. But, still, you believed, you went on believing, in God, immortality, love … You had faith. What is it, this faith? How is it possible?”
(Next episode will be published on Friday 19th March)