We are, then, back where we started. As you probably remember, Fyodor Mikhailovich didn’t give a direct answer to my question about faith but started saying how everything he wrote in his novels and stories was just fiction, something he’d made up, in short – a lie. Anyway, he’d said, he was only a ‘peripheral’ inhabitant of the next world – ‘the great synthesis’, as he called it – and that if I really wanted answers, I’d better ask God. Which was quite a conversation stopper. Still, having got him there – however it had happened – I wasn’t going to let him brush me off that easily.
“Well, maybe if God had turned up instead of you, I would ask him—but he didn’t. I’ve only got you and since you’re the person who wrote these words you must have something to say about them. And even if you did just make them up, even if they’re what you call ‘lies’, it seems to me that they’re saying something true, something we can’t help feeling about ourselves – something we’ve got to deal with. You can’t just say ‘It’s all lies – now go and ask God’. If it’s that easy to ask God, why did you bother writing this … and all those thousands of other pages? And why did you bother coming here?”
Fyodor Mikhailovich chuckled quietly.
“Fair questions, fair questions – we’ll make a ‘Russian boy’ of you yet!” Returning to his chair, he drew it a couple of inches closer and, lowering his voice continued in a more confidential tone, as if imparting some great secret. “Well, maybe He is here and you’re just not seeing Him – and if you were to see Him then you might be shouting ‘Hosannah’ instead of asking questions.”
I smiled, recognizing the allusion to one of my favourite passages in The Brothers Karamazov. People sometimes forget that Dostoevsky didn’t just write about crime, punishment, and the eternal questions – he could also be very funny. When the shape-shifting Devil appears to Ivan Karamazov (which I mentioned before), he tells a story about a Russian nihilist who doesn’t believe in God or immortality and, when he dies, is deeply shocked to wake up in the afterlife. At first, he refuses to budge and stays on the spot for a billion years before he eventually gets up and walks the quadrillion miles to the gates of Heaven, still deeply vexed by the fact that he really is immortal. He goes in. Immediately, he’s overwhelmed and starts shouting ‘Hosannah’ even more loudly than many of those already gathered round the divine throne – so much so that some of the other saints think he’s overdoing it.
“Like that Russian nihilist. I see. Yes, probably. But even if He is here, I can’t see Him: I can only see you. I don’t suppose you can open my eyes for me?”
“No, of course, not,” he replied, with a touch of irritation, as if it was something that had already been explained to me umpteen times. “If it was that easy, atheism would have been vanquished long ago. I can’t do what only God can do. I can’t even teach you to pray. But I can tell stories.”
“Stories which, you say, are lies.”
Fyodor Mikhailovich didn’t give the impression of being in a hurry to make the next move. Of course (obviously), it was amazing to have him sitting there, speaking to me, almost (I’m tempted to say) ‘in the flesh’. Only (obviously), not ‘in the flesh’. Even so – amazing. But I too was starting to get irritated.
“Fyodor Mikhailovich,” I said, “you can’t just leave it at that. Please help me out here. Even if you insist on calling your novels lies, they’re not like the lies that some of your characters tell, and an awful lot of them do seem to be compulsive liars. I can’t immediately think of any examples, but there are a quite a few! Wait, let me think a moment. Yes, there’s that character in The Idiot, who lies all the time and quite often for no reason at all. You know who I mean …?”
“Yes! That’s his name. Then there’s Peter Verkhovensky in The Possessed who uses lying as a political strategy. And of course, there’s old man Karamazov. He too seems to lie for the sake of it or just to rub people up the wrong way. I think he even calls himself ‘The Father of Lies’ –like the Devil, I suppose. Perhaps he’s the worst of all?”
“Very good,” he smirked. “that’s a good list to start with, though we could easily add to it. We mustn’t forget the people who lie to themselves, like Peter Verkhovensky’s father—a man whose whole life is a kind of fantasy, imagining himself to be some kind of great man, a leader of his generation, when he’s really nothing of the sort. And then, think of all the self-deception there is in love, all the nihilists who think they’re through with love when all they really want is someone to love them without either lording it over them or drowning them in fake sentimentality. Or Katerina Ivanovna, who really believes she’s in love with Dmitri Karamazov and because of that is as much to blame as anyone for the catastrophe that follows. Imagine if she hadn’t followed him to his home town … it would all have been a lot easier for everyone. And then there’s the husband you’ve just been reading about. If he hadn’t had such false ideas about himself and wasn’t so obstinately committed to them, he would never have treated his wife in the way that he did, killing the love in her. Yes, dig down into any tragedy, and you’ll find a lie at the root of it all. In fact,” he continued in a measured and deliberate tone, “it all began with the lie. Every act of inhumanity, from the very beginning of history right through to the end – it all began with the lie.”
“You shall be as gods,” I interjected, eager to show I was following his train of thought. “Was that where it started?”
“You shall be as gods … Yes, they were ready to hear that lie, though perhaps they had already been lying to themselves and to each other long before they the serpent turned up with his smooth-talking trickery. Maybe they even began to lie in the very same moment in which they began to speak. Think of a little child. The moment it starts to speak, its world turns upside down so that a piece of wood can become a doll, a farmer, a horse … and all because the child says so. It’s all very innocent and entertaining, of course. The child’s happy, mama and papa are happy, and all the aunts and uncles are happy too. But before you know where you are, little Ivan has graduated to outright fibs, either to get something he wants or to get himself out of trouble. It’s quite a business! They say money is the root of all evil but money itself is just another way of lying. Just like language, money can turn anything into anything: I may be an unprepossessing sort of fellow but, thanks to money, I can become a Don Juan; I may be entirely without intelligence but, thanks to money, I can become a genius; I may be an utterly dull fellow but, thanks to money, my dullest witticism is met with gales of laughter. That’s why Shakespeare and Goethe both knew that money was the only serious competitor to literature. But believe, me, long before there was money, there was language. ‘In the beginning was the Word’!”
“Fyodor Mikhailovich,” I exclaimed. “This is shocking! I’m no longer a believer (though maybe I’d like to become one again), but when the Bible says ‘In the beginning was the Word’ isn’t it in order to tell us that the power of speech is God-given? Isn’t it the sign of His image in us? Didn’t God Himself talk with Adam and Eve in the garden? You – you of all people – can’t be saying that we’d be better off without language, condemned to silence, like animals?”
“In the beginning was the Word.” He repeated the words slowly and softly, as if absorbed in how they sounded. “This is true, this will always be true, this is the truth. But our words – are they ‘the Word’? Is everything we say ‘the Word’ just because it is made up of words?”“Well, no. I accept that, of course. But can’t we use language to speak truth as well as to lie? And isn’t there a difference between the kinds of lies that all these characters in your novels are trapped in and those novels themselves? Don’t they tell us something true about ourselves, something we all need to know? So why insist on calling them lies? Why can’t we just call them stories – because if they’re nothing but lies then not only me but thousands and thousands of your readers have been complete dupes. And I don’t think that’s what you wanted, is it? Face it, you did inspire people, you held out a hand to people in despair and they grabbed it … your stories gave them faith, at least enough faith to go on living. That’s nothing like Lebedev, old Karamazov and all the rest, is it? If it’s all just lies, then you must be one of the biggest confidence tricksters of all time.”
[Episode 4 will be posted on Friday March 26th]