Fyodor Mikhailovich smiled, looking thoughtful. I could feel him getting ready to say more and waited, a tad anxious that I’d overdone it.
“What is a lie? Well, if you want an answer to that question, you first have to know what you mean by truth,” he said after a while, pausing again before continuing. “If, like many of my own contemporaries, you believe that truth is the same as facts, then maybe my stories, maybe Christianity itself, is indeed nothing but lies. Some of them would do away with fiction altogether – think of Mr Gradgrind. And if that’s what truth is, then, as I think you know, I’d always take the side of Christ against truth. Quixotic, you’ll say – but I’ve got a soft spot for that crazy knight errant, maybe the greatest story ever invented by a human being. But do we have to accept that truth equals facts? I don’t think so. Sometimes facts can even stop us seeing the truth. Living according to the logic of facts and nothing else is the law of the anthill, not human beings.”
“Like you say in Notes from Underground?”
“Exactly; but let me give you another example – the Notes are a bit too complicated, too ideological, at least for now.”
Taking a deep breath, he began to speak in the manner of someone reciting a speech that he had learned by heart.
“One day I am out in St Petersburg. It’s a Sunday, and people of all classes are also out taking a walk. The smart crowd are promenading on Nevsky Prospect and in the Summer Gardens, showing off their fashionable costumes, seeing and being seen. But even in the back streets, people are taking the air; perhaps they only go a few hundred yards from their door –apart the drunkards among them they wouldn’t dare show themselves on Nevsky at such an hour. They meet a neighbour, they stop and talk for a few minutes; perhaps this is their one hour of freedom in the entire week. Amongst them I see a young man. He’s about thirty years old. He’s done his best to dress up well, but his clothes are old and worn, probably third hand. He has a little boy with him, about two years old. He’s been cross with the boy, but now picks him up and the child clings to his neck. Over his daddy’s shoulder, he sees me looking and frowns crossly, and holds on all the more tightly to papa. Of course, it’s rude of me to stare, but I can’t help myself. What do you ever learn about people if you only ever talk to those you meet in polite society? It’s the people you don’t know you should be learning from. Get out there, look at them. If possible, talk to them. But look, while I’ve been talking, they’ve gone, daddy and kiddo, absorbed into the crowd. Just two in a million. Who are they? I don’t know and I’ll probably never see them again.”
He stopped and looked at me quizzically.
“I’m not boring you, am I?” he asked.
“No, not at all. I can picture what you’re saying very clearly – but I don’t see what it’s got to do with what we were talking about.”
“Very good. I’ll come to the point as quickly as I can. They’re gone. I never see them again, but I can’t stop thinking about them. Who are they? Where have they been? Why? The man is the kind of worker you see in a locksmith or printing office. Solid, reliable work – but not well paid. Where is the mother? I’m thinking that she’s dead, probably not long since, maybe about two months ago, almost certainly of consumption. While daddy’s at work, he pays some old woman even less than he earns to look after the little boy, perhaps one of the people they share a flat with. By the way,” he said, changing his tone, “did you know that back then you could have got five or six families into this flat you share with your wife and son? It makes you think, doesn’t it?”
I nodded, uncomfortably.
“Back to my story then. On weekdays he leaves the boy with the old woman, but today is Sunday, so they’ve been out on a visit, let’s say to the dead wife’s sister, over in the Viborg district. The sister and her husband are probably a notch or two up the social ladder and they don’t really have much in common with our young widower. They drink tea together, but don’t say much. They say their goodbyes awkwardly and the father carries the boy home. It’s a long walk from the Viborg side to Liteiny, especially if you have a lad of two to carry most of the way. No wonder the father’s quick to snap, and tomorrow he has to get up early for work. What do you think?”
“Yes, it’s all possible – though I suppose you could make up quite different stories about them too?”
“Of course – I could. That is—that was—me metier. So: Is my story true?”
“Well, I don’t know. I’ve no way of knowing. I mean, I believe you saw a man and a boy, but as for the rest – I just don’t know.”
“No more do I. But would it be truer just to stick to the facts and say: ‘On Sunday afternoon I saw a man and a boy. I don’t know anything about their circumstances or where they lived, so I’m not going to say any more. I’m going to keep to the facts’?”
“Well, that would certainly be true – but it wouldn’t be as interesting … or as human. The way you speak about them, they become somehow real, three-dimensional personalities.”
“Thank you. Not just facts, then. We’re agreed. Keep to the facts and you can hand them over to the statisticians who will tell you all about employment rates, wages, rents, the prevalence of consumption and then produce an algorithm which will tell you how to make them and all the other millions of workers happy and contented. Or so they promise. You may even manage to turn society into an anthill, full of happy contented beings – but you won’t have human beings, people as alive as you and me,” (he smiled as he said this) “people who feel and cry and hope and love as we do. Maybe nothing I made up about my worker and his boy is true, maybe I got every fact wrong, maybe mama is at home getting a good Sunday dinner ready for them all. I don’t know. But my story, my fiction, opens your eyes. Next time you pass a poor man out on the street with his little boy you’ll remember my story and you’ll think to yourself, ‘There’s more to him than meets the eye. That man and his boy have a whole life I know nothing about, a life full of joy, and grief, and love, as rich as anything in Shakespeare or Sophocles – or even Dostoevsky.’ Isn’t that how it will be? And because you think this, you’ll respect them more, maybe you’ll even love them more. What do you think?”
He watched me steadily.
“Yes, yes, that’s true. So, what you’re saying is that even if fiction doesn’t tell us the truth, even if it’s all made up, it shows us something about the world we wouldn’t otherwise see?”
“Not just about the world, but about us, us human beings. ‘The man in man’. Each of us, you see, is much, much more than how we seem and much, much more than the whole sum of facts – even the whole sum of true facts – about us. Maybe we all have to become artists to see ourselves and our world as they truly are.”
That made sense. It also made sense of why I’d always loved his novels and stories since I first started reading them in my late teens – because they show us something about each other that we can never see just by looking, a whole other dimension, as it were. But, again, the conversation seemed to have gone off on a tangent. What did any of this have to do with those famous eternal questions, with God, immortality, and faith?
I needed another whisky.
“Do you mind …” I asked, reaching toward the bottle.
“Not at all … please, carry on.”
“Sorry, would you like one?”
He smiled ruefully. “No, no—but thank you. That’s not how we do things here. But, please, carry on.”