Over the course of our last few exchanges, Fyodor Mikhailovich was, unsurprisingly, starting to look very tired; the folds of his clothes seemed to be flattening out, almost as if he was becoming two-dimensional; even his face seemed to be fading, looking more and more like an old photograph rather than a living person. Now, suddenly, he snapped back into focus and, rubbing his hand together, smiled broadly, even mischievously, and looked me in the eye. Meeting his gaze was like looking down into an immeasurably deep well, the kind that goes so far down that you can hardly see if there’s any water there – until you catch a faint glitter reflecting the sky above.
“Now,” he said firmly. “Now you see what our hero has to do.”
“I … I think so.” My hesitation almost surprised myself. I was used to giving my opinion about Dostoevsky’s novels or just about any other subject in an academic seminar (sometimes even on subjects I really knew very little about), but it was something else again to be saying it to the man himself. And I was aware that I had been almost cheeky at some moments in our conversation so far.
“And … isn’t the point that, as you said, he’s only thinking of himself, of his being abandoned in this cold and empty world? And the way he talks – like we said, it’s just a monologue, just talking to himself; he’s performing, but not really talking to anyone in particular.”
“Exactly! Like Richard III and Hamlet. Both characters locked into their own worlds. That’s exactly right. No, if he knew he was guilty, if he really knew how guilty he was, he’d be talking to her, asking her forgiveness, asking everyone’s forgiveness—like Alyosha in the garden—and if he did that, then he wouldn’t be alone any more and the world wouldn’t be so cold. To acknowledge your guilt is to let yourself love. To see others with the eyes of love.” He stopped, folded his hand, and nodded in satisfaction.
The way he said it was touching, I admit—but I couldn’t help blurting out a rather unconsidered reply.
“You say that, Fyodor Mikhailovich, but your novels are full of people who are utterly unlovable. In fact, I don’t think even you loved all of them very much – I don’t think you loved old man Karamazov or poor little Smerdyakov at all. At least, you don’t seem to have given them any redeeming features.”
Fyodor Mikhailovich sighed. “And what sort of novels would I have written if I’d filled them with only loveable people? Would they be the sort of novels you’d want to read?”
I shrugged. “Perhaps not.”
“I’m sure not. I was a novelist, and that means presenting people in the way that they actually appear in their world. It’s not what I think of them that matters, but how they appear to each other – no one in the novel ever has a final view on any of the others. None of them are God and even the author isn’t God. Literature isn’t the last judgement. The most I could do was to show the possibility of redemption. Remember Fedya the convict: he was a man who killed for money, a real thug, but I reminded the reader how he’d been sold by his master to pay a gambling debt, a man reduced to the status of a thing; yet even though he is violent, unlettered, guilty of murder and sacrilege, he goes on hoping for forgiveness; somewhere, deep in his heart, he knows that the Mother of God will remember him with mercy, just as she remembered the sinners who had sunk so deep in hell that even God had forgotten them.”
“Yes, I understand that,” I said, remembering that Fyodor Mikhailovich always had a soft spot for the peasants, even the peasant who prayed for forgiveness in the act of murdering someone for a gold watch, “but I don’t see many redeeming features in characters like Luzhin or Smerdyakov, the arrivistes and lackeys.”
“I say again, these are novels and because they are novels they show the world as it appears in all its degradation to real human beings with all their prejudices, but I’m not passing judgement on any real actual people. None of us ever knows enough about anyone else to do that. I knew prisoners in Siberia who’d committed the most terrible crimes you can imagine—worse than you can imagine—and who never showed any sign of repentance or contrition. But who knows what was going on in the inscrutable depths of their hearts.”
“Yes, but that still doesn’t tell us how to find any redeeming feature in the kind of despair that A Gentle Spirit ends with.”
“Really not? You surprise me.”
“Really not. Can you explain?”
“I can try. For a start, I’ve already explained that although he still has one more step to take (a colossal and paradoxical step, admittedly), he is in a position to take it, if he dares to do so – and if he does take it, he will re-enter the world and become capable of love. But there’s another, very important point. A couple of minutes ago, I called him the hero. But is that correct?”
“Well, I can’t see who else is. The whole story is his story, as he told it – like one of Shakespeare’s monologues, as we said.”
“Very well. But we writers think very carefully about our titles, you know. So, if Richard III is about Richard III and Hamlet is about Hamlet, who do you think A Gentle Spirit is about?”
“About a gentle spirit.”
“Exactly. And is he ‘a gentle spirit’?”
“Not at all. Quite the opposite – I’d say he’s more like a soul in torment.”
“So who is the ‘gentle spirit’?”
“That’s his wife, of course.”
“So the story is really about her?” I thought for a moment before continuing. “But, Fyodor Mikhailovich, if that’s the case, then it still doesn’t help us very much since she too is in despair, more so, even, since she kills herself. All you seem to leave us with is the alternative – ultimate solitude or suicide. Not much of a choice!”
It had become very quiet outside. I could hear someone singing drunkenly. I wondered whether he imagined himself happy. He didn’t sound like he was in paradise.
Fyodor Mikhailovich straightened himself, sitting forward and putting his hands on his knees.
“I have to be going soon,” he announced abruptly, “So I’ll be as brief as possible. Let me ask you: do you really think that just because someone commits suicide, we can assume they’re in despair?”
“Why not? Isn’t she in despair?”
“Yet she was clutching an icon.”
“Doesn’t that make it worse?”
“What it means is that there is something in what she did that we cannot understand. Yes, I know that the Church regards suicide as a sin and will refuse to bury her, but might it not be that she still hopes the Mother of God will have mercy on her, the kind of mercy she cannot show to herself? Isn’t what she does a way of saying ‘Yes, I know I am guilty, but I know that there is someone who can love me, someone who will love me, someone who does love me despite my guilt’? And who are we to deny her? I know I can’t, because I can imagine movements of the heart that are so deep and yet so subtle that we can never see them with the outer eye. We cannot say this was simply self-will. We cannot condemn. We can only hope, for others as well as for ourselves. He had given up all hope, in this moment there was nothing in his world except self-will and perhaps his next step too would have been to end his life—that also happens—or perhaps it would have been to faith. We do not know. But she—maybe she was still hoping, giving herself into the hands of God’s own Mother.”
I found myself nodding. Although the ‘God’s Mother’ bit didn’t speak to me (I don’t have that sort of religious background), there was a lot there to think about. Inevitably, I thought back to the people I’d known who’d killed themselves, each of their deaths a terrible enigma. Their faces seemed to pass before me, one after the other, almost as if they were pleading to me and I could almost imagine hearing their distant voices—but too far away to hear their words; too far away—on the far side of death. Even after many years, the question remained: Why? Why? Why? And what had each thought or felt in that final instant? Had there been any hope? Had any of them died clutching a metaphorical icon?
I looked up. He was gone. I was alone.
Had I been asleep? It goes almost without saying that I asked myself that question straightaway, but even on that first night I knew that this wasn’t a dream of hallucination. I was awake and the conversation had been as real as any conversation I’d ever had with a ‘living’ friend—I put scare quotes round ‘living’ because I was left with some uncertainty as to whether life and the limits of life are quite as I’d imagined them to be.
I didn’t pinch myself. I didn’t need to, but my head was humming, bursting even, as I replayed everything that had happened in the last hour at 16X speed. I couldn’t go to bed straightaway. I picked the book up. I put it down. I went to the bookcase. I went to the window. It was very faint, but I could still hear the drunk guy singing, several blocks away by now. Happy or unhappy. A night bus drew up at the stop opposite, its engine throbbing. Suddenly, I was very tired. This could wait till morning. This had to wait till morning.
Laura was asleep when I got to bed but stirred enough to make room for me. But, of course, even in bed I didn’t sleep much, replaying the images, the words, the thoughts. Over and over. I slept a little, probably, but my sleep was filled with wild, chaotic images. The alarm went, as usual, at seven o’clock. Laura got up almost straight away. I turned over and pretended to be asleep.