Second Conversation: ‘Good Books’. Episode 1

By the time I’d showered and dressed Laura had nearly finished her breakfast. On the radio, a bishop was saying something about the Church and climate change.

            “Sorry. I couldn’t wait,” she said, looking up. “I need to be in for half-past-eight.” It was now ten to. 

            “That’s fine,” I replied. “Coffee. That’s the main thing.”

            “I seem to have made it rather strong this morning.”

            “That’s good. Good for me.”

            “Ah-ha. You were late last night. Too much whisky?”

            “Not really.”

            The Bishop had been replaced by a tetchy exchange between an interviewer and a junior government minister.

            “Is there any more yoghurt?”

            “In the fridge. Where it always is. If you weren’t drinking whisky, what were you doing?”

            “I didn’t say I hadn’t had any whisky. Just some. I was reading.”

            “More Dostoevsky, I suppose?”

            “Of course.”

            “You’re reading a lot of Dostoevsky these days. Work? Fun?”

            “A bit of both, maybe. I’m trying to fill in some of the gaps—what I haven’t read or what I’ve forgotten.”

            “Fair enough. I haven’t read Dostoevsky for years. I loved it when I was a student. I was your Grushenka and you were my Dmitri and, yes, I would have followed you to the salt-mines! But I don’t know if I’d still like it—all his women seem to be suffering or mad or just ridiculous. And the men never give up their lives to follow them to the salt-mines!”

            “They do in Tolstoy.”


            “Yes. In Resurrection. But he was definitely a worse misogynist than Dostoevsky.”

            “Well, I didn’t know. But I have to say that all that talk about God is a bit much. I mean, I believe in something, but I just don’t think that people get so worked up about whether God exists anymore, do they?”

            “Maybe Russians do.”

            “Maybe—only I’m not Russian. Still, pehaps I should have another go.”

            The voice of the newsreader cut across what she was saying. “For a second night in a row, rockets have been fired …”

            “Oh God. They are all so bloody stupid! But I have to go … What time are you back?”

            “About seven – the students will probably expect me to buy a round of drinks after the seminar. Noblesse oblige and all that.”

            “Fine. Will you get the salmon out of the freezer before you go? I must dash.”

            “Will do. No, don’t bother. I’ll clear your things. What have you got on today?”

            “Meetings, meetings, meetings. Nothing difficult. Just a lot of it.” She cradled my head momentarily and pressed a kiss on it. “Love you. Don’t forget the salmon.”

            “I won’t.” 

            I did—at least, I forgot, but remembered just as I was shutting the door.

            Once Laura had left, I had about an hour before I needed to go out. We both worked at the university. I taught comparative literature (twentieth century, mostly French and German), Laura was in admin. It was only a quarter of an hour’s quick walk to my office, but though I wasn’t lecturing till eleven there were some things I needed to sort out beforehand. Which left me an hour or so to think through what had happened the night before. I took my second cup of coffee through to the sitting room and looked down at where Fyodor Mikhailovich had been sitting. The only evidence for his visit was a crumpled cushion, but since Laura had been sitting there earlier in the evening that didn’t prove anything. 

            What had really happened? Had I been visited by Dostoevsky—or, at least, his ghost? Was ‘ghost’ the right word?

            Dostoevsky. ‘Fyodor Mikhailovich’ as I was starting to think of him. 

            Let’s say it had been a hallucination or that I’d just been dreaming, a kind of waking dream, perhaps? Did that matter? Even if it had all been only in my mind, there were things that had been said that I needed to go over. But I didn’t think it had all been ‘only in my mind’. I’ve never been interested in spiritualism or the occult and I wasn’t tempted to start wondering about how—if it was ‘real’—it could have happened. The main thing was what we’d been talking about. 

            Going over (and over) what he had said, I didn’t feel I’d got the answers I’d been looking for. The question as to how one could go on living if, like Dostoevsky’s fictional pawnbroker, one believed that the world was dead, empty, and loveless remained unresolved. At least I wasn’t yet persuaded. There’s a Bergman film in which someone asks that same question about how to go on living and the only answer they get is ‘Because we must’—but that doesn’t help. Even more difficult was how one might believe in God in a world like that—but we hadn’t even got on to God, not really. Fyodor Mikhailovich had given a kind of answer, speaking about how the pawnbroker needed to become guilty, as in the Elder Zosima’s teaching that we should each think of ourselves as being guilty of everything and confessing our guilt to everyone.

            But there seemed to me to be two problems with that. The first was that the kind of guilt Zosima talked about wasn’t quite what we normally think of as guilt. Normally when we think of guilt we think of the kind of court cases Fyodor Mikhailovich had also talked about. Is the accused guilty as charged? But Zosima teaches that all of us, each and every one of us, is meant to assume the burden of guilt—even if, like his own consumptive brother, we’ve never actually committed any crimes. Then there’s the kind of guilt that therapists try to help us get rid of, all those internalized feelings of guilt going back to childhood. But why, even on Zosima’s principles, should we want to accept that kind of guilt?

            The second problem was that although I could almost see how thinking of oneself as guilty—or, at least, responsible—for all that was going wrong in the world might work for moral heroes, the sort of people who dedicate their lives to working for refugees, the homeless, trafficking victims, whatever, it seemed to ask too much for the kind of ordinary lives most of us lead. I mean, me. Of course, I could probably give more to charity, I could probably volunteer in the community, there’s probably a lot more I could do, but on this principle, I’d never have done enough. And even if, like Zosima, I gave everything up to become a wandering beggar or a monk, it would mean letting a great many people down. For example, it would mean leaving Laura with a big chunk of mortgage to pay off.  No. That wasn’t an option. Running away from my real responsibilities in the real world didn’t seem the right way to assume responsibility for my existence. That really would give me something to feel guilty about.

            In any case, a Dostoievskian saint who went around believing they were guilty of everything also reminded me of all that harping on about ‘unworthy servants’ that I remembered from my childhood churchgoing. Dostoevsky portrayed Zosima as a joyful kind of saint, but going around thinking of yourself as being guilty of everything didn’t seem like a recipe for joy. It all sounded dreadfully serious. Worse still, depressing. Which, I suppose, is what most people would expect from a conversation with Dostoevsky. I’ve known people who say that reading Kierkegaard can drive you mad, and maybe it’s the same with Dostoevsky.

            These questions, and variations on them, niggled away at the back (and sometimes at the front) of my mind over the next couple of weeks, without really getting resolved. At the same time, there was an even more important question: was I ever going to see him again? Had this been a once-off visitation from the other world (or wherever he’d come from), or, if he was going to come again, was there anything I could do to make it happen? I remembered a scene from a movie in which Andy Warhol said he’d tried to call God on the telephone but hadn’t been able to get an answer. How do you ‘call’ the other world? I certainly wasn’t going to go to a séance or get out the tarot cards. 

            Perhaps it would help if I knew why he’d come in the first place. Had something about the way I was reading his story tuned me in to some sort of cosmic wavelength that enabled us to communicate? Could I find that wavelength again? Was there some sort of technique, some sort of spiritual mindfulness I could practice to put me in touch with wherever he was? The problem, of course, was the familiar paradox about not being able to do something once you become self-conscious about doing it. It’s only when you stop looking for whatever it is you’re looking for that you find it. And so on. In any case, if I had somehow tuned in to his supernatural mind, why was I finding it so difficult to process what he’d said? If it was mind meeting mind, where was the flash of understanding? But perhaps I had nothing to do with it. Perhaps it was all his initiative, for reasons that I was unable even to guess at. In which case there was nothing I could do.

            Despite my scepticism about being able to invoke his presence, I made a point of staying up over the next few nights. Hopefully, I have to admit. I tried to pretend that I didn’t have any special aim in view, but I didn’t really fool myself for one minute. And even though it felt a bit artificial, as if I was practicing a simplistic form of sympathetic magic, I made a point of reading more Dostoevsky. Fairly randomly. It was hard to focus, wondering whether ‘he’ was going to reappear at any moment.

            He didn’t. After a week or so, I decided that I couldn’t expect to see him again. At least, I told myself that I’d decided. Goodbye, Fyodor Mikhailovich. It was nice knowing you. I’ll reread The Brothers Karamazov now, I promise. And I really will start on The Diary of a Writer, just as soon as the semester’s over. Maybe they’ll have the answers I’m looking for. What was it he’d said? “If the words I wrote in my books were the truth, why shouldn’t they be enough for you? What can I add?” Perhaps I just have to become a better reader.

            First up then, The Brothers Karamazov. And wonders untold! I solved the riddle of the onion. Looking through the contents pages, I noticed there was a chapter entitled ‘An Onion’. I immediately looked it up to see whether it was relevant, and it was. It describes how Grushenka, the object of Dmitri Karamazov’s passion, is tempted to seduce his innocent brother, the novice monk Alyosha Karamazov. But she stops herself just in time and later explains what’s happened by telling a story about a malicious old woman who’s spent her entire life being mean to people. When the old woman dies, she’s thrown into the lake of fire where the wicked are punished for all eternity. She’s obviously not very happy about this, but an angel tells her that if she can think of one good deed she’s committed, this might help. She eventually remembers that she once gave an onion to a beggar. The angel promptly holds out an onion to her, telling her to grab hold of it so that he (are angels he’s or she’s?) can pull her out. Things are going well, until some of the other souls see what’s going on and try to grab on to her legs so that they can be hauled out too. But she won’t have any of it and kicks them away. At that moment the angel lets go of the onion and she falls back into the fiery lake. The point being that her selfish obsession with her own salvation made it impossible for her to be saved.

            An onion, then. I’d thought at the time it was rather an odd metaphor for Fyodor Mikhailovich to use to describe the small step that the despairing pawnbroker had to take. How can a step be like an onion? Where’s the point of comparison? Now I could see: what he had to do was to stop thinking about himself and how he could go on living and to think of others. Which didn’t seem so difficult. In principle.

            Another week passed and even though teaching was over the need to mark student assignments and work through all the admin that had built up didn’t exactly drive my mysterious visitor to the back of my mind, but it did give me other things to think about. Laura was also having a difficult time, as her department was going through (yet another) major restructuring, so there was always a lot for her to unpack at the end of the day. On the third weekend after Fyodor Mikhailovich had been and gone, we drove out and walked round the Conic Hill, letting the great vista that opened out over Loch Lomond and that took in the snow-capped Arrochar Alps at the far end of the Loch take the stress away. For a couple of hours only. But at least it was a couple of hours and life felt good. What was there to be guilty about? Maybe I didn’t need to beat myself up about those eternal questions. Maybe they were really just nineteenth century questions. Maybe life was its own answer. And yet … something was missing.

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