Second Conversation: ‘Good Books’. Episode 2.

It was now early December and already starting to get dark when, after a two o’clock meeting with a graduate student, I left the office to walk home. Even though being a university lecturer allows for a fairly flexible timetable, I had for a long time treated it as a nine to five job, or, quite often, nine to six or seven. I’d be at my desk by nine and work through whatever I needed to work through. Lately, though, I’d become more choosy. Now that our son James was away at Uni in England, home was much quieter and I could work with less disturbance than in the office, where a colleague or student would often drop by and where, quite irrationally, I found it harder not to check my email every few minutes. Today I had been sent what was hopefully the penultimate draft of a student’s thesis to read through. That is, the student hoped it was the penultimate draft. I was more doubtful. In any case, I’d get on more quickly at home.

            As I approached our block, I could see from the street that the sitting-room light was on. Probably, then, it had been left on all day, unless Laura had unexpectedly come home early, which was unlikely. Her endless series of over-extended meetings was getting worse rather than better and, in any case, she was one of those people who never take time off. But, if I’m honest, I knew perfectly well who it was going to be, though I didn’t allow myself even to form his name in my mind. As I opened the inner door to the hallway the flat was completely still—and yet I sensed someone there.

            ‘Laura?’ I called out, knowing it wasn’t her.

            There was no reply.

            The door to the sitting-room was ajar and the light lit up the hall in an interesting way.

            ‘Hello?’ I called again.

            Again no reply.

            Pretending to myself that I wasn’t even aware of his presence, I methodically put down my briefcase, took off my jacket and hung it on the coat stand. Only then did I go into the sitting-room.

            You won’t be surprised to hear and, to be honest, I wasn’t surprised to find that Fyodor Mikhailovich was there, standing by the bookcase and examining a fat paperback he’d taken down from the shelves. I couldn’t see what it was, though.

            Looking up he gave me a welcoming smile, almost as if was the visitor. Very matter-of-factly, he remarked that it was always interesting to see what books people had and that he was very pleased to see Mrs Radcliffe there (Laura had at one time bought a lot of historical women’s fiction). “But you don’t seem to have any Walter Scott?” he concluded, with a hint of disappointment.

            “Er … no,” I mumbled, “I’m afraid we don’t. Actually, I have to admit that I’ve never read Scott.” I immediately regretted this confession and attempted to make amends. “I mean, I’ve tried several times, but I just can’t get in to it.”

            That probably made it worse.

            Fyodor Mikhailovich shook his head. 

            “I’m astonished. I’d imagined that everyone in Scotland would know their great national writer like everyone in Russia knows their Pushkin, their Tolstoy, and, if I may say so, their Dostoevsky.” I sensed he was teasing, even that there was a bit of play-acting in his disappointment. “You know—you probably do know—that when I was a boy my brother Mikhail and I devoured Scott. You could say that it was reading Scott that made me want to be a writer. And did you also know that one of the first things I wrote was a play about your Queen, Maria Stuart, though I probably got that idea from Schiller?”

            “Really?” I said, not quite sure where this was going. I did have a distant memory of having read about the MQS play that, like most juvenilia, had never seen the light of day.

            At some level I wasn’t surprised to find him there, though I suppose that I’d somehow assumed that if he did appear again it would have been late at night, not in the middle of the afternoon. This didn’t really seem the right time of day for visitors from there

            He didn’t respond directly but, lifting the book in his hands, smiled again—he seemed to be in a very cheerful mood—and said he was glad to see we had some Dickens. I looked closer and saw that the book he’d picked out was The Old Curiosity Shop.

            “The Old Curiosity Shop,” I said mechanically.

            “Yes,” Fyodor Mikhailovich replied. “I’m sure you know that Dickens was one of my favourite authors. I even managed to read The Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield in prison—unofficially, of course.”

            “Really?” I seemed to be repeating myself. I needed to up my game. “I’ve often read that Mr Pickwick was the inspiration for your Prince Myshkin.” 

            “That’s not entirely wrong—though Don Quixote was probably more important. Still, I loved Dickens, even though I could only read him in translation.”

            This reminded me of something that had several times crossed my mind since our first conversation, namely, that it had all been in English. But how did that happen? Especially if Dostoevsky didn’t speak it. Perhaps it wasn’t the most important thing we could be talking about, but it was interesting. Why not ask him?

            “And yet, Fyodor Mikhailovich, you’re speaking English now—very fluently, I may say, with only a very slight accent. Does that mean you can now speak any language you like?”

            He gave a quiet laugh.

            “It’s complicated. I wouldn’t say that I’m speaking English, but you’re hearing me in English and, for my part, I understand what you’re saying perfectly well.”

            “You mean it’s a kind of mind-reading or telepathy? That you can kind of bypass language over there?”

            “No. We don’t bypass language, as you put it. Remember: ‘In the beginning was the Word.’ But … how can I say … our relation to language is … different. Yes, we too need words just as you do—we’re not angels—but it’s all somehow … freer.”

            “Language—but not as we know it,” I joked, not expecting him to get the allusion. He didn’t.

            “Not as you know it,” he replied rather seriously. “Besides, you shouldn’t be surprised. Virgil spoke to Dante spoke in Italian, a language that didn’t even exist when he was on earth.”

            He paused.

            “I cannot—I may not—explain this other life to you, but I will say that the words we’re speaking now are a bit like prisms or, better still, a series of carefully arranged prisms through which what we are trying to say gets refracted. It’s the same light, but it comes out looking different on the other side. And that would still be true if you learned Russian or I spoke English.”

            I found that vaguely comforting. I’d always been a bit worried that because I could only read Dostoevsky (and a great many other writers) in English, I must be missing out on a lot of the nuances of what he wrote. But perhaps it didn’t make such a big difference. Even if the translations were imperfect, maybe they were still transmitting some of that original light, to use his analogy. And if Dostoevsky could only read Dickens in translation, it somehow didn’t seem so important that I could only read him in English.

            “So it doesn’t matter that I can only read you in translation?” I asked

            “Of course, you should learn Russian if you can—you’re still young enough to do so. They say it takes seven years before a foreigner can read me in the original and, God willing, you have more than seven years ahead of you. But even if you were a native Russian speaker, Russian today is no longer my Russian or Lev Tolstoy’s Russian. It can’t be, because the world in which Russians live today is different from the world I knew. Just think of everything the Soviet Union did to our language!”

            “Are you then saying that it’s really only your contemporaries who could understand what you were saying or get any benefit from your books?”

            “Of course not. But what I wrote grew out of and belonged to that Russia, my Russia. It couldn’t have come from anywhere else or been written in any other language. And I also needed Russian soil, Russian cities, Russian people, and even Russian weather, in order to write. At the end of the four years I spent abroad, I was nearly washed up as a writer. I don’t know if I could have gone on. It was worse than after the four years in prison that, in a way, gave me everything.”

            “But what you wrote wasn’t just for Russia, surely? I mean, I don’t really believe there’s such a thing as ‘world literature’ but, if there was, you’re definitely a part of it. I’ve known people from South America, Africa, Asia, from everywhere really, who’ve said that you’re the only European writer who writes about the kinds of people they know in their lives and the kinds of questions that matter to them.”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich looked pleased. He may even have flushed slightly. I’d noticed before that he was still appreciative of praise. His face appeared rounder and brighter than the last time, and more like the young officer we see in the photographs from Semipalatinsk.

            “Thank you, that’s good to know. It confirms my views about the distinctive universality of Russian literature, even though most of your contemporaries, I think, regard them as slightly ridiculous. But, of course, I couldn’t have written anything that would speak to your friends if I hadn’t written in Russian as a Russian. Perhaps the easiest way of putting it is to say that, like our Russian verbs, every word has two aspects. One aspect faces towards its own time and place, the other is more … universal.”

            “The word in the word, like the man in man?”

            “Yes—if you understand it in the right way. Because you mustn’t forget that the man in man is not the philosopher’s principle of universal humanity, he’s this man, this Russian, this Scottish, this English man. He is real and he can only be universal if he’s real or, at the very least, striving for reality. So, putting ‘Dostoevsky’ to one side for a moment, Scott and Dickens would never have meant what they meant to me if they hadn’t spoken out of the truth of their own time and place and their own language.”

            That was fairly easy to understand, though it did seem to mean that there were parts of what Dostoevsky wrote that I would never quite ‘get’. But, applying what he’d said about twenty-first century Russians and nineteenth century Russians, perhaps it wasn’t any different from how there were parts of any English writer from one hundred and fifty or more years ago that I would never quite ‘get’. And what he’d said also implied that they weren’t the really important parts.

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