Second Conversation: ‘Good Books’. Episode 3.

It felt a bit awkward standing there, so I suggested we sit down. Fyodor Mikhailovich didn’t object, so we took the same seats we had occupied on the first evening. He smiled. “This is a very comfortable chair,” he remarked. But the manoeuvring had also interrupted the flow of conversation. After a short but awkward silence, it was Fyodor Mikhailovich who spoke first.

            “So. You’re a teacher of literature, but you’ve never read Scott … how can you teach modern literature if you haven’t read Scott?”

            “Well, it’s not really my period,” I said rather flustered, feeling that this was a typical academic answer that didn’t throw an especially good light on the academy and its compartmentalizing habits. Trying to recover some lost ground, I did add that I had read Dickens—A Christmas Carol (of course), Great ExpectationsHard Times, and a couple of others. I didn’t mention that I probably knew several of them better from film and television adaptations than from the books themselves.

            “But not The Old Curiosity Shop?” he asked.

            “No. It’s not one that people read so much now. I think it’s probably too sentimental for our postmodern taste.”

            Dostoevsky was still holding the book, marking a page near the end with his finger. He now looked at me more directly than he had at any point in our previous meeting. His look was not exactly questioning but he seemed to be waiting for me to say more. I was aware of feeling rather embarrassed. What I had just said was, I think, undeniably true, but at the same time I knew instinctively that there was something not quite right about it—starting with the fact that I hadn’t actually read it.

            After leaving me in a state of discomfort for what seemed like an interminable time (probably no more than half a minute), he spoke again.

            “Postmodern? That’s interesting. So you postmodern people don’t like sentimentality and yet, if I’m correct, your contemporaries are always talking about their feelings. That doesn’t seem to make sense.”

            “That’s not quite what we mean by sentimental,” I said defensively. “When we say that a book or a picture is ‘sentimental’ we mean that it plays on our feelings without regard to truth.”

            “So, for example, your generation would say that the death of Little Nell isn’t true?”

            “I suppose that’s right …”

            “And do you agree with your generation?”

            It was true that I hadn’t read The Old Curiosity Shop but, as I explained to Fyodor Mikhailovich, we’d been given the death of Little Nell for a seminar on mourning in literature back when I was a student. I remembered it as being fairly sickly. I also remembered our tutor saying that people shed more tears over it than over all the rest of nineteenth century literature combined.

            “It’s a long time since I read it, but it seemed a bit … well … too much.”

            “You haven’t read The Old Curiosity Shop but you’ve read the death of Little Nell. It’s a strange way of reading a novel to read just a small extract like that, if you don’t mind my saying so?”

            “I suppose it is, but it happens all the time. Especially in teaching. You have to select. To focus. Otherwise it’s just all too overwhelming, too amorphous for the students.”

            “Hmmm.”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich sighed and appeared to read in the book.

            “The death of Little Nell. So you think it’s too sentimental. ‘Sickly’, you said.”

            “Yes … though, OK, maybe that’s a bit strong.”

            “Let’s see.”

            He began to read, slowly, intensely, enunciating each word very carefully. It was compelling and I could begin to see why his own readings were so popular.

            “She was dead. No sleep so beautiful and calm, so free from trace of pain, so fair to look upon. She seemed a creature fresh from the hand of God, and waiting for the breath of life; not one who had lived and suffered death. Her couch was dressed with here and there some winter berries and green leaves, gathered in a spot she had been used to favour. ‘When I die, put near me something that has loved the light, and had the sky above it always.’ Those were her words. She was dead. Dear, gentle, patient, noble Nell was dead. Her little bird—a poor slight thing the pressure of a finger would have crushed—was stirring nimbly in its cage; and the strong heart of its child mistress was mute and motionless for ever. Where were the traces of her early cares, her sufferings, and fatigues? All gone. Sorrow was dead indeed in her, but peace and perfect happiness were born; imaged in her tranquil beauty and profound repose.”

            He stopped and, after a pause, looked up at me expectantly. I still had the impression that he was amusing himself at my expense but, at the same time, there was a deep sadness, especially around the set of his mouth.

            I have to admit that, against all expectations, I did find it quite moving. In its way. It was, certainly, extraordinary writing. But I wasn’t yet convinced.       

            “Yes, it’s quite something,” I conceded. “But there’s nothing really beautiful about the death of children, is there? And doesn’t that make it … false? Dishonest, even? I mean you wouldn’t write like that, did you?”

            His expression was, I’d say, solemn. And, suddenly, I remembered. He too had lost a child, his three-year old son Alexei, who’d died of an epileptic fit. And, from what I’d read, he’d been crushed by it. Like the father of little Ilusha at the end of The Brothers Karamazov, perhaps; Ilusha, whom he described as lying in his coffin looking beautiful, ‘as though chiselled in marble’. As for myself, I—and hardly any one I knew—had experienced the death of a child. How could we know what that would be like? What would be the ‘right’ feeling?

            “Fyodor Mikahilovich,” I blurted out, “I’m so sorry if …”

            He held his hand up.

            “Please, I understand. We’re talking about literature and it’s all too easy to forget the reality from which it comes. As regards myself and my loss … you know it’s said that Christ still bears the scars of crucifixion in his heavenly body and it’s the same for all of us here who’ve suffered in so many different ways: the scars remain, though we see them in a different light and feel them—differently.”

            “But Little Nell,” he continued, more cheerfully. “You know I was so impressed by her that I borrowed her for one of my own novels. I even called my Little Nell ‘Nellie’ and gave her an English grandfather, just in case my readers didn’t make the connection for themselves.”

            “Really? And does she die?”

            “She does. About the same age as Dickens’s Nell. Thirteen or so. You haven’t read it?”

            “No.” He seemed determined to show up my ignorance today. “Which novel is it?”

            “The Insulted and the Injured.”

            “And what happens?”

            “Think of everything that can go wrong in a child’s life: it happened to her. Nellie’s mother was abandoned by her lover and after being rejected by Nellie’s grandfather was left to die in a strange land. The grandfather wouldn’t care for her and even sent her out to beg. When he too dies, she only just escapes being pimped. Aged thirteen, remember. Luckily, she’s rescued by those who become her friends, she even helps them to forgive each other, as if her suffering brings them together.”

            “But she dies—so no happy ending?”

            “No happy ending. No sentimentality, as you would put it, though I’d be disappointed if the last pages didn’t bring a tear to the reader’s eye. It was one of the passages people most wanted to hear at my readings. Russians aren’t afraid of tears, nor should you be. Her death wasn’t terrible, though. She died surrounded by her friends, she laughed, she joked, as was her way … but death isn’t the worst of it. The worst of it was that she died unforgiving, still unable to forgive her father for ruining her mother’s life. That’s where the tragedy lies. Like Russians, but unlike what you called your postmodern generation, Dickens’s readers weren’t afraid of tears. Even the strongest wept at the death of Little Nell. But they needed there to be some consolation. If not a happy ending, then peace at the last. Reconciliation all round. But even the beauty of death, the beauty there can be in death, is of no help unless there is also reconciliation. Unfortunately, your Victorians had forgotten their own Shakespeare. They couldn’t really believe in tragedy, even though (perhaps because) so many tragedies were happening all around them in their own society. But that’s how things sometimes end in this life—your life. It can’t be denied or avoided. I think Dickens knew that, but his readers didn’t—or didn’t want to. On this point, if nothing else, we Russians know better. We know that suffering can be inconsolable. And we don’t expect our writers to cheat us. And, yes, suffering too can be a lie, but when it is the truth, we mustn’t pretend otherwise.”

            “So, in a way, you changed Dickens’s story completely.”

            “In a way. But also—I assure you—I couldn’t have written anything if it hadn’t been for Dickens, for Sand, for Balzac, for Hugo, for Schiller, for Goethe, for Cervantes, for Shakespeare and, of course, for Pushkin, Gogol, and Lermontov and many, many others. You can even find inspiration in what some critics would call second-rate literature, not to mention the oral traditions that the people still treasure in their sayings, their songs, and their tales. Only God creates out of nothing. The rest of us have to make do with what we receive. Spinning, weaving, patching, dyeing, re-using, like so many old clothes, you could say.”

            I liked that idea. It fitted with the kind of literary theory that made every text into a collage of other texts. I once had an artist friend who said of his own work that he just kept on recycling failure until it became a success. But could you apply that idea to literature as a whole? Was Fyodor Mikhailovich saying there was nothing original about his own work? I felt that I had to protest. 

            “That’s a nice picture, Fyodor Mikhailovich, and I can see that it allows scope for brilliant new arrangements and wonderful variations on old themes: but what about the ‘new word’ that you and some of your characters talk about? Wasn’t your vocation—Russia’s vocation—to speak a ‘new word’ to the world? But that’s means more than just recycling voices from the past—surely?”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich looked round, as if searching for something in the room. It again struck me that he seemed exceptionally good-humoured today and quite undeterred by what could have seemed like rudeness on my part.

            Before he could speak, I jumped in with a further point.

            “I mean, quite honestly—without getting too theoretical about it, just as a matter of fact—no one had written novels like yours ever before; some of your commentators even said you’d surpassed the whole idea of the novel.”

            Lifting his hands in deprecation, Fyodor Mikhailovich spoke slowly and deliberately.

            “I am only a writer, not a logician. Yes, Pushkin spoke a ‘new word’ in literature. He put up the sign posts that we could then follow and he discovered the types that we were then able to expand and fill out—Onegin first and then and only then Rudin, Bezukhov, Valkovsky; Tatiana first and then and only then Natasha, Sonya … and, yes, this whole event, what people would call ‘The Russian Novel’, was a new word. We weren’t the only ones to believe it: those Europeans who read us could also see that it was a new word. But this doesn’t mean that we could have spoken it without your Dickens, your Cervantes, or your Shakespeare.” 

            Pausing briefly for breath, and shaking his index finger in admonition, he continued in almost lecturing style.

            “You must also take into account that it was a new word and could only be a new word because it spoke from our knowledge of a reality that, until that time, hadn’t existed: the Russian people.”

            “But,” I quickly interjected, “the Russian people had existed for hundreds of years, all the way back to Rus’—hadn’t they? And, surely, there’d been a lot of Russian history happening between Rus’ and Pushkin?”

            “Yes, yes, yes,” he responded, shaking his head as if bemused by my slow-wittedness. “But the point is that the Russian people had not yet entered world-history as a people, as Hegel might have said (though, according to him, Siberia never would or ever could enter world-history). And, yes, Russia had from time to time intervened in European affairs, but these were always interventions around dynastic struggles, the affairs of courtiers, generals, and diplomats. It was not yet a matter of the Russian people and it was their reality, their experience, their spirit, their suffering, their Christianity that made our new word possible. Yes, Russia existed, the Russian people existed, but they only entered into history when Bonaparte, unaware of their existence or their strength, thought to impose his will and his will alone as arbiter of their destiny. Yet, in the end, it was Russia that showed him the limits of his power.”

            I am not especially nationalistic, neither on behalf of England nor my adoptive Scotland, but I was tempted to remark that maybe Nelson, Wellington and some others had also played a part in checking Napoleon, but I wanted to get back to literature, where I felt on safer ground.

            “So what you’re saying is that literature is set in motion by historical events or, at least, real events … that it reflects a reality that pre-exists it … so that if there is to be a new word then something has to happen in the outside world? But if that’s true, then it’s no longer a matter of art being the product of individual genius à la Romanticism but a kind of collective event? The writer isn’t just expressing his own personal vision but bringing into language all that is important in his contemporary reality and using all the resources of literature as a whole to do so?”

            “Quite so,” Fyodor Mikhailovich almost chuckled. “But please, I’m not one of your students. I’m only a writer, not a theorist; a writer doesn’t write to answer theoretical questions about the nature of literature, he writes—rather than becoming a businessman or a diplomat—because he reads and it’s because he reads and it’s because he reads that he is able to read ‘the signs of the times’ and give them voice in his writing. If you want to write—read. Read everything.”

            “But some books are more important than others, surely?”

            “Yes, of course.”

            “And the most important?”

            He answered without hesitation.

            “The Bible.”

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