I took orders and went through to the kitchen, a rather small affair for the size of the flat, more like what my grandmother would have called a scullery (the estate agent called it ‘the butler’s pantry’). There was only really room for two people and it was therefore quite a shock when, having put the kettle on and turning round to set the tray, I realized that there was someone else there. It was him.
“Fyodor Mikhailovich!” I gasped in a half-whisper, “What are you doing here?”
He raised his hands in a gesture of helplessness.
“Why shouldn’t I be here?”
This seemed oddly assertive, almost as if he was regarded himself as a kind of permanent fixture.
“What do you mean? I can’t talk now … we’ve got guests … and I have to get back to them with their teas and coffees … I can’t stay …”
“Yes, yes, yes—I know. But I’m interested to hear what your guests—and your wife—have to say about me. And, of course, what you say to them!”
I don’t know quite how to put this, but there was something odd about him. Obviously, the whole business of his being there was odd from start to finish, but now, in such an enclosed space, in such close physical proximity!
He was definitely there and I was sure that if I put out my hand I would touch him. Yet, at the same time, he didn’t seem to have any solidity, any weight, as if there was something not quite fully human about him. On previous visits I’d seen him pick things up and move about the room; he’d even had a glass of beer. But I was starting to think that maybe he lacked the sort of metabolic symptoms of ‘normal’ human beings that we mostly don’t consciously notice, things like the sound of breathing and movement, odours that fall below the level of perception, the feeling you get of what it would be like to touch someone. It’s hard to define it exactly—how can you define a blank, something that’s not there. And yet he was there. He was present. Perhaps more so than I was. A real presence, you could say. I remembered how he had seemed to change at the end of our last conversation, as if he was really living in another, more luminous dimension and which, for a split second, he’d allowed me to shine through. But this was different. He was more phantom-like than transfigured. And yet real. I was confused.
“What do you want me to say to them?”
He looked at me reproachfully.
“Come, come, you’ve learned nothing from my novels if you’re still thinking that what I have to say is what matters. Keep my ugly mug out of it! What you have to say—that is the question.”
“But all this discussion about existentialism—are you interested in all that? I mean it all happened a long time after …” (this was delicate) “… after you were alive.”
He smiled broadly.
“It’s true that I have other things to think about than what people in your world are saying about me, but I have to admit that I’ve not yet reached the stage of being totally disinterested. And I’ve made some interesting new acquaintances here in the last hundred and fifty years, kindred spirits you could say. And some of them have also been described as existentialists. So, what do you think? Was I an existentialist?”
“What do I think? Well, I’m not a philosopher … but if existentialism means everything being focussed on the individual, on the ‘I’, then I think you gave us something rather different. Your novels are full of real, passionate individuals but they are who they are only because of how they interact and speak with each other. Not one brother Karamazov, but three!”
“Excellent. I grant that if you have to choose between abstract systems—like Hegel’s—and the individual then you must choose the individual. The passionate young Dane made that very clear. But individuals too are only abstract until you see them in the whole of their relations to others, their families, their world, their history. I think he too is starting to see that now.”
Laughter could be heard from the dining room.
“I’m sorry, I must let you get back to your guests, but let me add one thing. Your existentialists—like our nihilists—got many things wrong, but the best of them had a kind of honesty and courage you have to respect. If history is meaningless or tragic, let’s face up to it and not pretend otherwise, as the bourgeois do—keeping up the outward forms, such as religion, but not really observing them. Nevertheless, many of them—again like many of our nihilists—were ultimately cynics, using specious arguments to hide from their own contradictions and to avoid showing themselves to be the fragile trembling beings that they—all of us—really are. And then, as always, it was others who had to pay the price. Some people complained that, like the existentialists, I always overdid things, that I took my characters and my stories too far, that it was all too intense. But how can you go too far, how can you be too intense when it’s a matter of truth? The problem is that the existentialists—some of them—insisted that they were the only ones who had a right to decide what was true and what wasn’t. They weren’t prepared to allow any other voices into the conversation. That’s where they went wrong. But you have your guests to see to, and I’m very interested to hear what your wife—and you—will have to say about women! We’ll speak more later.”
He watched me prepare the tray and squeezed aside to let me pass. We almost touched and, if he had been anyone else, any ‘living’ person, then it would have been unavoidable. But though he didn’t obviously distort his body to let me through I somehow got past without coming into contact. It was weird.