Conversation 4: ‘A Dinner Party’. Episode 4

When I got back to the others, the atmosphere had become much more relaxed. I passed the cups around, trying to appear as normal as I could despite being thrown by Fyodor Mikhailovich’s uncanny reappearance. It seemed that while I was out of the room Tamsin had explained a new way of talking about novels that she’d picked up in one of her book groups, a kind of game, really. It involved assigning colours to particular characters or novels (for a whole novel, you were allowed up to three) and it had been decided that we were all going to have to do this with Dostoevsky.

            “Your idea, Tam,” said Martin. “You start. Show them how it’s done.”

            “Right,” she said, rolling the ‘r’ in a rather exaggerated way. “Where shall I begin?”

            “The Brothers Karamazov,” I suggested.

            She looked thoughtful.

            “Mmmm. It’s a long time since I read it.” She paused. “But … let’s see …” she paused again, putting her hands to her temples, rather like a quiz show contestant struggling to find the right answer. “I’d say: black, ice blue, and gold.”

            There was a general hum and nodding of heads.

            “I get the black,” said Laura, “but what about the ice blue and gold?”

            “I haven’t read it,” complained Carl, “so I don’t even know what the black means.”

            “Very well,” said Tamsin (only Martin called her ‘Tam’). She looked round the table and, making sure we were all paying attention, began. “Black: anyone?”

            “Murder, violence, drunkenness, terror, atrocities …?” suggested Martin.

            Tamsin smiled encouragingly.

            “Anything else?”

            “Bad sex?” Laura. General laughter.

            Head shaking from Tamsin. “What bad sex?”

            “Old man Karamazov and ‘stinking Lizaveta’?”

            “That’s certainly as bad as it gets,” decreed Martin, “I’d say that’s black. Beyond black.”

            Tamsin laughed, “OK. I give you that.”

            “What about atheism?” I asked, not really sure where this was going. “Isn’t that ‘black’?”

            Tamsin shook her head. “Nope. Way off.”

            “Way off?”

            “Way off.”

            “Well, it can’t be gold?” She shook her head again. “So—ice-blue? But why?”

            “That’s obvious,” said Laura. “Because it’s cold, lifeless, abstract …”

            Tamsin smiled broadly, nodding.

            “Yes, that’s Ivan in a nutshell,” agreed Martin. “The empty wastes of nihilism. Well done, Tam.”

            “Hang on,” I said, emboldened by Fyodor Mikhailovich having urges me to give my opinions. “That may be true of Ivan’s ideas, but doesn’t he say he loves life, ‘the sticky green buds’, as he puts it? There’s nothing cold or abstract about that, is there?”

            Tamsin looked at me with a look of indulgent tolerance that I’d got to know well over the many years we’d known each other.

            “You’re being very precise,” she remarked, as if it were a reprimand.

            “Well, yes—don’t you have to be when talking about literature?”

            “It’s not a seminar,” Laura warned me.

            “Point taken,” I conceded, literally putting my hands up. “Still … and I suppose you could say that the problem with Ivan is that his ‘ice-cold’ intellectuality blocks his desire for life. But is that true of all Dostoevsky’s nihilists? What about The Possessed … Stavrogin, Kirillov, Peter Verkhovensky …?”

            Everyone looked blank. It turned out that no one had read it apart from me. But, as I thought about it, it seemed that Tamsin could be right. Stavrogin was someone who’d clearly become incapable (or nearly incapable) of any kind of spontaneous emotional response; Kirillov, like Ivan, had a love of life, but it was strangely twisted by his Übermensch ideas that culminated in the mad idea that he could become God by committing suicide; Peter Verkhovensky seemed to be entirely without feeling, a cold, calculating political fixer. Somewhere (and I think this is how Dostoevsky conceived them) each of these characters had a raging anger inside them but, for whatever reasons (usually a mix of upbringing and ideology), this couldn’t find a natural outlet and got channelled into terrorist violence. The same was true of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. Maybe. Discuss.

            Meanwhile, the others had moved on to what Tam meant by gold.

            “Surely that’s the colour of faith, like the rays of Christ’s presence that Alyosha sees in his dream?” I suggested.

            “Too easy,” complained Martin.

            “It’s right, all the same,” said Tamsin. “It’s the light of heaven, unblemished and unfading. Which is why icons always have a gold background. Behind everything in this world there’s a constant eternal light. If only we knew how to look.”

            This declaration of faith caused an embarrassed pause all round (as often happens when someone speaks about their religion).

            “Well, even if that’s so,” said Carl, “what we have here in this world—the real world—is struggle. Not much gold to see here.”

            “Isn’t there?” Tamsin responded without hesitation, looking Carl in the eye. He looked down. “Isn’t there?” she repeated.

            “What next?” asked Martin, relieving the momentary tension. “Carl, are you going to have a go?”

            “Crime and Punishment is the only one I’ve read,” he replied, scarcely looking up.

            “So,” said Tamsin, “what colour is Crime and Punishment?” 

            She looked questioningly at him and he thought for half a minute or so.

            “Grey—and red.”

            “Explain,” said Martin.

            “Well, it’s set in St Petersburg, so it’s grey. Foggy, damp, dark, and dingey—that’s what it was like when I visited and how I always imagine it. And red, well, red is his ‘bloody project’.”

            “That’s a bit grim,” said Laura.

            “It is grim,” Carl replied, “The story of a mad axe man. It’s pretty horrible. At best it’s the logic of terrorism, inventing a pseudo-political cause to justify your rage against the world. If Raskolnikov was alive today, he’d probably join ISIS. I just can’t see why so many people seem to identify with him or want him to get away with it.”

            “Do they?” asked Laura.

            “He’s got a point,” chipped in Martin, “Tarkovsky says something like that somewhere. Though not the ISIS bit, obviously.”

            “Must be true then, if Tarkovsky says it,” teased Laura.

            “I always loved Raskolnikov,” said Tamsin, sadly.

            “How about you?” said Martin, turning to me and ignoring Tamsin’s plaintive confession. “Was Raskolnikov your youthful alter ego?”

            I remembered Martin as I first knew him.

            “I think that was a bit more your style,” I answered. “But hang on, there’s something wrong here. Calling it grey makes it sound like Glasgow in November, but doesn’t it all happen in the summer, in the heat and dust? Isn’t there a scene” (I knew perfectly well that there was) “where Raskolnikov looks out over the city from the other side and there’s a cloudless sky, the water is bright blue, and the cathedral all gold—there’s nothing dark and dingey about it at all. In fact, I think Dostoevsky says at the very beginning that it’s an exceptionally hot July so that you could read the whole thing as a kind of overheated summer fever?”

            Carl shrugged. “He’s not a very bright and sunny character, though, is he?”

            “Fair enough, but I wouldn’t say he’s ‘grey’ either.”

            “So what colour is he? He’s delirious so much of the time that you couldn’t really call him ice blue, could you?”

            “You started all this, Tam,” declared Martin. “Are you going to adjudicate? Is Raskolnikov grey, ice-blue, black or star-spangled? What are your colours?”

            “Mine? Green and purple.”

            “Green and purple,” I asked, amused. “Tam, I know you’re the artistic one, but how do you get that?”

            “You’re meant to be the literary critic,” she said, “aren’t they in the book?”

            I thought about it for a moment.

            “Green … yes—Sonia wraps herself in a green shawl the first time she comes back from walking the streets and … and …. in Raskolnikov’s dream of the peasants beating a horse to death there’s a church with a green cupola in the background … and at the very end, when he looks out over the steppe, I picture him standing in a green wood …”

            “I think that’s only in a film,” Laura said drily. She had, after all, read it just a couple of weeks ago, so she was probably right.

            “Hmmm. Perhaps it is.”

            “And Sonia?” hinted Tamsin.

            “Sonia? The green shawl and …” I thought furiously. “No, I’m stuck. What else?”

            “The house where she lives, the Kapernaumovs’, it’s green, isn’t it?” asked Laura.

            “Full marks,” declared Tamsin.

            “But so what?” asked Carl, drily. “What’s that got to do with anything? The house has to be some colour, doesn’t it, so why not green? It all seems a bit random.”

            “First you have to get the purple,” said Tamsin. “Colours are only meaningful when you see them in combination.”

            “Porfiry!” I suddenly remembered. The police investigator—his name, Porfiry, that means ‘purple’, doesn’t it, just like Raskolnikov means ‘split personality’, and Sonia ‘wisdom’?”

            “Wonderful,” exclaimed Tamsin.

            “So how does this work,” asked Carl, “I’m still trying to get how this tells us anything about the novel.”

            Tamsin looked at him as if to say he was being very foolish but might be indulged just this once.

            “Green is the colour of the new life of spring (like the sticky buds), and it’s also the colour of the Holy Spirit, like in Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon, so green is Sonia’s colour because she’s the source of life and divine wisdom.”

            “And purple?”

            “It’s the colour of authority, like the Emperor’s toga, the colour of order, earthly power, human justice—in Porfiry.”

            “Right.” I cut in. “So you see the novel as a kind of dialectic between the spiritual values represented by Sonia and the kind of worldly order represented by Porfiry, divine love versus human justice and Raskolnikov is stretched out between them.”

            Tamsin smiled, shaking her head slowly in mock reprobation.

            “You do always sound like you’re giving a lecture. But, if you want to put it that way, yeah, why not.”

            “Very interesting,” I said thoughtfully. “Actually, this is a great method for discussing literature, Tamsin. I might try it in class!”

            “Please do. No acknowledgement needed.”

            I had sensed Laura getting a bit tense during the last few exchanges. Nevertheless, she smiled fondly at Tamsin as she broke in to the discussion.

            “Dear Tamsin. You’re so nice. But this thing about Sonia—Saint Sonia—is just what I can’t stand.”

            “What’s ‘this thing’, Laura?” asked Martin.

            “Sonia. I mean, the way she gets talked about as if she’s the Virgin Mary or maybe even Christ, but her whole character is built around a male fantasy about passive and suffering women sorting their lives out for them.”

            “Wow,” said Martin enthusiastically, clearly looking forward to a challenge. This was territory where they’d often clashed before.

            “Yes, what do you mean, Laura?” asked Carl.

            I was a bit taken aback. Laura had hinted a couple of times that she wasn’t very happy with the way Dostoevsky portrayed women but I hadn’t realized she felt quite so strongly.

            “Spell it out,” demanded Martin.

            “Very well. Sorry to upset the fans,” (she looked at me, with a mixture of amusement and something else I couldn’t quite identify—reproach or pity perhaps) “but this is how I see it.”

5 thoughts on “Conversation 4: ‘A Dinner Party’. Episode 4

  1. Enjoyed a thought-provoking and engaging discussion on colours! Unlike it is for Carl, ‘grey’ is known to be artists’ favourite colour, precisely because it is the most provocative and complex. Therefore for me, if someone says ‘St. Petersburg is grey’, they would be referring to its creative, unresolved nature, full of possibilities for exploration. In other words, for an artist’s eye, St. Peterburg is colourful.


    1. Hi. That’s really interesting. Of course, in Britain we tend to think of grey as a dull colour, like a grey day. I don’t dislike it myself. The idea for this section came from a seminar I led 20 years ago in Cambridge. One student arrived with paints and brushes and told us to paint the colours that Crime and Punishment suggested to us. It was a great session.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great idea! Colours sometimes may express more than words. I would love to have known what colour/colours Dostoevsky would relate to St. Petersburg.


  3. I was also thinking about ‘grey’ in terms of black and white aesthetics in illustrations of Dostoevsky’s novels and its relationship with good/bad binary thinking. As the depth and variety of themes in the chapters of your book demonstrate, Dostoevsky’s writing offers a rich palette of colours, whereas grey, being a mixture of white and black, plays an important role.


    1. Yes! Including the black and white illustration of Ivan and Alyosha that I use at the top of the blog. I have some examples of coloured illustrations that I’ll try to find and send you. You could extend this to films too – the 1922 expressionist film of Crime and Punishment is very powerful (same director as Cabinet of Dr Caligari).

      Liked by 1 person

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