Conversation 4 ‘At a Dinner Party’. Episode 7.

It was one of our relatively few formal rules that the person who’d done the cooking left the other to do the washing-up. Normally that just meant loading the dishwasher, but there was going to be a bit more than that tonight. Laura suggested leaving it till the morning and offered to help, but I insisted. I didn’t mention that I was expecting a second visit from Fyodor Mikhailovich. Obviously, I couldn’t say this to Laura, though what she’d said earlier about me talking to him made me wonder whether she had her suspicions. But she was probably only joking.

            I could still hear Laura moving about when I became aware that I was not alone. Having filled the dishwasher, I had just started to wash the glasses when I sensed his presence. He was standing just inside the doorway, though, as I said before, there was something weird about the way he was that evening. Although he seemed just as ‘real’ (whatever that is) as on his previous visits, his body didn’t quite fit the space it was in. I couldn’t pick out anything obviously wrong, but it was a bit like a cubist or expressionist portrait, where the body seems to be occupying several different planes at once or even shifting between them. I didn’t watch him all the time, as he’d told me to carry on with what I was doing, which was a bit awkward as it meant I had my back to him and  had to look over my shoulder to speak to him. In the course of our conversation his face (or should I say his ‘aura’) changed several times: from young and enthusiastic to older and calmer, as if oscillating between two very different views on the subject—women—that were, nevertheless, the views of one and the same person. So, yes, as I said before, it was weird. But what I most remember was the sonority of his voice in that small enclosed space.

            “I’m sorry to say that I wasn’t very impressed by how you defended me,” he remarked, after our opening pleasantries. “I think I preferred your wife’s attack. We authors like our readers to be passionate, even when they disagree with us. It shows that something has happened!”

            “Well, yes, I realized I wasn’t doing very well. But it’s quite difficult when you’re the host and I thought Martin and Carl were going to come to blows at a couple of moments.”

            “Oh no. Compared with the scandal scenes I witnessed, this was all very polite, very English, if I may say so.”

            I was rather disappointed to hear that. Clearly, I had a way to go before counting as one of Fyodor Mikhailovich’s ‘Russian boys’. I was, after all, only a reader of Dostoevsky and not a character in one of his novels.

            “Still, what you said about Aglaya was interesting. People often make the mistake of assuming that the end of a novel is the end of the characters’ lives and, of course, they go on developing, like Raskolnikov, like the raw youth, like Alyosha and, yes, very probably Aglaya might return to Russia. She must have something of her mother’s deep love of Russianness in her, I suppose. I didn’t have plans for her myself, but why not? In fact, all of you said some good things—self-sacrifice, work: these are essential to life. And colours! That was wonderful. People talk about character, plot, dialogue, and all the rest, but imagine a world or a novel without colour!”

            “But Laura,” I said, “she was very harsh on you. I’m sorry about that.”

            “No, don’t be sorry. As I just said, I relish my more passionate readers. It shows they’re paying attention. Disagreement isn’t the bad thing you English take it for. Remember what we said about dialectics—truth only progresses through pro et contra. And what question is more difficult than the woman question (as we called it in my time) or, to put it more accurately, the question as to how men and women are to live together in love, understanding, and respect? Or, even more precisely, the question as to how we are to be human together?”

            “Are you saying that you yourself were a kind of feminist?”

            I could see him smile and even a little chuckle.

            “I think so, but—of course—in my own rather peculiar way. You know, I didn’t like the custom of kissing women’s hands, a superficial and false kind of chivalry. I preferred a straightforward handshake. Some people probably thought that made me a democrat. And it’s true, I did believe women should have full civic rights, should enter higher education, should be able to earn their own living, and, of course, choose whom they loved.”

            “So if that’s how you felt, what about all these beaten, mad, pitiable and murdered women in your novels? I mean, what Laura said about the only good woman being a dead woman was wrong, but I can see why she said it.”

            There was a pause. I’d turned back to the sink, but sensed him coming closer—though when I looked round again he didn’t seem to have moved.

            “Look,” he said, “you could make a similar list with the men, though I’m not denying that I was particularly preoccupied with violence against women. And that doesn’t just mean the moment when a man swings the axe or wields the knife, and it doesn’t just mean the beatings and the neglect. For the most part, if I can borrow a phrase from Ivan Karamazov, women, like men, have eaten the apple. They are not children. Few are entirely innocent. Often they too are complicit in the crimes committed by the men. All the same (and this is as deep a sickness in our Russian society as in the West), whatever the protestations about respect for women on the one side or calls for women’s emancipation on the other, the earth continues to cry out against all the wrong done day after day to women, to those who have borne our bodies in theirs and nurtured us at the breast, those to whom we owe our entire respect and love. How was this possible? How is it so?”

            “But I think that what Laura was saying was that you give so much time to describing this violence (and doing it so well), that your novels actually feed it, isn’t that a point of view?”

            Again a pause. If his last little speech was something of a passionate outburst, he now shifted to the patient explanation mode with which I was becoming familiar.

            “A novelist is not a photographer. He is free to make things up. In a sense, everything he writes is made up. We discussed that before. But even if he sees things that the photographer’s eye cannot see, he has to remain faithful to reality. In fact, when it comes to the cruelties inflicted on women, even though they’re as plain as day, ‘they have eyes and see not, ears and hear not’. You didn’t need to look behind closed doors to see the prostitution of children in St Petersburg or London. It was there on the streets. But the bourgeois chose to walk by on the other side—except, of course, for those who found their pleasure in such vileness. And they were not few. Everybody knew that the Russian peasant beat his wife, even the saintly Makar in my story thinks he probably should have whipped his young wife into order. We all knew it and yet we treated it as a fact of life, like the sun rising and setting, unless it ended in murder or suicide and, even then, perhaps it was in the order of things. A man merely suspects a woman of unfaithfulness, and that, he thinks, is reason to kill her. The jury will quite probably let him off anyway. So what is a novelist to do to open people’s eyes? Is he to say ‘peace, peace’ where there is no peace? No. Once he has seen how things are, he must bear witness. Of course, he cannot dictate laws, he cannot administer the medicine that society needs, but he can bear witness.”

            Although he had maintained a steady, almost dictation pace through this manifesto-like statement, the last few words were spoken almost in rapture. I had, of course, stopped actually washing the glasses and was listening intently, though I didn’t turn round until he had finished. When I did, I found myself being looked at with an unblinking stare that was both stern and sad, immeasurably sad. For some reason, I felt uncomfortable, as if I too was being accused.

            “Knowing what to do is difficult, though …” I muttered rather feebly.

            “Knowing what not to do is not so hard,” he replied. “Where is it written that we should beat or rape or kill? Where is it written that we should treat with contempt beings who are every bit as good as we are and often better? That would be a start.”

            He paused again.

            “Of course,” he continued, switching to a more conversational tone, “being a novelist means you have to expect people to write and say all manner of foolishness about you. I accept that. If one of my characters says that women need a despot to rule over them, there are readers who then say ‘Dostoevsky thinks women need a despot to rule over them’—even when the character in question is a raw youth who says himself that he has little experience and little understanding of women! This, I’m afraid, is what you must expect. But of all the negative reviews and damning remarks there is only one that has ever really hurt me and that I still cannot entirely let go.” He stopped, as if waiting for me to give permission for him to continue, which of course he did.

            “It’s the story put out by Strakhov—my friend!—and others that I myself had committed the crime of Stavrogin, that I’d molested a child—how could he, how could he, our friend, say that? It’s as if being a witness to a crime makes you a criminal. You are a criminal, indeed—but only in the eyes of those who want to look the other way. Your crime? Forcing them to look. I did it by revealing Svidrigailov’s obscene fantasies about children in Crime and Punishment, I did it in the story of Nelly—I went as far as I could, though when it came to Stavrogin it was too much for them. I doubt if Svidrigailov’s fantasies or the story of Nelly would have been published at all in England in those days, even though people could see the same kind of thing any Saturday night on the streets of London. But what Stavrogin did to poor little Matryona was too much even for Russian readers. Was I wallowing in it, did I relish such things? Not at all! I was repelled—as everyone should be—and for that very reason I refused to keep quiet. Perhaps it was my experience as a prisoner, learning to see life from the other side, the side that everyone else ignored or just forgot about that made me go to such extremes. But there are some things you can’t forget about and can’t keep quiet about. Russia had to be made to see what was happening in its midst. Only then could there be justice, healing, change.”

            “But how can it be changed? And I mean be changed: the same is happening now, perhaps even on a greater scale thanks to the internet (if you know about that).”          

            “Yes, I’ve heard of that,” he muttered dismissively. Gesturing me to carry on with the washing up, which, reluctantly, I did, he continued, once more slipping into school-masterly mode.

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