Conversation 4: ‘At a Dinner Party’. Episode 8

“How can it be changed?” he began, repeating my question. “Like much else, it goes back to the lie, the first lie, ‘You shall be as gods’. Perhaps it was the woman who took the fruit, but it was the man who thought he could become a god. Of course, he wasn’t a god and still isn’t, but he still believes it. The major in our prison camp used to tell us ‘I am your Tsar and your god’ but it’s not only the obvious examples like him. Every man appears to think he is some kind of lord. An indelible impression from my childhood was the royal postman beating the driver of the droshky to go faster, beating him with his fist, while the driver whipped the horse. That’s how it goes. One man is knocked down to the bottom of the social pyramid and so he beats his wife. Another, perhaps a very gifted and even a wealthy and powerful man, is not respected as he thinks he should be and so he too beats his wife or finds other more sophisticated ways to degrade her.”

            “Like the pawnbroker in A Gentle Spirit?”

            “Exactly so.”

            “Or Raskolnikov, wanting to dominate every trembling creature?”

            “He too. But it doesn’t always end in murder. A boy at my school used to boast of how he and a friend would come up behind a young lady in the street and then each walk either side of her telling crude stories, naming the unnameable parts of the body and their actions, just to torment her—until one of them got a well-deserved slap round the face. Who did they think they were? They didn’t yet know they wanted to be gods, but they knew they wanted to be masters and they thought that was how to do it—not realizing they were just drowning themselves in filth. Not to mention the men who procured pornographic photographs of women—a phenomenon I was amongst the first to expose. Of course, this is all obvious. What is even more effective is the power that money gives a man. Once he’s got money he doesn’t need the whip or swearing. Once he has enough in the bank his will is done and everyone is glad to do it—but he knows who’s lord.”

            “But not every peasant became a wife-beater?”

            “Very few didn’t. His wife, his children, and his animals—they were the only creatures over whom he had any power. But it needed a truly great power to break the habit, Christ’s power, the only power powerful enough to bring about the kind of repentance that made so many of them take to the roads and wander as beggars through all of Russia and even as far as Jerusalem. They had to leave their whole world behind because, in that world, they couldn’t do otherwise. Or so it seemed to them.”

            “And yet not every woman submitted. Aren’t there women in your novels who stand up for themselves?”

            He seemed amused by my question.

            “Of course, though it depends what you mean by stand up for themselves. You see, I’d say Sonia stands up for herself. I don’t deny that she was physically degraded by being prostituted, but that doesn’t make her a lesser person. No matter what happened to her, she kept her inner integrity. But in the sense that you mean, yes. Think of Grushenka in The Brothers Karamazov. She’s not a ‘good’ person in a conventional bourgeois sense and, yes, she too is a woman who has been seduced and abandoned at a very young age and she too has her romantic fantasies. But look at how I describe her. She’s someone with her feet on the ground, a smart businesswoman, very sane and very strong. She sees through her fantasies and puts her past behind her. She’s like Russia itself: broad; she can bear much suffering (perhaps more than Dmitri) and, at the same time, she can give herself over to great joy. She is sensual, but she is sensitive to holiness. When she’s about to seduce Alyosha, she hears how his beloved spiritual master is dead and it changes her. However,” he checked himself, “you probably don’t want me to run through a list of all the women characters in my novels. We’d be here till dawn! Let me just say that you’d find as varied a cast as you would with the men. At least. And women and men alike, like human beings everywhere and at every level of society, are flawed, imperfect, deceived, deceiving, and self-deceiving in various degrees. If there is a difference it is only that in our society then, as in most societies throughout history, women have been the most insulted and the most injured and, just for that reason, their faults are magnified so much the more. As in any society, those who have the power are usually better able to conceal their faults and even make those faults seem like virtues. But the truth is that making yourself into your own god isn’t just an offence against God, it’s an offence against other human beings—but there will always be some who believe you when you say you’re a God and even worship you for it. The Stavrogins and Ivans will always find followers.”

            “But sometimes it’s the women who are adored and idolized and hold sway over the men. Where do they fit in?”

            If it’s possible for someone in his condition to look shame-faced, I’d say that, at that moment, he did. Ever so slightly, ever so fleetingly. He smiled again, but his lips were pursed.

            “That too happens. And, as you probably know, I have nothing to boast about in that respect. I knew only too well what it is like to be under the spell of an overwhelming passion, to lose one’s grip on oneself, to forget one’s responsibilities to others, to reality—to become terribly, terribly guilty.”

            “Apollonaria Suslova?” I asked.

            He sighed.

            “The shame takes a long time to disappear, even when you know and have experienced that there is forgiveness and even though our time ‘here’ is not your time. It’s true that I behaved disgracefully, and the worst of it is not just that I made myself contemptible in my own eyes but that I could run around Europe chasing this young person and abandon Masha, sick and, as I knew, dying. And, yes, Polina was a remarkable person, a brilliant person, but that doesn’t make my behaviour any better.”

            There was a pause. I had half turned round to speak to him but sensing that he didn’t yet want to continue I turned back and started quietly drying the glasses. I felt that he’d come a step or two closer as he resumed talking.

            “I think your questions are making it all seem much too simple, as if, on the one side, you have the slaves and on the other the masters or, if you like, mistresses. As I pointed out before, those who set themselves up as gods, the Raskolnikovs and Stavrogins, are not what they think they are. What is seen as their strength is often—mostly—a way of concealing their weakness, concealing it from the world and from themselves. Equally, those who seem like slaves may have depths of inner strength that makes them able to endure all things. Like Sonia, like our peasants—don’t forget them—, like Christ. The last shall be first—though I don’t deny, indeed, I was determined to show, that the innocent can be broken and their lives devastated by the cruelty of their tormentors. At least in this world. If you look for justice under the sun, you’ll be disappointed. Tragedy is always possible, as we’ve discussed before.”

            “So the relationship between men and women is tragic?”

            “It can be, of course. But love is also possible and, as your friend pointed out, genuine love is likely to mean finding a shared work, working together for the universal good. Like so many of those wonderful young people who went out to the remotest corners of Russia to help bring education and health to the people. It is possible for human beings to bring out the best in each other, you know,” he ended, gently and almost consolingly.

            “I think I do know that,” I said, “even if I don’t always live up to what it demands.”

            “None of us do,” he replied. “Love is much harder than atheism, whatever that opinionated French existentialist thought.”

            I was surprised at this last remark. It was the first time Fyodor Mikhailovich had been explicitly critical of someone who had lived after his time. Nevertheless, we seemed to have reached a point of understanding. But I had one more question.

            “So what am I going to say to Laura?”

            “Your wife? About how I describe women in my novels?”

            I nodded.

            “Why do you have to say anything?”

            “Well, she’s wrong, isn’t she? I mean, she insists on seeing only the negative side of it and makes you out to be some kind of misogynist, which I don’t think you are. In fact, I’m sure you’re not. How can I persuade her otherwise?”

            He shook his head.

            “What happens between me and my readers,” he said, “is between me and my readers. Let me say again, there is nothing wrong in disagreeing and even disagreeing passionately. You don’t need to be quite so English. Pro et contra, remember?”

            “Yes, but it’s not just that we disagree—I think she’s wrong.”

            He laughed.

            “Isn’t that what disagreement is?”

            “But she’s not seeing the other side—like you’ve just explained to me.”

            “Listen,” he said, “if it’s your wife you’re concerned about, you need to finish the washing-up and get yourself to bed. As far as I’m concerned, if my characters have got under her skin, then she won’t be rid of them till they’ve had their say. The novels speak for themselves or they don’t speak at all. I can’t give you a set of footnotes to explain what’s really going on. That’s a different kind of exercise and, in any case, it can only ever help you find your way to the novel: it can’t tell you what’s going on in it. No. leave her be. Disagree. See where it ends. Now, you need to finish off your chores, don’t you?”

            What could I say? Even though it no longer seemed quite so astonishing to be visited by Dostoevsky, I couldn’t say I was used to it and, obviously, I wanted to get the most out of every meeting. But what he said was, of course, right—and I was very tired. It was getting on for half-past one.

            “I suppose you’re right,” I said. “I’m nearly finished, anyway.”

            “Good, then I’ll just slip away. But don’t worry. I know there are unresolved questions. We will talk again. Until we meet.”

            “Yes … thank you …” But even as I mumbled a few farewell words, he had gone, turning as if to go out of the door, as he did last time, but it didn’t seem to me that he went out. It was more like he’d just disappeared through the door into another dimension. Which I suppose he had. I was left with a wine glass in one hand and a tea towel in the other, feeling faintly silly. I put the glass down and rested my hands on the edge of the work surface before shaking my head and, as he’d suggested, finishing off the few remaining glasses.

            When I got to bed, Laura seemed to be asleep but, as I got in, she half-turned.

            “You’re late. Talking to Dostoevsky again?”

            Was she joking? Just what did she know?

            “Of course,” I said, “who else?”

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