Conversation 5. ‘Light from the East’. Episode 1.

Over (a late) breakfast, I was eager to put some of the points Dostoevsky had made about his depiction of women to Laura. But it didn’t get very far. She acknowledged (as I’d half-suspected) that she had been playing devil’s advocate (at least in part) and I acknowledged that, of course, she had a point. I suggested that it was Dostoevsky’s society and not Dostoevsky himself that was to blame for the kinds of horrific experiences endured by so many women in his novels and she didn’t disagree. She explained that this didn’t stop her getting a lot out of the novels—enjoying them even—but the fact remained that women got a pretty raw deal in them. Then, inevitably, we got to talking about our friends and we decided (probably for the hundredth time) that Martin was a pain in the neck and always had been. Laura shook her head. “I don’t know how Tamsin stands him”, she said. We also agreed that Carl was OK but a bit prickly. “Too ideological,” I said. “Maybe,” said Laura non-committally.

            We didn’t exactly avoid talking about Dostoevsky after that and when he did get mentioned I was circumspect in my comments—but when she started reading The Brothers Karamazov a couple of weeks later, I couldn’t help teasing her, just a little. She in turn said, almost triumphally, “You see. I was right. It starts with a rape and a mad woman!” “But isn’t that the world we live in?” I asked. “And isn’t Dostoevsky trying to ask us how to change it?”

            Obviously, I didn’t stop thinking about him and about everything he’d said in our conversations. I was starting to realize that up until now I’d only really glimpsed the smallest part of what was going on in his writings, even though I’d read most of the major fiction by now, some of it several times. It was a whole new world, and I’d only just landed on its shores. Claiming to ‘know’ Dostoevsky was a bit like someone I once met who said he’d visited most of countries in the world, only to add that in many cases he’d only been in the airport. You can’t really call that knowing a country, not even if you buy a bagful of souvenirs to take home.

            Dostoevsky’s world, then. A difficult world to get into and find your way around in and not just because of the difficult Russian names and the bizarre behaviour of its inhabitants. I was starting to realize that I wasn’t going to get very far in this world or understand what was going on in it if I wasn’t prepared to face some questions, difficult questions, about myself. I’d started off asking Fyodor Mikhailovitch about how you can find faith in a world that didn’t seem to have neither God nor purpose, just a random chaos of matter that had haphazardly evolved to where we are now. But just what was it I was looking for? I was keeping a line of communication open to the church, but I didn’t really think I was going to find what I was looking for there and I wasn’t really attracted to any of the new religious movements I’d come across—too many beatific smiles. Where was the passion? Where was the depth? And I didn’t want to be a Druid or Neo-Pagan either. My academic conscience wouldn’t allow me to tolerate the historical inaccuracies that their made-up mythologies seemed to involve. Nothing seemed to work for me—but then, where was my passion? What, if anything, was I really prepared to give myself to?

            Don’t imagine I thought about these things all the time. I did have a job to go to and once the semester had started the usual round of teaching, meetings, grant applications, project reviews, etc., etc. absorbed most of my waking hours and left me incapable of anything much except watching nature documentaries or crime dramas for a couple of hours in the evening. And I should add that, to be honest, I quite liked a lot of what I did. On a good day there was a hum in the air. This semester I’d committed to a course on the devil in modern literature and had chosen texts from Marlowe, Milton, Goethe, Byron, Poe, Dostoevsky, Mark Twain, Thomas—and Klaus—Mann. I hadn’t imagined any of the students had read any of them before and was doubtful as to whether more than half of them would read the quite short excerpts I’d selected for them. Probably they’d just settle for whatever they could pick up from Wikipedia or online study guides. In the event, I was proved wrong and you could even say it was fun. There was quite a lot of sympathy for the devil in the class and the discussions were lively.

            If I had time in the middle of the day and when the weather wasn’t too bad (which it often was), I liked to get off campus and take a walk round Kelvingrove Park to clear my head. Sometimes, I’d sit on one of the benches at the top level looking back over the park and out towards the Clyde estuary. Down below people were busy at whatever they do: mothers (and sometimes fathers) and children, students (singly or in groups), runners, people going into the city centre or returning from it. The wind stirred the trees lining the Kelvin valley. It was a mild late February day with a high cover of silver-grey clouds and though spring was still some way off scattered bunches of crocuses and snowdrops provided random splashes of colour, while daffodils were pushing up through the ground in large clumps and new buds were forming on some of the trees.

            I often liked to picture big international exhibitions that celebrated science, industry and the British Empire that were held here back in Victorian times, at the height of Glasgow’s wealth and prestige. A massive iron dome, medieval castles, and Indian palaces had once stood right below where I was sitting. The red sandstone turrets of the Kelvingrove museum, which looked as if they had been borrowed from some Mughal palace, were the last reminder of those days, the days of an Empire on which, they said, the sun never sets. Well, it has set now.

            My thoughts about this ‘glorious’ past were interrupted by a Scottish National Party supporter handing me a leaflet that was covered with the blue and white saltires that had become a symbol of the independence cause. The leaflet was calling me to a big pro-independence rally this upcoming Saturday. I didn’t expect to go. Even though I’d like to see an independent Scotland I didn’t like the flags and slogans or noisy emotions. And demonstrations don’t change anything anyway.

            Empire. Nationhood. What were these things all about? Apart from anything else, they both seemed a bit irrelevant to the multicultural reality of university life. Perhaps academics were collectively citizens of everywhere even if that meant they ended up being citizens of nowhere. It struck me that Fyodor Mikhailovich wouldn’t like that line of thinking.

            Fine. But there were several things that needed doing back at the office, as always, and a book I needed to borrow from the library. Later, I had a tutorial meeting with a student. Time to move. I was just standing up to go when I became aware of someone who, I suppose, had been sitting next to me on the bench for quite a few minutes without me noticing. It was a middle-aged man, wearing a rather featureless overcoat in some sort of close check design. Even though it wasn’t that cold, his collar was turned up and, since his face was turned away from me, I couldn’t immediately make out his features, only the dome of his balding head with some loose wispy hairs catching the soft breeze. I noticed he was wearing woollen mittens and rubbing his hands with a wringing movement as if to keep warm. He was also muttering to himself, though I couldn’t make out what he was saying. The kind of odd character you get in the park in the middle of the day, I suppose. I adjusted my jacket, ready to go, and as I did he looked round. I immediately sat down again.

            “Fyodor Mikhailovich,” I exclaimed. “It’s you!”

            “As you see”.

            “But … but ….?”

            “You mean: How can you be here, in public, where people might notice, maybe one of your colleagues? Perhaps they might start asking questions?”

            “Well … yes … something like that …I mean … well, they might … if they could see you … or am I the only one who can see you here?” It was very confusing, and I was confused.

            “Anyone can see me, I suppose.” He wrinkled his eyes and glanced round, but there was no one nearby. “The truth is, though, they’re probably not that interested. After all, who am I to them? Just an old man on a park bench.”

            He looked up and scanned the view, nodding thoughtfully to himself. I wondered what he made of it and whether he had a particular reason for coming here, just now. Was there something he particularly wanted to say? If there was, he didn’t seem to be in a hurry to say it. Perhaps he was waiting for me to begin.

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