Conversation 6: ‘The Jewish Question’. Episode 5

“Are we going to talk?” I asked, not quite sure how to begin. “I appreciate this must have been a rather difficult hour for you.”

            “Difficult—yes. And—talk? Yes. That’s why I came—I’ve heard all the arguments before, of course, but there are still things I need to say. I’ll walk down the road with you and we can talk as we go.”

            The light was starting to fade and although there were clear signs of spring there was also a chill in the air. We turned towards the main gates of the campus in the shadow of the towering Victorian edifice that was the main university building. 

            I soon discovered that walking with Fyodor Mikhailovich was not entirely straightforward. At moments he strode along quite quickly and the faster he went the more rapidly he spoke. Then he would slow down as he worked through a difficult idea and even stop altogether to deliver an especially momentous conclusion. I got an early warning of this when he came to a more or less immediate halt after just a couple of steps and, looking straight ahead, put his hand on my shoulder and made the following declaration.

            “The very first thing to say is that I am not going to defend myself. Each of us is guilty of everything, before everyone, and I most of all. Do you remember that?” 

            I nodded. 

            “Naturally, that applies to me as much as to anyone else. I am guilty, most of all. Whatever else I have to say, remember that. Even if it sounds like I’m making excuses, I know that I’m guilty. This has to be where we start from, as we already discussed. Each of us. But,” (and he now began walking, pulling me gently with him) “at the same time I would ask you to remember the context. Not what the professor said about everybody being Anti-Semitic, which certainly doesn’t make anything better, the lecturer was right there, but the fact that the bloody pogroms had not yet started. That was only after my death. Of course, we knew such things had happened in the past but, really, whatever our arguments with Jews or theirs with us, we had no conception of the violence that was to come—in Russia or across Europe. Each of us is guilty—I’m not forgetting that and, as a writer, I more than anyone should have been alert to the power of words. We cannot just say things and imagine our words will float off into the air and evaporate. Words have effects. Perhaps in what I wrote about the Jewish question I attempted a bit of banter, as if it was a light-hearted matter that civilized men could talk about in an ironic-humorous manner—but, of course, it was not light-hearted at all.”

            “You’re absolutely right there, at least.” I said, realizing I was actually quite angry, despite Fyodor Mikhailovich’s acknowledgement of guilt. “Some of your expressions were really horrible. I don’t see how you could really have thought of them as light-hearted.”

            “Yes, yes, yes—again, you’re right. I’m saying this was my mistake—one of them. But even then I was learning.”

            “How, learning?”

            “As I said in my articles, I wrote what I wrote in response to those Jewish readers who upbraided me for what I’d written about their people in The Diary (though, I should say, none of them ever complained to me about the characters in my fiction). And what your speaker didn’t say was that it was one of them, Sofia Efimovna Luria, who sent me the story about the doctor. In fact, it’s her words I printed in The Diary, as I made clear. I didn’t tell that story. She did.”

            When he mentioned Sofia Luria he looked rather wistful, as if her name conjured a good memory.

            “You see, she’d written to me long before that and even came to see me several times when she was still at school—a very clever, very proud, and, I think, noble spirit. She was wanting to give up her studies and to volunteer as a nurse for the Balkans. I couldn’t help admiring her courage, her spirit, her readiness to give herself to the Russian cause. And, for me, whether a person was Jewish or Muslim, what mattered was whether they saw themselves as Russian. if they were ready to stand with Russia and with the Russian people, then that, as far as I was concerned, was that. And remember, when I edited Time, we took the side of the Jews against the anti-Semitic reactionaries. That’s not unimportant, is it? But Sofia Efimovna. I greatly admired her spirit, as I’ve just said, but I was sensible. I counselled her to finish her studies. There would be other opportunities for sacrifice. But she was determined—though, in the end, her father’s wishes prevailed, which was perhaps as it should be. So, of course, when she sent me this story, I had to print it. Your speaker complained of my denying the Jews any agency but, really, the whole thing was down to her. As for me, I was just listening, or, at least, trying to listen. Other people’s prejudices are always easy to expose, but it’s not so easy to face up to your own.”

            “Still, you seemed sceptical about whether the Jewish child for whom the old doctor gave up his shirt would do likewise if, one day, he encountered a Christian in need.”

            “Yes, yes, yes, but that was nothing to do with his being Jewish. That’s how life goes. It’s like the ten lepers cured by Christ: only one returned to give thanks. As I explained, such stories create a memory and it is those good memories that provide us with a basis for going out to do good in our own lives, especially memories from childhood and youth. But then it’s down to each individual person whether those memories bear fruit—you remember the parable of the sower. Sometimes the seed falls on the bare rock, sometimes it falls on the good fertile soil. Mostly, I think, it falls on bare rock—and that’s a true of gentiles as it is of Jews. Few of us really realize the possibilities we have been given. Fewer still act on them. But each of us can—if we are prepared for self-sacrifice. As, I think, Sofia Efimovna was. And there were other Jews who fell in Russia’s cause.”

            He fell silent and seemed thoughtful.

            “Fyodor Mikhailovich,” I began, trying to sound a little light-hearted, “I think you were rather susceptible to these ardent and beautiful young women admirers!”

            He shook his head.

            “Maybe that’s true, but is it a bad thing? I also wrote that the future was going to be shaped by young women like that and perhaps it was right that we of the older generation should listen to them. We had the past, but they were already seeing what was to come. They saw beyond some of the lines of division that we thought were immutable. Who knows?”

            We walked on for a few moments in silence.

            “I thought what he said about Isay Fomitch was a bit unfair,” I said. “I didn’t remember the passages he discussed that clearly, but it seemed to me that he was in some ways a sympathetic character—even if you did make him a bit of a caricature.”

            “Yes, of course he was! Sympathetic, that is. I thought I made it clear that we all loved him. As the prisoners said he was ‘our Jew’ and, in prison, there were only two classes of people, us and them, and if you were one of us, that was all that needed to be said. As you’ve probably realized by now, I can’t help developing a story when I think it needs developing and, strictly speaking, he wasn’t the only Jewish prisoner. And maybe I did exaggerate a bit … and throw in a couple of literary allusions that could have been received badly … And, yes, when he first appeared among us, the prisoners said some fairly brutal things to him, which, I should say, I had to tone down for publication. You can imagine what men like that might say—and you could see that he was fairly scared. But they gave some of us political prisoners a hard time too. It’s what happens in that sort of environment. As for Isay Fomitch, he stood up for himself and, after that, they respected him. And, yes, he was a money-lender—that’s what he was, why hide it—and he had special privileges, especially when it came to practicing his religion. You might have thought the other prisoners would resent him for that but, actually, I think they liked to see that there was a limit to the authorities’ power, though no one put it I those words. That time I wrote about, when the major came in and shouted at him while he was saying his prayers and he just carried on—it was priceless; especially what he told me later, that he hadn’t even been aware of the major’s presence at all.”

            Dostoevsky’s description of Isay Fomitch at his prayers suddenly came back to me quite vividly.

            “But isn’t the way you describe the kind of wailing sing-song voice in which he said his prayers a bit ridiculous? Don’t you make him into a figure of fun?”

            “It’s how it was—or how it seemed in that strange, brooding, monotonous world. But remember how I also wrote that when his wailing and sobbing was at its height he would suddenly turn it into a song of joy and how he explained to me that this was a way of remembering that the exile of the Jews would be followed by the joyful return to Jerusalem, meaning that way to joy goes through the deepest despair. It may all have been a bit theatrical, but I learned a lot from it. In a way, it was my own experience. ‘If I forget you, O Jerusalem …’ Some people say I made him seem insincere, but that wasn’t my intention. You must know by now that I often slip in some of my most important points under the guise of some absurdity. Russia is the land of holy fools, remember! We talked a lot. As I said, we loved him. There was no hatred—even though he was very different from the others and really quite peculiar, probably more so than most Jews.”

            We were getting towards the bottom of University Avenue and the large road junction at Byers Road, a broad, busy shopping street with many cafes and bars favoured by students. There was nearly always, as there was now, a large crowd waiting for the lights to change.

            “Look,” Fyodor Mikhailovich resumed, “I’m not going to go through all the passages from the novels that he spoke about. I’m not trying to justify myself at all, as I said at the outset. And though I can’t exactly say that the young man who said that The Diary was only a kind of thought experiment was right there’s something in what he said. And, as I said last time, whoever the narrator in any given novel is, he is, by definition, a Russian man—and one time a woman—of the nineteenth century. Whatever we see, we see through a nineteenth century Russian narrator’s eyes, whether that is me or, as in The Brothers Karamazov, a person in the novel. Whatever is said about the Jews on any particular occasion is never the last word. Never.”

            We had now joined the crowd waiting to cross the road and I should explain that, in Glasgow, the traffic lights at major crossroads are timed so that pedestrians can cross from all directions at once—and do. It seems like a ridiculously small thing, but it creates a sense of quite extraordinary elation when a busy road is suddenly flooded with people walking from all sides. Knowing the sequence of the lights, I could tell it would soon be our turn to cross.

            “But, all the same,” I said, trying to keep close to him in the seething, murmuring crowd, “if Russia was some kind of chosen people, as you believed, doesn’t that mean God must have rejected the Jews? You can’t have two chosen peoples can you? Isn’t there necessarily going to be conflict between them?” 

            At that moment the lights changed and we all started to move, carried in a surge towards the waves of other pedestrians coming from right and left and straight ahead.

            “Don’t worry,” he said, as we wove an awkward path across the road. “Vladimir Sergeyevich had some theories about how that could be resolved. I dare say he’s right. He’s very clever. But”—at that moment we were separated by having to manoeuvre round a very slow moving old couple—“but, you know, they probably are a chosen people. If you could understand the Jewish people, you could probably understand God. As for me, I’ve never been able to imagine a Jew without God, even those amongst them who call themselves atheists.”

            “Ah! God!” I exclaimed. “That’s what we started talking about all those weeks—months—ago but now we always seem to be talking about something else,” I said, shifting to the right to avoid a large man in painter’s overalls who was in my way.

            We’d momentarily lost contact several times in the short crossing and I fully expected to see him again at the other side, but, reaching the pavement and looking around, I couldn’t spot him anywhere. The lights were now changing and the crowd was thinning out. But he was nowhere to be seen. His words ‘I’ve never been able to imagine a Jew without God’ were ringing in my ears. But what about God? What was it to be with God or, for that matter, without God? Whether you were Jewish, Russian, Orthodox, Catholic—or just a semi-secular Anglo-Scot like me? Could we non-Jews live without God? Perhaps we’d been living without God for a long time? Perhaps we hadn’t even noticed he’d gone? So what to do when we want to find him again? Where could we begin?

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