Conversation 5 ‘Light from the East’. Episode 4

I have to admit, I was unnerved. I had never read any of Solovyov’s works, but I knew who he was—a brilliant young philosopher whose lectures on divine humanity had been attended by Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and others and who had made an epochal impact on Russian thought. I also knew that in the last years of Fyodor Mikhailovich’s life the two of them had become friends and had travelled together to visit the holy Elder Amvrosy who had counselled Fyodor Mikhailovich about the death of his son. But what unnerved me most was, to put it crudely, another dead person turning up in my life! I couldn’t help thinking of a movie in which a woman is visited by her dead husband and they rekindle their love. So far, so good. But then he starts bringing his friends, until her house is full of dead people. Was that going to happen to me? Was I really losing it? Yet, here we were, in the middle of the park, in broad daylight, with people coming and going. And though both of then looked a bit odd, it all seemed strangely normal—apart from the fact that they were dead.

            Fyodor Mikhailovich turned to Solovyov with a broad smile.

            “You’ve come at just the right time. You see, my friend is wanting to know how to become a Russian and I’m trying to explain that that’s not the point, but maybe you can explain it better.”

            “You don’t really think that Fyodor Mikhailovich’s message is really just for Russians, do you?” asked Solovyov, looking at me intently.

            “Well, not exactly that, but he seems to be saying that there’s a certain kind of brotherhood that’s unique to Russians.”

            “No, no, you’re missing the point,” said Solovyov, pressing his hands together and leaning forward. “Of course, he believed that the Russian people—like every people—had a distinct essence or spirit, one that, until our time, had been kept hidden: hidden until the time was right for its word to be spoken to the world. It was, of course, Christ’s own word, spoken 1800 years before but now destined to be spoken anew in our time, in our language, spoken to the world and, I emphasize, for the world. The light comes from the East, but it comes to illuminate the whole world.”

            “So what was—is—this essence?”

            “What was it? Why, what could it be except for the Christian idea of a universal human brotherhood in Christ’s name.”

            “But hadn’t that been proclaimed many times before, maybe even in every generation since Christ’s own time?”

            “Yes, it had been proclaimed many times—but also forgotten just as many times! And in our time, in our nineteenth century, our age of reason, industry, and empire, our age of unbelief, it was in danger of being forgotten once and for all. So it was never more urgent for it to be spoken anew. Russia was a chosen people, but she was chosen to serve the world through her new word, not to rule over it.”

            Solovyov spoke quietly, but there was an ecstatic quality in the way he spoke, almost like an orator who had arrived at the key moment of his speech. It was impressive, certainly, but I was left not quite sure what to say. I shouldn’t have worried, because before I could say anything Fyodor Mikhailovich intervened.

            “You see, the Russian genius is not a genius for ruling, it is a genius for sympathy, for entering into every culture and every human experience. Our literature is not just for ourselves, but draws on every literature—English, French, Italian, German, all literatures—to show every people their own portrait.”

            We’d spoken before about how Dostoevsky had been influenced by a whole constellation of major Western writers and had in turn become a part of world literature, but there was something here that niggled.

            “I don’t doubt that your books help readers around the world to re-evaluate their own lives. Maybe that’s what’s happening to me now. But I have to say that the way you depict foreigners in your novels isn’t always very sympathetic. In fact, and as far as I can remember, every Frenchmen, Pole, or German you introduce is made to seem pretty repellent.”

            He smiled at me as one smiles at a child who keeps on getting the simplest of sums wrong.

            “Look. The world of my novels is the world experienced by nineteenth century Russians. It couldn’t be anything else, could it? But don’t you remember what we’ve said before about lies and truth, about literature and reality? The point is not what this nineteenth century Russian thought or felt about that nineteenth century Polak. The point is what their encounter—and all the human misunderstanding and error it involved—points to in our universal human experience, as Vladimir Sergeyevich just explained.”

            I still wasn’t entirely convinced, but Solovyov was now speaking again.

            “Let me put it like this. Before Fyodor Mikhailovich began writing, who was there to speak for those he called the insulted and the injured, the unfortunates, those rejected by society or just simply ignored and left to one side, the slaves, all of those bypassed by history? Where were their voices? Even when they cried out, they were not heard. Their reality was, of course, often ugly, chaotic, and even terrifying. But didn’t they too deserve a place in history, some part in the development of the great synthesis? And this was the man who gave them their voice, who showed the world all the freedom, all the love, all the humanity of those who had been deprived of freedom, love, and humanity. The man in man!” As he said this, he placed his hand on Fyodor Mikhailovich’s rather rounded shoulder and smiled at him, his eyes flashing, almost like a lover or devotee. Fyodor Mikhailovich smiled back, with a broad, simple, and somehow humble smile.

            “So does that make you a revolutionary, Fyodor Mikhailovich?” I asked, suddenly feeling strangely cheerful, as if caught up in the spirit of Solovyov’s declamation. “Were you the spokesman for the wretched of the earth?”

            “Not in that way.” He shook his head. “But of course I understood them, the best of them, the revolutionaries. What person possessed of any degree of moral sensibility could fail to be aroused to anger by what the people suffered? Except that our human idea of righteous anger isn’t always the same as Christ’s. Not anger, you see, but love. Brotherhood.”

            “Yes,” added Solovyov, “not a classless society of equal rights but a real community of love—a Church, the true Church of universal humanity.”

            “A Church?” I asked. “You mean the Russian Church?”

            “The universal Church,” replied Solovyov.

            “The Orthodox heart,” added Dostoevsky. I wasn’t quite sure whether this was intended to correct or simply to explain what his friend had just said.

            “But a church,” I said, “a church with its buildings, its priests, its hierarchies, and its dogmas? How does that help universal humanity? I mean, I’m not against the church and I sometimes go myself, but it seems very difficult for human beings to have any kind of religious fellowship without it immediately becoming exclusive and dividing people from one another instead of bringing them together in this universal human brotherhood Vladimir Sergeyevich spoke of.”

Conversation 5 ‘Light from the East’: Episode 3

Fyodor Mikhailovich looked down and, holding the edge of the bench, shifted his body uncomfortably from side to side.

            “You misunderstand me. I know that all men are brothers. Yes, of course. Remember what I wrote about the Chechen prisoner Ali who was with me in the camp and whom I taught to read, using my New Testament. We loved each other and he, like me, loved the words of Jesus on the Mount.  Christ is no stranger to any man. Brotherhood is for all, but there are degrees of brotherhood and a people like the Russian people, bound together in a common faith, under the protection of a common father their Tsar, are brothers in a very special way—just like your brothers are special to you in a way that’s different from the brothers next door.”

            I didn’t actually have any brothers, but that didn’t seem worth mentioning.

            “But how does that work out today, when Russians no longer have a common faith or a Tsar? I know Putin uses talk about Russian brotherhood to justify sending his soldiers into Crimea and Ukraine, but to the rest of the world it just looks like a power grab.”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich sighed, raised his eyes to heaven and muttered something I couldn’t make out. He looked troubled, perhaps more so than at any point in our conversations so far, but when he spoke he was very, very firm.

            “Let’s be very clear,” he said. “One thing I cannot do—cannot do, may not do—is to comment on what’s going on in your world, in your ‘today’. Your time is your time, not mine, and dealing with it is your duty, not mine. Even if I had opinions—and I’m not saying that I do—I may not share them with you. Of course, we are aware of what is happening in your world, but we have other tasks. Anyway,” he smiled, “why would you ever expect a nineteenth century novelist to solve your world’s problems? Even if the human heart hasn’t changed so much in the last two hundred years, everything else has. Not least in Russia.”

            “But some people think your ideas are very relevant to our contemporary problems, Fyodor Mikhailovich,” I protested, “and I don’t just mean the Russian nationalists. There are those who say that you’re the one who’s given the best analysis so far of one of the biggest challenges facing us today: international terrorism.”     

            A smile flickered on his face and he nodded.

            “Yes, yes, yes—and that’s just the point, don’t you see?”

            “What’s the point?”

            “That the explanation for terrorism isn’t the ideology of this or that group of terrorists—anarchism, nationalism, communism, Islam or whatever it may be. That always changes from generation to generation, but it’s not what really motivates the terrorist.”

            “Then what does?”

            “It’s young men—mostly young men, but also some young women—who’ve grown up expecting more than the world can give them, maybe because they’ve been educated for a life that don’t exist, or brought up to think that the world should accommodate itself to their wishes—this famous autonomy—, or perhaps just feel that the world won’t do anything for them because their fathers never did anything for them, or maybe because their natural desire to achieve something and be someone is met with humiliation or laughter. And so you’ve got a gap between expectation and reality and when that gap is too intense and shared by too many people, then you get the explosion. It’s like I say: the human heart, its needs, its hopes, and its reactions don’t change too much in the course of two hundred years, though circumstances change. I can’t tell you the specific reasons for the terrorism of your time, that is, I can’t explain why just this group of people at just this time have been drawn to terrorism. Still less can I tell you or your world-leaders what to do about it. Those are your tasks, not mine. But I can tell you that it’s a mistake just to focus on the theories that the terrorists themselves proclaim because, for the most part, they’re based on self-deception. Don’t look at the theory, look at the person. Beyond that, I can’t really help you—but don’t worry. There are still many other things for us to talk about. Many things. The most important things.” He nodded his head vigorously. “But brotherhood: that is the rock on which we must build. And” (he smiled) “I’ve not forgotten what we were talking about last time, so, just to be clear: brotherhood and sisterhood, men and women, brothers and sisters, one family!”

            His words were, in a way (and I’m sure were meant to be), comforting. But I suddenly felt very alone. I was, I suppose, the epitome of an uprooted, classless intellectual. I’d never been part of an old-fashioned working-class community (if such a thing still existed) or any ‘community’ for that matter. Still less did I enjoy the kind of advantage that comes from having an aristocratic lineage or having attended some elite school. I’d never really been part of any ‘we’, except for the small nuclear family I’d grown up in, seeing our relatives only a few times a year for uncomfortable family gatherings, and moving every few years as my father went up the promotion ladder of his company. Just the sort of deracinated liberal—the ‘superfluous men’—that Dostoevsky saw as having such a negative effect on the national brotherhood of all true Russians who still loved their soil and their traditions. Again, I felt bound to voice my objections or, at least, reservations.

            “But what about those on the outside, Fyodor Mikhailovich? What about those who are not members of that family? What about those of us who aren’t Russians? How do we get to join the club?”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich hesitated, his head bobbing almost imperceptibly in a way I’d become used to. Unexpectedly, he gave a gentle and fond laugh.

            “My daughter Liubov, you know” (I didn’t) “had some strange ideas. She always said that I was really a Lithuanian and chose to become a Russian. That was quite wrong, of course, but maybe I did have to learn what it meant to be Russian, to reconnect with my Russian roots, chiefly on account of what I experienced in prison.”

            “Yes, but I don’t even have any Russian roots to reconnect to,” I wailed. “How does this help me?”

            Even as I was asking speaking, I became aware of a rather odd-looking young man walking towards us. I say ‘young’ but he could have been anything between twenty-five and forty. What was most striking about him was an extraordinary mane of wavy brown hair that framed his thin bearded face, almost like a picture of Jesus in a child’s Bible–only a Jesus with wild hair. Perhaps John the Baptist rather than Jesus. His face was exceptionally animated. He looked constantly from side to side but without really focussing on anything, giving the impression that he was somehow detached from the world around him. Perhaps he was on something. He was wearing a dark-grey reefer-type jacket cut in an unusual way, almost military-style and rather old-fashioned. Maybe a survivor of the 1980s New Romantics. Or even the 60s. Clearly not someone entirely at home in the present.

            Just as I noticed him, he too noticed us and I was astonished when he immediately raised his hand in greeting. “Fyodor Mikhailovich! I found you at last!” he called out.

            Fyodor Mikhailovich looked round and jumped up—quite energetically—to greet the new arrival. “Vladimir Sergeyevich,” he said warmly as they embraced and kissed Russian-style. Still with one arm round Vladimir Sergeyevich (whoever he was), Dostoevsky gestured towards me. “Here, sit down, join us. I’m sure my friend here will appreciate your help. We’re not quite seeing eye to eye today. He might find some of your ideas a bit more congenial.”           

Vladimir Sergeyevich reached out a hand towards me but, stopping short of taking my hand, finished the gesture with a small wave. “Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov,” he said and sat down.

Conversation 5: ‘Light from the East’. Episode 2

“It’s a fine view,” I said.

            “Mmmm” (non-committally).

            “You know they had a Great Exhibition here, two actually—a bit like the one you saw in London, only without a Crystal Palace. But I suppose it was the same idea. Great Britain, land of Industry and Empire. And this is where it happened. Just down there, beyond that giant crane, is where the shipyards began, making the ships that kept the Empire going.”

            “Mm” (abruptly).

            This wasn’t very encouraging. Of course, I knew that he’d seen the Crystal Palace as a symbol of everything he didn’t like about industrialism and the new world order that was ripping up forest and earth and covering the world with a network of railway tracks, rending the fabric of ancient traditions and setting class against class. All in the name of prosperity and science. I suppose he also had reasons for disliking the British Empire in particular, since it had several times thwarted Russian ambitions.

            Trying to retrieve the situation, I added that in 1901 they’d even had a Russian village built, complete with Church, but this got only another “Hmmm,”—though this time it could have been interpreted as mildly appreciative.

            “It was all a long time ago,” I said awkwardly, realizing as I said it that for him, perhaps, it wasn’t. I had no idea how time worked in his world. “The Age of Empire, I mean”, I added by way of clarification.

            “Hmmm” (inscrutably).

            There was a pause. I couldn’t think of anything else to say, but then, shuffling along the bench, he pointed at the pamphlet I was still holding.

            “What’s that?” he asked.

            “It’s a political pamphlet,” I replied, “about Scottish independence. It’s a big thing here right now.”

            “May I look?” he asked and, without waiting for a reply, took it from me. He scrutinized it intently.

            “The flag of St Andrew,” he said. “That’s good. St Andrew is the Patron Saint of Russia too. Did you know that?”

            “No. I thought that was St Nicholas?”

            “Yes, him too—it’s a big country with a lot of enemies. It needs its saints. But you’re right—Nicholas is probably more popular. This is good,” he continued, waving the pamphlet at me. “It’s good for a people to be aware of who they are and to come together under the protection of their saint.”

            I didn’t really think that, despite the ubiquitous saltires, Scottish nationalism today was much interested in the protection of St Andrew. But I let it pass.

            “It’s like I said to you before,” he resumed. “You have to have brotherhood before you can have liberty and equality. This is what the French and what the rest of Europe forgot. And that is why their pursuit of liberty and equality led to war, revolution, and war again. An ocean of blood. And your exhibitions,” he added, holding the pamphlet in one hand and extending his arm to take in the panorama of the park as a whole, “all that industry and science will never free people if they don’t already know each other as brothers. You’ve had several centuries of it, and it hasn’t freed you yet. But this is good,” he concluded, tapping the pamphlet.

            As I mentioned already, my own attitude to Scottish independence was a bit ambiguous. I had even voted for it. But I didn’t really like the flag-waving and the marches. Add in the bagpipes and it could all be quite emotionally arousing. But that was the danger. Politics shouldn’t be driven by emotion.

            I’d now started reading Fyodor Mikhailovich’s Diary of a Writer, not systematically, but dipping into the parts that looked most interesting. There was quite a lot about nationalism in it and, like most Western and maybe even some Russian readers, I’d found some of it a bit too nationalistic, to be frank; even jingoistic. There wasn’t going to be a better opportunity to ask him about it.

            “Maybe. Maybe,” I began, “but isn’t nationalism really rather dangerous? Can’t it lead to xenophobia and even war?”

            He looked at me with mild surprise.

            “Is war such a great evil?”

            “Isn’t it? Didn’t you yourself just say that the way in which the West pursued its goals of freedom and equality led to war? I assumed you meant that was a bad thing?”

            “Of course, war is terrible. Nobody would deny that. But perhaps it is not the worst of all evils.”

            “I suppose that might be true if it was simply a matter of warriors facing each other on the battlefield, like Hector and Achilles. But that’s not what really happens. Like you yourself described when Ivan Karamazov spoke about the atrocities committed in Bulgaria, war rarely stops on the battlefield. It’s not just the warriors who get slaughtered, but the innocents, the women, the children, the old people, the sick … and, in modern times at least, most of the ‘warriors’ are only there because they’ve been conscripted or have given in to social pressure. And, actually, I don’t expect that all the Greeks and Trojans really wanted to be having to kill each other in order to survive.”

            “What you say may be true in many cases,” he said, moving closer and wagging an admonitory finger. “But it is not always true. Surely it is worse to stand by and do nothing when your brothers are being tortured and massacred—as in Bulgaria. Isn’t it a Christian duty to lose your life in order to help others?”

            “Yes, but …”

            Yes, but—Fyodor Mikhailovich was having no interruption.

            “And our young Russians … men and women who volunteered to fight or to go as nurses, risking their lives … they did not need to go, they went before they were commanded, not to conquer but to help. When I was a soldier, I myself asked to be transferred to active service—I was literally thousands of miles from the battlefield—but it wasn’t possible because of my history. A political prisoner. And, in any case,” he added, looking at me sharply with an almost inquisitorial eye, “were those who stayed at home, who carried on with their champagne and oysters, their affairs, and their stock market speculations—were they better? No. Clearly not. Sometimes war is needed to purify a nation that has fallen prey to mammon and sensuality and forgotten who it is. War is not the worst.”

            I could see his argument. But he made it sound too simple.

            “Look,” I said, becoming aware that I, in turn, was starting to wave my hands around rather wildly. “I’m sure—I’d like to think—that if I’d been a young man in 1939 then I’d have joined up to fight Nazism, like my father did. But things aren’t often that clear cut and, most of the time, behind all the fine phrases about resisting aggression and standing up for right there’s usually some Realpolitik driving the whole thing. And once the rallying-cries have died down, it’s usually the innocent who bear the brunt of it.”

            As I mentioned, I’d been reading The Diary of a Writer, including the article in which Dostoevsky famously and—to my mind—bizarrely claimed that, as he put it, “Constantinople will be ours”, predicting that it was Russia’s God-given destiny to seize Constantinople from Turkey and make it the capital of Orthodoxy. This was not only proved wrong by events, it even seemed quite delusional. Many would say it was an example of the worst kind of nationalism, namely, the kind that uses religion as a pretext for imperial expansion. It’s true that the litany of human suffering set out by Ivan Karamazov and the experience of meaninglessness described in A Gentle Spirit summed up why many people were unable to believe in God, but the age-old alliance between religion and empire had been just as off-putting to many millions more. If Dostoevsky had faced the challenges of suffering and meaninglessness more unflinchingly than any other writer of his time (or since), he seemed to have been blind to the effects of religion being co-opted by imperialism. ‘God on our side’ might make some people feel good, but it reduced God to a pawn in the politicians’ game and that was not really a God worth believing in. ‘When Britain first at heaven’s command’ and all that? Surely not.

            I could sense him watching me attentively, as if he could see that I was struggling with a difficult thought. Several times before, I’d had the feeling that he could actually read my thoughts. But if that was so then all the more reason not to hold back.

            “I mean, Fyodor Mikhailovich, I’m quite prepared to accept that your young Russian volunteers of the 1870s were motivated by selfless humanitarian reasons, but when you wrote ‘Constantinople will be ours’, wasn’t that something else? Wasn’t that a call to conquest rather than to protect the victims of Turkish misrule? Wasn’t it just a straightforward piece of imperial adventurism, just like Britain, France, Germany and the other European powers in Africa?”

            He kept his eyes fixed on me throughout this barrage of rhetorical questions, but his response wasn’t at all what I’d expected. He laughed, with an open and unaffected laugh.

            “So! You really have got round to reading my Diary of a Writer! I’m delighted. Congratulations.” At this point he even gave my knee a cheery slap. He was clearly no ghost, as I could feel the pressure of his hand quite distinctly.

            “But,” he continued in a more serious tone, “I think that like most of my Western readers and, yes, some of the Russians, you haven’t been reading it very carefully. I never wrote that Russia should simply seize Constantinople and annex it to Russia. Not at all. My point was that once Constantinople had been taken, Russia would protect it as an open city for all Orthodox peoples, giving a Christian people spread over half the world their own Christian capital, like the Jews had their Jerusalem and the Muslims their Mecca. A free city, for all the Orthodox especially—of course—but also for all peoples to come as pilgrims to worship at the shrine of Holy Wisdom. And” (looking at me reproachfully) “if it hadn’t been for your Lord Beaconsfield—Disraeli—it would have happened. No. It wasn’t about empire. It was what you now call a humanitarian intervention. Don’t you think that’s a good thing?”

            I wasn’t too sure. Of course, it didn’t help that I didn’t really know all that much about the historical background to the events he was talking about. But even though I accepted the idea of humanitarian intervention in principle I suspected that there wasn’t always too much connection between the principle and the practice. We intervened when our enemies broke the rules but looked the other way when our friends broke the same rules. And, in any case (and as far as I understood it), what Dostoevsky had been writing about back then wasn’t what we would call a humanitarian intervention but an international pan-Slavic movement that was using Christianity as a rallying call for overthrowing theb Turkish Empire. ‘In this sign conquer’ or something like that.

            “Of course, I accept that the Bulgarians and Serbs suffered under Turkish rule and had every right to try to gain their freedom. But that’s my point—it’s one thing to free people from oppression: it’s another to start re-drawing the map on the basis of rather vague ideas about national identity and religion.”

            “Not just vague ideas and not just religion—but brotherhood.”

            “Yes, but aren’t we all brothers? When I was a child we used to sing a song at school about ‘the brotherhood of man keeps growing’. Isn’t that the only brotherhood that matters? Christ’s fellowship has to be universal, surely? It can’t just be Russians or Orthodox or Muslims, for that matter, who count as ‘brothers’?”

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.

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?”

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.

Conversation 4. ‘A Dinner Party’. Episode 6.

Of all the abject women in The Possessed, the most wretched was, surely, Maria Lebyadkina. Some people have seen her as a holy fool, but I imagine that most readers today would find her more foolish than holy.  She lives with her brother who, we learn, beats her regularly. She is described as a strange, crippled woman, her face powdered and rouged, with an artificial rose in her hair. She spends her days telling fortunes from playing cards, looking at herself in a mirror (which I imagine to be broken), and nibbling pieces of dry bread. She has a fantasy about her lost prince, perhaps inspired by the children’s books of chivalric tales lying on her table. On the one occasion when she appears in public she behaves erratically and what she says doesn’t make any sense. Yet she is, as it turns out, the unacknowledged wife of Stavrogin, the arch-demon of the novel, regarded by a group of mostly fairly mad would-be revolutionaries as a kind of Messiah-in-waiting. In true Byronic fashion, the aristocratic Stavrogin seems to be capable of just about any crime or outrage, including the rape of a twelve-year old girl, Matryona. Later, he sits silently in the next room while she hangs herself. He even gives his consent to the murder of the wretched Maria. Although many of the details remain hazy, it emerges that Stavrogin had probably only married this sad, mentally unbalanced woman as a kind of provocation to society—and then abandoned her. It is characteristic that despite being extraordinarily, even irresistibly, attractive to women, he chooses to marry someone whose only qualification is her abjection.

            From Maria’s ramblings, we do learn that she spent some time in a convent, which was also home to an ascetic woman, Lizaveta the Blessed, who lived in a cage that was seven foot long by five-foot and fixed in the monastery wall, where (we’re told) she spent seventeen years, never speaking or washing and living only on bread and water. Although an object of wonder to credulous pilgrims she even outdoes Maria as an image of abjection. Returning to Maria, we hear her speak of a baby that she may have drowned, but whether this is true or not, we don’t really know. We do learn of her constant tears, watering the earth, which she believes to be the Mother of God. Along with Lizaveta the Blessed, she is a kind of anti-icon of female abjectness, subjected to a progressive social, physical , and psychological degradation that she has no resources to resist.

            And yet (isn’t there always an ‘and yet’ with Dostoevsky)—and yet, despite all this, Dostoevsky lets her speak a decisive word about Stavrogin who is not only lionized by most of the other characters in the novel but seems to have exerted a similar spell over several generations of critics who write about Dostoevsky. When he comes to her, she says that she had expected a falcon but saw only an owl and a shopkeeper; he is, as she now sees him, not her prince at all—just a bad actor. And, I also have to say (though this only makes it worse) that none of the other women (most of whom seem also to be infatuated with Stavrogin) come out very well either. His mother is an embittered and angry widow, very much what my parents’ generation would have called a battleaxe. The others are either meek and submissive, reckless and hysterical, or manically ideological, de-feminized by their nihilist principles. Even the Provincial Governor’s wife, a pillar of society, makes herself ridiculous by believing that she can charm Stavrogin’s madcap followers into giving up their wilder caprices and escapades and returning to the bosom of society.

            All in all, then, not a very proto-feminist text. I have to admit I didn’t really know what to make of it myself—and even started to wonder whether Laura might not be right. In a way, it wouldn’t be surprising. Even novels, films, and academic studies from the last twenty years show an extraordinary blind spot with regard to the representation of women. What can we expect from a man—a Russian man—of the nineteenth century? Perhaps we just have to leave that aspect to one side. But doesn’t that then devalue the rest of what he says? If what he has to say about half the human race isn’t worth taking seriously, why should we bother with the rest?

            Meanwhile, Laura had been encouraged by the others to carry on and do a similar hatchet job on The Idiot. Listening to her, I suspected that she was maybe less scandalized by this but was now in role and enjoying herself. I’m not sure. Even when you’ve lived with someone for thirty years, you’re not always sure.

            As she explained it, the figure around whom the novel turns is a woman, Nastasia Phillipovna, who has been sexually exploited since early adolescence by her guardian and who, at the start of the novel, is about to be conveniently married off (with a generous fee to the prospective husband) so that the guardian can make a respectable society match. She is, we are told, exceptionally beautiful and Prince Myshkin himself goes into raptures when he accidentally sees a photograph of her. It is this beauty that makes her the target of the uncontrolled lust of the violent Rogozhin and an object of pity to the prince himself, who (perhaps) imagines that his pure love will save her, like Christ saved the fallen woman ‘who loved much’.

            “Obviously,” Laura was saying, “she’s murdered and, obviously, it’s her own fault because she chooses to run from the altar into the arms of Rogozhin despite knowing exactly the kind of man he is and what will happen—just like victims of domestic abuse usually get most of the blame for not leaving. You know, ‘whatever they say, it’s what they want’. I’d even say that, for Dostoevsky, the only good woman is a dead woman.”

            As she was speaking, I pictured the final, unforgettable scene in which Rogozhin and Myshkin keep vigil over her body. Rogozhin has stabbed in the heart in such a way that very little blood has flowed onto the wedding dress that she is still wearing and that has become her shroud. It is a kind of perverse Pietà: dead woman as object of veneration. A copy of Madame Bovary is lying on the table, hinting that even if Rogozhin wielded the knife, it was really a kind of suicide—like Madame Bovary herself, like Ophelia, like Cleopatra, like so many passionate and, in men’s eyes, dangerous women. And not only in literature.

            “Now, now,” said Martin chidingly, “she’s not the only woman in the novel and, as far as I can remember, quite a lot of the others are really quite normal. Aren’t the Epanchin girls nice, solid, bright young middle-class women? I seem to remember something about them having good appetites. I see them as ready to live life on their own terms, not as victims at all. Much as I approve of victims.”

            “Their mother’s a sweetie,” contributed Tamsin. “I mean, she’s touchy about social etiquette and a bit whacky, but she’s a really good woman, and kind, very kind.”

            “OK, there are some ‘normal’ women in it, whatever ‘normal’ is,” retorted Laura, thinking it over. “But Aglaya, who’s meant to be everybody’s darling, is just a conceited airhead, as everybody’s darling often is.”

            “Emma,” volunteered Martin.


            “Jane Austen’s Emma.”

            “Oh, that Emma. Maybe—and, yes, Aglaya too thinks she can twist everybody round her little finger. But, when you come down to it, I just don’t see what she’s got going for her apart from youthful charm.”

            As I say, I felt that Laura was starting to play to the gallery, even if there was a serious point behind what she was saying. Anyway, I felt it time to lighten the mood.

            “And there’s me thinking she reminded me of you,” I said, probably rather ineptly.

            “You mean I’m a manipulative airhead?” she replied archly, but with a twinkle in her eye.

            “It’s the charm he meant,” said Martin.

            “The charm—and, in any case, I’m not accepting that she is an airhead. I see her as someone who’s very intelligent, who’s prepared to challenge the social conventions governing how a young woman should behave, and really quite brave in confronting the difficult situations and extremely difficult personalities she gets involved with.”

            “Only ‘quite’ brave?”

            “Really brave, then. She takes big chances. With Myshkin. With Nastasia. It ends badly, but, as we tell our kids ‘it’s not about winning or losing’ …”

            “Doesn’t she become a Catholic?” asked Martin. “I suppose that for Dostoevsky that’s about the worst thing that could happen to her!”

            “She does,” said Laura, “and not just a Catholic but a Polish insurrectionist who turns her against her family, against Russia …. You see, that’s her punishment for trying to live life on her own terms.”

            “Well, maybe that’s how it is at the end of the novel,” I suggested, “but we don’t know what happens to her in the end. I imagine that she’ll pick herself up, find a way through, and ‘make it’, whatever making it means.”

            “But on that basis,” said Carl rather sarcastically, “just about any character in just about any novel could end up as a good guy.”

            “Maybe,” I acknowledged, “but I think Dostoevsky gives us the clues.”

            “I suppose you were in love with Myshkin?” Martin said, turning fondly to Tamsin.

            She laughed.

            “Oh no! Rogozhin every time. Those saturnine good looks. The danger. Much more my type.”

            We all laughed.

            “Come on, Martin,” she added, “we must let these people get to bed.”

            “Just when it was getting interesting,” he complained.

            “He means, ‘thank you for an interesting evening from start to finish’”, Tamsin explained.

            “Yes, it really was,” added Carl, also starting to get up.

            Of course, it took another quarter of an hour before everyone had left.

            “So,” I said to Laura as we began clearing the table, having brushed away the ritual offers of help. “I’d no idea you didn’t like Dostoevsky that much.”

            She shrugged.

            “I didn’t say I didn’t like him. I just think he’s bought in to some of the worst myths about women there are. As did most male writers then. As they still do more often than not. If he’s ‘worse’ it’s only because he’s more consistent. He goes all the way.”

            We could agree on that.

            “But,” I said, gathering the wine glasses onto a tray, “I thought you yourself identified with Aglaya when we both first read The Idiot twenty or whenever years ago?”

            She smiled. One could say enigmatically, but it was late, we were tired, and maybe she just smiled.

            “Probably I did—but luckily for me you’re neither a Myshkin nor a Rogozhin.”

            I laughed, almost losing the balance of the tray.

            “Definitely not.”

Conversation 4 ‘A Dinner Party’. Episode 5.

            Laura began. “So. Obviously I’m not a literary critic or academic reader like some of you here, but this is how I feel about it. Crime and Punishment. Sonia. It’s pretty obvious we’re meant to see her as some sort of saint, but, basically, she’s a cliché—the good-hearted prostitute, an innocent who sacrifices herself to save the family from her father’s drunkenness and her mother’s madness, degrading herself to help others. Everyone comments on her name being Sophia and how that’s meant to connect her to divine wisdom and I didn’t miss the clue about the thirty silver pieces she brings back after her first night on the streets. What Tamsin was saying about her being associated with the colour green was new to me, but I can easily accept that maybe that was deliberate on Dostoevsky’s part …”

            “I’m sure it was,” I interrupted, though quietly. Laura carried on regardless.

            “And, of course, she reads the raising of Lazarus story … she actually speaks Christ’s words … but that whole scene … what can I say? It’s too much, too intense, too melodramatic, almost a kind of peep-show: prostitute reads Bible to murderer—Oooh! Shock! Thrill! He confesses: she understands (of course) and accepts (of course) and even has to follow him to Siberia (of course). Well, that’s a great outcome for her, especially when she she flips from being sacrificial victim into the Virgin Mary, a ‘little mother’ to all the prisoners. She is perfect, of course—a perfect embodiment of male fantasy, sexual and pure, both at the same time, asking no questions, just waiting and serving.”

            “Quite a charge sheet!” declared Martin.

            “Seems about right,” added Carl drily.

            “Who’s going to defend Dostoevsky?” asked Martin, looking from me to Tamsin.

            “Surely you are, Martin” Laura answered. “You seem very keen on self-sacrifice?”

            “I am, I don’t deny it. And I suppose I’d be happy to see her as some kind of Saviour figure, a co-redemptrix, if you like—OK, you probably don’t” he said quickly, seeing the expression on Laura’s face. “But without getting too Catholic about it” (a nod towards Carl), “isn’t it important … isn’t it necessary sometimes to surrender our own goals, our own good for the sake of others, for our families, for the people we’re in love with …”

            “Of course. Every parent knows that.” said Laura. “The problem—my problem—is that it’s one-way traffic. She gives everything up for him. What does he do for her? Apart from having killed her friend, he torments her and drags her off to Siberia … And she’s only able to get back on her feet because of the money left by Svidrigailov, nothing to do with Raskolnikov. Without that money—guilt-money—she and her family would just have gone to the wall.”

            “Yes, but …” I started. Laura looked at me warningly. I carried on. “Yes, but he did one thing, one very important thing: leaving out the fact that he gave money for her father’s funeral, he saw her as a person, as his equal, and defended her against being set up as a thief. Surely that counts for something.”

            Laura gave a kind of sideways nod as if thinking about it.

            “Maybe. That’s all true. But leaving Raskolnikov out of it, the best Dostoevsky could let her do was to give everything up and follow him so that, through her, he could be saved.”

            “But that is Christ!” interjected Martin.

            “I don’t doubt it—but how is it that since him, it’s only ever been women who’ve had to do the sacrificing?”

            Tamsin had been listening closely.

            “Laura,” she said, very deliberately, “two things. Firstly, she loves him. And,” she smiled, “remember he’s described as being exceptionally good-looking, even if he’s completely dirty (rather like Martin was when I first met him).”

            “Love seeks not its own.”

            “Thank you, Martin, don’t distract us with your pious quotations” (Martin pretended to look offended: this was clearly an ongoing theme). “And, second, going to Siberia isn’t all loss to her, because she becomes someone there. Instead of being on the streets and despised by everyone, she becomes someone who’s looked up to and respected. And, finally, she gets him to love her. She gets what she wants!”

             “I suppose that’s one way of looking at it,” said Laura drily. “But what about the other women in the novel, Sonia’s mother or Raskolnikov’s mother, not to mention the grisly old pawnbroker? Katerina Ivanovna is completely crazy, totally obsessed with fantasies about how she once belonged to high society, shrieking and losing her rag, and generally behaving in all the ways that so-called ‘hysterical’ women were meant to behave.”

            “Yes, but” (me again) “isn’t Dostoevsky asking us to pity her, isn’t he saying this is how it is for people in this society, that someone like Katerina Ivanovna gets dragged down by poverty (and I mean real poverty), by her husband’s alcoholism, by consumption; she’s crazy, yes, but Dostoevsky shows us why she’s crazy and confronts us with the question as to how anyone could endure a life like that?” Turning to Carl, I added that even the Soviet critics approved Dostoevsky’s social realism. “So he’s not attacking her as an individual, he’s attacking the system that made her like that.”

            “What about Raskolnikov’s mother?” asked Martin, “She seems fairly harmless.”

            “I’m not saying she’s an evil person, but she behaves pretty unfairly to both her children. She pushes Dounia into getting engaged to Luzhin, who’s a complete jerk, and puts Raskolnikov in an unendurable double-bind. ‘We all look up to you, Rodion, we’ll sacrifice everything for you, Rodion, we don’t expect you to do anything for us, Rodion, and, by the way, if you don’t do anything your sister is going to have to marry a complete jerk just for the money’. Bad motherhood or what? But my point isn’t that she’s a bad mother. It’s that Dostoevsky doesn’t seem capable of portraying a good, strong, self-assured woman with her own agenda, holding her own in the world.”

            “Dounia, though,” I said, “doesn’t she do that? OK, she goes along with the plan to marry Luzhin for a while—but she takes the first opportunity to ditch him and she stands up to Svidrigailov: she’s even ready to shoot him when he tries to blackmail her into sex.”

            Laura smiled, holding up her hands.

            “Very well, I give you Dounia. But she’s the exception who proves the rule.”

            “But even if Laura’s right, I don’t see that it’s Dostoevsky’s fault,” said Tamsin, “it’s just how it was for women in the nineteenth century. Either get married for money or … poverty, prostitution, becoming an old maid … pretty bad whether you’re rich or poor. I think he’s just telling it like it is. True love really was the only way out—if you could find it.”

            “I’m not sure of that,” said Carl, who’d been following the exchange quite closely. “Maybe that’s how novelists portrayed it, but the woman who interested me most was Raskolnikov’s sister, the one you were talking about just now—what’s her name?”


            “Right, Dounia. Dounia and his friend, you remember …”


            “Right, Razumihin … isn’t what brings then together the idea of a shared project, the work they’re going to do together. Why their relationship works is because it’s not just about looking into each other’s eyes but doing something for the good of society.  You get that same idea in Chekhov too, and the characters who fail are the ones who can’t find work. That’s where the women’s problem is too. Especially the idle rich and the very poor. Then, that is.”

            “But work needs self-sacrifice too,” added Martin. “You can’t work without giving up your immediate self-interest.”

            “Enough,” said Tamsin, perhaps sensing (as I did) that Martin was in danger of getting on his high horse. Or perhaps she was just watching the time. It suddenly struck me that it was quite a relief that none of them had read The Possessed, since this contained even more extreme images of women’s abjection than anything that even the most critical reader could find in Crime and Punishment.

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.”

Conversation 4. ‘A Dinner Party’. Episode 3.

I took orders and went through to the kitchen, a rather small affair for the size of the flat, more like what my grandmother would have called a scullery (the estate agent called it ‘the butler’s pantry’). There was only really room for two people and it was therefore quite a shock when, having put the kettle on and turning round to set the tray, I realized that there was someone else there. It was him.

            “Fyodor Mikhailovich!” I gasped in a half-whisper, “What are you doing here?”

            He raised his hands in a gesture of helplessness.

            “Why shouldn’t I be here?”

            This seemed oddly assertive, almost as if he was regarded himself as a kind of permanent fixture.

            “What do you mean? I can’t talk now … we’ve got guests … and I have to get back to them with their teas and coffees … I can’t stay …”

            “Yes, yes, yes—I know. But I’m interested to hear what your guests—and your wife—have to say about me. And, of course, what you say to them!”

            I don’t know quite how to put this, but there was something odd about him. Obviously, the whole business of his being there was odd from start to finish, but now, in such an enclosed space, in such close physical proximity!

            He was definitely there and I was sure that if I put out my hand I would touch him. Yet, at the same time, he didn’t seem to have any solidity, any weight, as if there was something not quite fully human about him. On previous visits I’d seen him pick things up and move about the room; he’d even had a glass of beer. But I was starting to think that maybe he lacked the sort of metabolic symptoms of ‘normal’ human beings that we mostly don’t consciously notice, things like the sound of breathing and movement, odours that fall below the level of perception, the feeling you get of what it would be like to touch someone. It’s hard to define it exactly—how can you define a blank, something that’s not there. And yet he was there. He was present. Perhaps more so than I was. A real presence, you could say. I remembered how he had seemed to change at the end of our last conversation, as if he was really living in another, more luminous dimension and which, for a split second, he’d allowed me to shine through. But this was different. He was more phantom-like than transfigured. And yet real. I was confused.

            “What do you want me to say to them?”

            He looked at me reproachfully.

            “Come, come, you’ve learned nothing from my novels if you’re still thinking that what I have to say is what matters. Keep my ugly mug out of it! What you have to say—that is the question.”

            “But all this discussion about existentialism—are you interested in all that? I mean it all happened a long time after …” (this was delicate) “… after you were alive.”

            He smiled broadly.

            “It’s true that I have other things to think about than what people in your world are saying about me, but I have to admit that I’ve not yet reached the stage of being totally disinterested. And I’ve made some interesting new acquaintances here in the last hundred and fifty years, kindred spirits you could say. And some of them have also been described as existentialists. So, what do you think? Was I an existentialist?”

            “What do I think? Well, I’m not a philosopher … but if existentialism means everything being focussed on the individual, on the ‘I’, then I think you gave us something rather different. Your novels are full of real, passionate individuals but they are who they are only because of how they interact and speak with each other. Not one brother Karamazov, but three!”

            “Excellent. I grant that if you have to choose between abstract systems—like Hegel’s—and the individual then you must choose the individual. The passionate young Dane made that very clear. But individuals too are only abstract until you see them in the whole of their relations to others, their families, their world, their history. I think he too is starting to see that now.”

            Laughter could be heard from the dining room.

            “I’m sorry, I must let you get back to your guests, but let me add one thing. Your existentialists—like our nihilists—got many things wrong, but the best of them had a kind of honesty and courage you have to respect. If history is meaningless or tragic, let’s face up to it and not pretend otherwise, as the bourgeois do—keeping up the outward forms, such as religion, but not really observing them. Nevertheless, many of them—again like many of our nihilists—were ultimately cynics, using specious arguments to hide from their own contradictions and to avoid showing themselves to be the fragile trembling beings that they—all of us—really are. And then, as always, it was others who had to pay the price. Some people complained that, like the existentialists, I always overdid things, that I took my characters and my stories too far, that it was all too intense. But how can you go too far, how can you be too intense when it’s a matter of truth? The problem is that the existentialists—some of them—insisted that they were the only ones who had a right to decide what was true and what wasn’t. They weren’t prepared to allow any other voices into the conversation. That’s where they went wrong. But you have your guests to see to, and I’m very interested to hear what your wife—and you—will have to say about women! We’ll speak more later.”

            He watched me prepare the tray and squeezed aside to let me pass. We almost touched and, if he had been anyone else, any ‘living’ person, then it would have been unavoidable. But though he didn’t obviously distort his body to let me through I somehow got past without coming into contact. It was weird.