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.

Conversation 4: ‘A Dinner Party’. Episode 2

(with apologies for the late posting)

            “Existentialism … I do half get what you’re saying, at least insofar as it gave a kind of free pass for self-indulgent waffle about the meaninglessness of life” (was I talking about myself?) “… though surely the real philosophers amongst them were more rigorous … but Dostoevsky wasn’t really an existentialist … not in the sense you’re talking about, was he?”

            Carl began to come back to me, but Martin talked over him.

            “You misunderstand me,” he said, addressing himself to Carl. “Catholicism culminates in the will to self-sacrifice. But it does not reject reason. On the contrary, the Church has a very high view of the office of reason. Reason enables us to understand the necessity of God’s existence, it enables us to live moral and socially useful lives. It affirms the principles of social order, the family, the economy, the state. It’s not irrationalism, as you seem to be thinking.”

            Carl smiled.

            “Dostoevsky? Catholicism? Where should I begin. Look, I don’t know a lot about religion, but it does seem to me that in our secular society the development and articulation of moral norms doesn’t require any kind of religious underpinning, whether that’s institutional, as in Catholicism, or individual and emotional, as in existentialism and Dostoevsky. I mean, art is always going to be emotional and expressive, so I don’t criticize a writer for that. But it’s like going to the theatre: you enjoy the play, but then you come out into the real world.”

            “But it’s surely more complex than that,” I began. “Isn’t literature a part—a crucial part—of society’s attempt to work out the kind of world we live in and the kind of world we want to live in? Just look at the whole history of the relationship between literature and social reform in the nineteenth century or literature and political action in the twentieth.”

            “Yes, to a degree. But as for literature and political action, I don’t think that’s an entirely happy story. Just think of the writers who endorsed fascism or Stalinism. Social reason is something very different from literature.”

            “The needs of the soul,” declared Martin.

            Carl and I both looked at him in some surprise, as he’d doubtless hoped.

            “The needs of the soul—I just do not see how you are ever going to develop a programme for improving society unless you understand the needs of the soul. Human beings cannot be reduced to algorithms and, surely, social reason (as you call it) has to take that into account?”

            “Look, don’t get me wrong. I’m fine with writers and artists expressing what you call the needs of the soul but how we feel about things isn’t enough to determine the norms we should collectively live by. These are different kinds of discourses and we need to be able to keep them apart.” Carl paused, before adding (rather provocatively) “And the same goes for religion.”

            “I’m intrigued …” said Martin, but didn’t immediately continue. Carl clearly thought this was an invitation to develop his point further.

            “Religion, any religion, is always social and so has to have some scope for adjusting relations between individuals and the larger community. To that extent it has a positive relation to reason, like you say about Catholicism. Even when religious norms don’t really bear any relation to the real world, believers invariably try to give reasons for them, which is a kind of admission of the real power of reason. Art and literature, of course, don’t have to do that. Where’s the ‘reason’ in an abstract painting, for example? Literature is more complex, but a writer like Dostoevsky is perfectly justified in exploring emotional crises without ever having to explain them. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as we remember it’s just art.”

            Again, I didn’t think this was right. Apart from the fact that he clearly didn’t know about the importance of Dostoevsky’s views on politics, I was—I am—sure that literature in general (and Dostoevsky in particular) had real things to say about the real world. When wasn’t literature ‘engaged’? However, before I could say anything, Martin had taken up the challenge.

            “I don’t have a view on what you call ‘literature’ in general,” he said, “but even though Dostoevsky was wrong about many things (including, as far as I can see, Catholicism), he was a very social thinker, a great proponent of Russian nationalism, and a defender of the Czar, so he’d have been very disappointed if someone restricted him to writing about emotional crises and nothing more.”

            I could see that Carl was trying to formulate a response but before he could do so Martin cut across him.

            “Of course, I suspect you wouldn’t like his nationalism very much and I don’t either, though his social teaching was part of what attracted some of the Catholic thinkers of the interwar years, I believe. But you might like the marvellous 1932 version of The House of the Dead with a very intelligent script by Viktor Shklovsky—it’s on YouTube. You know who I mean?” he added, looking at me for support.

            “Yes, of course, ‘defamiliarization’. I’ve read some of his critical works, but I didn’t know he worked in film.”

            “Well, he did. It was probably safer than writing literary criticism in Russia in the 1930s. So, the film starts out with Dostoevsky giving a tremendously successful lecture to crowds of middle-class admirers—lots of women—and then, afterwards, a government minister takes him aside and praises his powers of persuasion. ‘You should work for us,’ he says, ‘we need you to help prevent Revolution’. But, while he’s talking, Dostoevsky starts to look ill. Finally, he gasps out ‘You remind me of the Grand Inquisitor’ and goes into a fit—then we get The House of the Dead as a kind of flashback to his own early days of revolutionary purity. It’s very smart.”

            Carl nodded, slightly mollified.

            “Yes, I see that. And I suppose it was a way of making it palatable for Soviet authorities?”

            “Something like that,” agreed Martin. “But there you are, you can’t get round the fact that like all art it has a social context and a social … what can we say? … ‘impact’ to use that hideous word.”

            We all groaned. It was at that time a favourite word with academic bureaucracies.

            “OK,” resumed Carl. “But your example just underlines my point really. Things like Dostoevsky’s nationalism and the way the Soviets distorted art to use their ideological aims just shows that we need a separation of powers. It might have been better if Dostoevsky had stuck to psychological dramas and the Soviets had let artists do what they liked with their material instead of forcing them to toe the party line. It’s a simple category mistake.”

            I could see Martin, who was toying with the final crumbs of his tart, planning a further response, but before he could say anything, Laura jumped in. As I said before, we hadn’t really discussed Dostoevsky all that much, despite both being rather immersed in reading him (though we hadn’t been reading the same novels at the same time). She’d liked him a lot when we first read him as students, especially The Idiot, but I had got the impression she wasn’t quite so carried away this time.

            “It’s not his politics I object to,” she said. “It’s how he treats women.”

            We all looked at her.

            “How so?” asked Martin.

            “I’ll tell you in a minute,” she replied, “but first my lovely husband is going to make us tea or coffee, aren’t you?”

            “Of course,” I said, “but don’t start before I get back—I want to hear it!”

Conversation 4: ‘A Dinner Party’. Episode 1

Christmas came and went. I did go to midnight mass. James surprised me by saying that he would like to come too, but at the last minute he went off to the pub with his friends. Laura stayed at home, saying she needed some quiet and that it was a good opportunity to call her brother in America.

            St Laurence’s was quite high church and prided itself on its beautiful liturgy but in the event I found myself constantly juggling a small pile of leaflets and books. It was all a bit chaotic and all very different from how I imagined the deep solemnity of the Orthodox ritual that Dostoevsky would have known. But I shouldn’t quibble. It was well meant. The sermon was about the shepherds and reminded me vaguely of what Fyodor Mikhailovich had said about the mystery of Christ’s birth belonging to the reality of humble, common people. And there was something rather moving, quite profound even, about this very mixed congregation shuffling out of their seats and standing in line, heads bowed, waiting to receive communion. I didn’t go up myself. You might think that having now been visited (twice) by someone—a spirit?—from  the other world (or, as he put it, ‘the great synthesis’), I would be ready to make this act of faith. The fact is, though, that I was very unsure as to what these conversations really meant and, at moments, wondered whether I wasn’t having some kind of mental breakdown. But even if they were real, they hadn’t yet answered the questions about God or some ultimate meaning in life with which we started. Maybe that ‘great synthesis’ that Dostoevsky talked about was just more of the same, literally ad infinitum. But was that something worth hoping for? Perhaps the uncanny change that seemed to come over Fyodor Mikhailovich at the end of our last conversation signalled the possibility of a very different kind of existence, a higher existence maybe. But what exactly? He had hinted at a further meeting. Would he then say more or even show more about that higher existence? So many questions. In the event, our next conversation would be rather different from those that gone before, but not at all in a way I could have expected. Before I tell you about it, though, I need to set the scene.

            Towards the end of the Christmas vacation, we had a couple of colleagues round for dinner. We’d known Martin and his wife Tamsin since he and I were graduate students and we’d overlapped for a couple of years at Cambridge before I got the job at Glasgow. Martin had followed a few years later, though in his case this was to take up a full professorship (I was merely a senior lecturer). He had changed rather a lot since we first met. Back then he was always dressed in black and his straggly shoulder-length hair always looked unwashed—though more beatnik than Goth. He more or less chain-smoked especially noxious French cigarettes and ostentatiously spurned anything of Anglo-American provenance. Unsurprisingly, he had tobacco stains running up the index and middle finger of his right hand.

            His thesis had been on the existentialist film director Robert Bresson, which rather fitted the image he projected at the time. I suppose we both had an ‘interest’ in existential despair, though mine never found quite such stylized expression. By the time we met up again in Glasgow he’d undergone quite a change. He still smoked, though not as much, and, more importantly, had converted to Catholicism. I don’t really have any inside knowledge on Catholic Church politics, but I suspected he was probably what the media would call ‘conservative’, maybe even very conservative. His clothes had also changed and his invariably rather grubby and sometimes torn rollneck jumpers had been replaced by neatly pressed shirts and even, occasionally, a tie—though his ties always had quite unusual hand-designed abstract patterns. This was, probably, down to Tamsin, whom people always described as ‘artistic’, although she had never had any formal art training. She had only been in paid employment for a few years after their marriage and since then had been largely occupied with their four children, all of whom seemed to have incredibly active social, cultural, and sporting lives that required massive parental input. When we first met, she had been very New-Agey. I think at one point she had an aromatherapy practice and maybe still did. She too now attended church with Martin and they both went off on mysterious-sounding retreats somewhere in the Highlands.

            Our third guest was Carl, a new colleague who’d only been in Glasgow about a year. In his early 40s, he was a bit younger than the rest of us. He was a philosopher and worked on things like critical theory and postmodern philosophy—hard core.  I’d met him at a seminar he gave on Derrida and literature. I hadn’t really followed what he’d said, but afterwards we had a good talk in the pub and he seemed sympathetic. I’d thought it would be good for him and Martin to meet, as Martin ran a course on film and philosophy and they both had what you could call a French connection. My hunch was that Carl was a fairly secular leftist and he and Martin might have some serious intellectual differences, but that could be interesting too. I also thought it would be good for him to meet Laura, since he was working on a big grant application that would have to pass through her office at some point.

            The conversation that had ranged fairly haphazardly over the normal kind of professional issues we had in common (marketization of higher education, semi-literate students, time-consuming form-filling, etc.), the eccentricities of our predecessors, a new exhibition at the Edinburgh modern art museum, and a hilarious discussion (or so it seemed at the time) of bad religious films, during which I commented (as I always did) that The Life of Brian was completely unnecessary, since the kind of Hollywood Jesus films it spoofed were so bad that they sent themselves up anyway. We’d touched on the independence issue, but while those of us who’d been in Glasgow for several years were all sympathetic, we picked up that Carl was rather opposed, so we quickly skirted away from that one. It’s a subject on which passions can get a bit out of hand.

            We were starting dessert (a rather extravagant fruit tart that we’d brought in from a patisserie on Byers Road) and, as I was cutting into my first slice, Martin asked what I was reading.

            “Apart from what I’ve got to read for work?”


            That was an easy one.

            “Dostoevsky, mostly.”

            “Dostoevsky, Dostoevsky, Dostoevsky,” intervened Laura from the far end of the table. “I even think he talks to him when I’ve gone to bed.” This last was a bit of a shock. Did she know something?

            “Still, he’s got me reading him again” she added. I’d noticed that she’d been working through Crime and Punishment and The Idiot at bedtime, though, strange as it may seem, we hadn’t really discussed them much, apart from the kind of brief exchanges that can be summed up in words like ‘interesting’, ‘OK’, ‘amazing’, ‘aaargh’, etc.

            “Really?” said Martin, rather portentously, stretching out the first syllable to unnatural length. It sounded like he was going to say more, but he then paused and rather ceremoniously took a bit of the flan, followed by a sip of the dessert wine.

            “This is quite delicious,” he said. “Congratulations.”

            “No congratulations needed,” laughed Laura, “I’ve had so many desserts go wrong that we decided to rely on the professionals.”

            “Very French,” commented Martin. “But … Dostoevsky, that’s interesting. You know a chapter of my thesis was about Dostoevsky.”

            I had read his thesis years ago after he’d turned it into his first book. I’d forgotten the Dostoevsky chapter, though I vaguely recalled something about Bresson having used one of his novels as inspiration.

            “Didn’t Bresson adapt one of the novels …” I ventured.

            “Not one but four,” Martin answered.

            “Which are?”

            “Pickpocket—that’s Crime and Punishment, Au hasard BalthasarThe Idiot, Une femme Douce (I think that’s A Gentle Spirit in English), and Four Nights of a Dreamer, which is White Nights.”

            I didn’t really know any of these. I remembered having seen The Diary of a Country Priest several times, a decidedly miserabilist story about a priest who is alienated from his parish, loses his faith, and dies but—somehow—ends by saying ‘All is grace’. I had to admit my ignorance.

            “No,” said Laura, “we watched Au hasard Balthasar last year … you remember, the one about the donkey.”

            “The donkey? Oh, right … it gets beaten … stolen … abused … and shot … is that it?”

            Martin smiled magnanimously.

            “A perfect plot summary,” he commented.

            “But I can’t see a connection to Dostoevsky.”

            “You said it was The Idiot?” asked Laura.

            “Not exactly,” said Martin. “The others are more or less straight adaptations, but this is more of a variation on a theme than an adaptation.”

            “Ah yes!” I suddenly remembered. “Isn’t there a moment when Prince Myshkin is explaining about how he was in a virtually comatose condition and is only brought back to life by the sound of a donkey? I suppose he’s a bit of a donkey himself,” I added rather feebly, without really thinking it through (we’d had a fair bit to drink by then).

            “Like Christ,” said Tamsin, quietly. We all looked.

            “Yes,” she explained, “the oldest known picture of Christ shows him on the cross—with the head of a donkey. We saw it in the catacombs last year, didn’t we, Martin?”

            Martin nodded.

            Well, yes, I thought to myself. That made a kind of sense of Myshkin’s own story, not least if one thought of him as a Christ-figure (though I now knew that Fyodor Mikhailovich didn’t like that expression and I seemed to hear his voice reminding me that he didn’t write allegories). Nevertheless, I had a momentary image of Myshkin as the ‘man of sorrows’ of Christian art and the words of Dylan’s ‘I am a man of constant sorrow’ also flashed through my mind, as did Eliot’s line about an ‘infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing’.

            The conversation had stalled, so I thought I could get a bit more information out of Martin, who never objected to the chance to hold forth.

            “That’s really interesting,” I said appreciatively. “What about the others? Une Femme Douce, for example.” (This, of course, had a special meaning for me, as it had been the starting-point of my conversations with Fyodor Mikhailovich.)

            “That’s a fairly straightforward adaptation, as far as I know,” Martin replied, “though he updates it to 1960s Paris. Very existentialist. It even features Les Deux Magots!” Sensing all-round incomprehension, he explained. “You know, the place where Sartre and de Beauvoir used to sit and write. The same goes for Four Nights of a Dreamer. Pickpocket is a bit looser—whereas Raskolnikov kills the old pawnbroker with an axe to prove his Übermensch status, the pickpocket picks pockets, but he too is saved by love. No one actually gets killed.”

            “That makes a change, then,” said Laura, rather firmly.

            “How so?” asked Martin, with a kind of anticipatory amusement, obviously feeling on safe ground and, as I knew, he and Laura always seemed to enjoy arguing.

            “As I remember the Bresson films I’ve seen … well, there’s Joan of Arc—that doesn’t end well … the country priest loses his faith and dies … Mouchette has an utterly wretched life of poverty and abuse and drowns herself … and we’ve already mentioned poor little Balthasar … it’s all pretty dismal.”

            “What do you expect?” Martin replied. “He’s a Catholic director who understands that self-sacrifice is the highest expression of faith. Yes, the priest loses his faith and dies but he also learns that it’s not his will or what happens to him that matters, but God’s will. That’s why he can say ‘All is grace’. It’s triumphant—not ‘dismal’, as you put it. Now,” (I could see him gathering himself for a speech) “I’m not saying you’re guilty of this, but Catholicism isn’t the kind of ‘how-to-make-friends-and-influence-people’ feelgood religion that everyone seems to want nowadays, even if Pope Francis seems a bit that way inclined. Catholicism is a religion of suffering and that’s why it can speak for sufferers and to sufferers; that’s why the priest prays over the chalice that he might have the grace to be immolated together with Christ. And Bresson is great because he’s the one who comes closest to showing that in film. Tarkovsky, perhaps—but it’s all a bit too overdone and sententious, don’t you think? Bresson keeps to the bareness of reality. And Dostoevsky? I think he too understands this inner connection between faith and suffering. So—Prince Myshkin suffers and dies. Isn’t that what Christ did?”

            Of course, he was misremembering slightly, since Myshkin doesn’t die at the end of the novel but relapses into a comatose state. More importantly, perhaps, I wasn’t sure that he was right to identify Dostoevsky with the idea that a self-sacrificial death was a goal in itself. There was suffering at the heart of every one of his novels, but it wasn’t something to be sought. We had to change the human condition through love—not more suffering. The characters in the novels who go in for extreme penances, like wearing chains or feats of prodigious fasting aren’t always—hardly ever—models of love. Really, there’s not much to distinguish them from the nihilists and both ascetics and nihilists seem more interested in demonstrating their own will-power than they are in caring for other people.

            “I’m not sure that that’s right … about Dostoevsky …” I began, but Carl had already jumped in. I’d noticed that he’d had a long and quite involved talk with Laura earlier on, but he hadn’t taken much part in the general conversation, apart from a brief comment about nationalism being the curse of contemporary Europe when we were talking Scottish politics.

            “But this is exactly the problem with existentialism as a whole,” he announced. “I don’t know Bresson’s work, so I can’t comment on that and I dare say that from a literary point of view Dostoevsky is a very important writer, but this ideology of self-sacrifice and this obsession with negative emotions is not the answer to anything. It’s no surprise that the existentialists picked up on Dostoevsky because, like him, they offer a very clear depiction of the self-contradictions of modern bourgeois society but precisely because they (like him) discount rationality they are unable to offer any constructive way forward out of these contradictions. Communism also failed but at least Communism was in principle committed to applying reason to the problems of society. Lukacs was, I think, right to label it ‘parasitic subjectivism’, even if he ended up as an apologist for Stalin. OK, I don’t go that far, but there’s all the difference between a cry for help and actually trying to find a solution.”

            I suppose that I had myself been inclined to associate Dostoevsky with existentialism and, clearly, he was important for figures like Sartre and Camus (especially Camus, who’d turned one of the novels into a play). Our conversations had started with my own existentialist-style questions about the meaninglessness of life, but I was beginning to see that Dostoevsky didn’t quite fit the existentialist frame. At least, he wasn’t a writer who just plunged into the abyss for the sake of it. Whatever Carl said, he was concerned with finding a way out of the crisis of his time—the crisis of capitalism, if you like—but (and I was increasingly thinking he was right) you couldn’t find a reliable way if you didn’t start with the human heart itself. I don’t know if Dostoevsky had ever read Pascal, but he’d have understood Pascal’s line that the heart has its reasons.

            Carl, I suspected, had been unaware of Martin’s Catholicism, though he knew now—and obviously wasn’t finding it very congenial. In any case, both of them seemed to be falling into a rather unnuanced view of Dostoevsky that I didn’t want to let pass.

Restarting the conversation

Weekly episodes of ‘Conversations with Dostoevsky’ will resume next week, on Friday 13th of August with the first episode of ‘A Dinner Party’.

In the meanwhile, readers may be interested in a two-part interview about the blog posted on the website ‘Dostoevsky Now’ (at The interviewer was Sarah Hudspith, Associate Professor of Russian at Leeds University, who also runs the ‘Dostoevsky Now’ website. Thanks, Sarah, for doing this!