Second Conversation: ‘Good Books’. Episode 4

Perhaps I should have expected that answer, but I didn’t.

            “The Bible?” I echoed.

            “Yes, yes, yes. And, by the way, not only do you not have any Walter Scott, I couldn’t see a Bible on your shelves, either.”

            “Really? I’m sure I’ve got one … I’ve certainly got one in my office … there must be one at home.” This was definitely more embarrassing than not having any Scott. But I really was sure that I did have a copy somewhere. Of course, I might have anticipated his answer. I knew that several of his novels used the Bible, as in the scene from Crime and Punishment when Sonia reads the story of the raising of Lazarus to Raskolnikov or when the passage about Christ turning water into wine is read over Zosima’s dead body in The Brothers Karamazov. But apart from dithering over whether I actually had a copy or not, I couldn’t immediately think of anything to add or ask. It wasn’t something I’d thought a lot about. Fortunately, Fyodor Mikhailovich came to my rescue.

            Leaning forward, one leg folded over the other and with his hands clasped over his right knee, he seemed almost to be talking to himself. “Could I have written any of my novels without having the Bible in my heart? I don’t think so. And not just because of those passages where my characters quote it. It’s the pattern from which the whole is cut. It is, to borrow what you were saying before, the word in the word, and that word is the power that can make our endlessly recycled words truly ‘new’.”

            He nodded to himself, thoughtfully.

            “But you,” he asked, “Do you know your Bible?”

            I was a bit taken aback but also rather relieved to be able to give a positive answer at last.

            “Actually, I do, quite well. I mean, I can’t give you chapter and verse, but I know the main stories. Which is unusual for someone of my generation. The thing is, I went to a Church school where we had Bible stories every day, at least in primary school; we also had several different collections of Bible stories for children at home. So, yes, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, Moses, David … and, of course, the New Testament as well. I suppose I forgot a lot of it later, but it’s all there, somewhere in my mind, so I can recognize when it’s being alluded to. Which,” I added (not that he would necessarily be interested) “is very different from my students. I recently taught a class of literature and philosophy students and not one of them knew who Job was. Only two or three knew anything about Abraham apart from the fact that he was in the Bible—even though some of them, I’m sure, thought of themselves as Christians”.

            “That’s good,” he nodded encouragingly; “not what you say about your students, but about hearing and reading the stories as a child. I had a book of ‘A Hundred and Four Stories from the Old and New Testament’—in fact it’s that book I learned to read from. Scarcely anything since has made a deeper impression on me. Those stories already taught me—in a childlike way, of course, not in the way I understand them now—about our human desires, our weaknesses, our lies, and our salvation. Those stories you mentioned just now—think what they contain! They teach us about the power of the lie and, looking many centuries into the future, spell out the lie of our own time, the lie that knowledge is more valuable than life; they teach us how envy engenders murderous intentions, making us forget our duty to be each other’s keepers; it was from these same stories that I not only learned about the titanic pride that claims power over others but also about the wanderers who followed the call of God and whose struggles with God sanctified the land where they finally made their home; about the boy who was sold into slavery by his brothers but, as God had planned, became rich and powerful and was able to rescue them from famine; about a people who cried out for freedom from slavery; and about the King who wasn’t ashamed to dance through the streets in honour of God and who wept humbly and without shame for the death of his treacherous son … all of that and much, much more. Who could have invented such things? Such words unmask the lies with which we are wont to console ourselves but, more than that, they show the world of truth to which we should aspire. Everything is there. But is that true about your students not knowing Job?”

            “Yes, I’m afraid so.”

            “They don’t know Job! I am sorry for them. Leaving aside what that means for how they understand literature, what will they think, how will they be able to hope when they too lose everything—as he did, as most human beings, sooner or later, lose the best that they have? Will they be able to bless God, to bless the life God has given them, in their suffering? Will they be able to endure and to delight in happiness when it returns?”

            I didn’t really have an answer to Fyodor Mikhailovich’s questions but went back to what he’d said about the Bible being the pattern from which the whole of his writing was cut and “everything is there”.

            “What you’re saying reminds me of the argument that the Bible is what one critic called the Great Code, an archetypal collection of stories out of which the entirety of Western literature has grown, a kind of collective imaginary?”

            “Maybe … but these stories (like all true folk stories) are not just stories; they matter because of the reality they show us. The Bible is not just a collection of stories that the Hebrews told around the campfire or a history of what happened once upon a time: it’s a revelation of who we are. It’s not ancient history: it’s about powers at work in our lives now, powers that we can never contain or manage. It’s an ‘irregular comet’, portending the disturbance of everything comfortable, everything that reeks of self-satisfaction, everything that makes us think we are above reproach. In the end, it is a judgment on us, on us all, and on our literature.”

            I thought for a moment. There seemed to be several different issues here and I was having difficulty untangling them. Fyodor Mikhailovich was also starting to sound a bit like the evangelical preachers I’d heard when I was growing up, the ones who used to go on about how we were all going to be judged by the Word of God (by which they meant the Bible) and how, if we didn’t believe this Word, then, to put in bluntly, we were headed for damnation. I hoped this wasn’t what he was wanting to say. It certainly wasn’t what I wanted to hear. A pattern seemed to be emerging here. Last time it was guilt. This time it was judgement. 

            “Judgement, Fyodor Mikhailovich? Are you saying that if we don’t believe the Bible then we’re damned or something like that?”

            He sighed and looked at me with an expression of tolerant frustration.

            “Please. Listen to what I’m saying. It’s not the Scriptures that judge us. It’s the reality they reveal. And what is that reality? Did I ever say or write that it was anything other than love, the love that reaches out and embraces even the most wretched—especially the most wretched—of all the insulted and injured on earth? I’ve heard of the kind of preachers you’re thinking about and our Church had them too, preachers for whom belief in Satan is even more important than belief in God. But does Scripture itself ever speak of judgement without also speaking of infinite compassion and tenderness for every ‘unfortunate’? Yes, the voice of judgement is terrifying, especially to those who know just what they deserve, but, as I had that drunkard Marmeladov say, ‘He’ will surely forgive, and He will forgive even those who feel themselves to be swine, ‘made in the image of the Beast and with his mark’. When the arms of love reach out in welcome, what could make us feel our unworthiness more intensely, what judgement could be more unendurable—if those same arms did not also embrace us?” 

            This was reassuring—though I couldn’t help recalling the passage from ‘A Gentle Spirit’ that spoke so eloquently about the impossibility of love in a world like ours and that had been the starting-point of our conversations. What could make us—make me—believe that the kind of love Fyodor Mikhailovich was talking about was a reality and not just wishful thinking? I wasn’t ready—at four in the afternoon—to push that question further, not yet. But there was another question that interested me and that seemed a bit easier to start with.

            “Thank you,” I said. “That’s helpful. But what do you mean when you say that the Bible is a judgement on literature? That’s not exactly an idea I’ve come across before.”

            “No? It’s not so very difficult. Think of the words I took as a motto for The Brothers Karamazov: ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit’.”

            “I’m sorry. I don’t see the connection.”

            “How can I explain? You see, it’s not a matter of holding up a big black book and saying: ‘Believe in this book?’ You need to open the book and shake it so that its words scatter in all directions, like a sower scattering seed. What happens then? The words, you could say, disappear, go underground: they break up and dissolve in the processes of life, but then, when they re-emerge, maybe unrecognizably, they do so in a way that is fruitful and nourishing for those who hear them and make them their own, who love them, no matter what form they take.”

            “But how is that a judgement on literature?”

            “Look at all these books on your shelves, in your university and public libraries, all your newspapers, all the words written, printed and distributed you’ve ever read. What are they all about? Do they bear fruit? What are they good for? Do they increase love? Do they help the writer’s fellow human beings? Are they even meant to? Or are they exercises in egoism and will to power? Let me be clear, it’s not a matter of quoting the Scriptures, but of expressing the life thy express. Grand Inquisitors and Devils know how to quote the Scriptures, but although Dmitri Karamazov only ever quotes Goethe and Schiller—badly—his misquoted literary words nevertheless lead him towards salvation. The reality of which the Scriptures speak is alive and active in him, as it was alive in Shakespeare, Goethe, and Schiller. Wherever our words become words of life it’s a sign that they’ve sprung from that original seed.”

            “So what you’re saying is that even if a literary text never ever mentions or quotes from the Bible, it can still express the spirit of the Bible—and the other way round: that even a text that quotes the Bible may be quite opposed to its spirit?”

            “Exactly so. But if a person is moved by the spirit of love that inspired the Scriptures, then they will recognize that spirit in the words they hear, whoever speaks them. And they will also recognize that it is of them that the words are speaking, as Sonia loved the story of Lazarus—because she could see that it was her story.”

            “Because she saw it as a promise that she too could be rescued from the dreadful life she was living?” I interrupted. Like many readers of Dostoevsky, the scene in which the prostitute Sonia reads aloud the story of the raising of Lazarus to the murderer Raskolnikov, who is busy going mad in a hell of his own making, had made an indelible impression on me when I first read it (although, I have to admit, I’d more recently come to see it as perhaps a bit too melodramatic).

            “No. Because it showed her how a sister’s love could move even the Saviour to do what was impossible for men and bring his friend, her brother, back from death. How you read, shows who you are—and Sonia was probably thinking of her own salvation least of all.”

            After a brief pause, Fyodor Mikhailovich continued.

            “Don’t think you can keep the Scriptures in the past; once you open them, you will—you must—see the present in a new way, and you will begin to understand just what is at stake in your questions. This is why it was important for me to have my characters read the Scriptures aloud and quote from it in their conversations. The Bible is not a set of proof-texts for convincing waverers of the Church’s dogmas, the way your Western Protestants uses it. They are the words of a living voice, speaking in and to the continuing unfolding of life.” He paused and smiled a little shame-facedly. “I should, of course, say ‘some’ Protestants—you see I’m developing a rather more tolerant view of these things from my present point of view, though even here nothing happens in a flash, just like that. Learning still takes time, even though it’s a different kind of time. ‘Quadrillions of years’ in an instant, you could say. And remember, I’m not for a moment denying what you would call the Bible’s ‘literary’ value, but what’s really miraculous about it is that these words and all they show us about life are written in ways that can arouse the imagination of a child, just as my imagination was aroused by the mention of camels in the story of Job. A child will not understand if you speak of divine infinity, but if you talk of nomads and their camels wandering in an empty desert and seeking a land to call their own, it will understand—and it will remember until the time is right. You don’t need to make every story into a ‘lesson’. Maybe that’s the worst thing you can do.”

            “Fyodor Mikhailovich, I can see how all of this makes sense if we’re speaking about the Old Testament and the stories of the Patriarchs and so on. But how does it work for the New Testament? I grant you that the parables of the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, the lost sheep, and so one, and all the stories about Jesus offering forgiveness to sinners or healing the blind, the lame and the lepers have that same story-like quality that you get in the stories about Joseph and his brothers …”

            “Yes, these are essential,” he interjected.

            “Yes,” I insisted, “I can see that but when we get on to Paul and some of the other parts of the New Testament, doesn’t it all become, how can I say, too ‘theological’, doesn’t it turn the stories into doctrines?”

            “Really?” He looked genuinely surprised.

            “A lot of people think that. And they’d add that Paul is largely responsible for Christianity’s hatred of the body and, especially, sexuality.”

            “Sexuality? I’m not quite sure what that means. I’ve been told that Sigmund Freud read me (rather irresponsibly, from what I hear), but (of course) I never read Freud. But I can’t see how you can be talking about the same Paul who wrote that great hymn to love, explaining how love is greater than knowledge, greater even than faith or hope; the same Paul, who wept with those who wept and rejoiced with those who rejoiced, who was happy to be poor if he could make others rich, content to be weak and to find strength in weakness; the same Paul, who endured beating, stoning, shipwreck, cold, and nakedness for Christ’s sake; Paul, who warned fathers not to provoke their children and urged us to see that we are all members of one another? Is all of this ‘theological’ as you put it? ‘Every creature of God is good and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with thanksgiving.’ What did Plato, or Kant, or Hegel ever say that was more human, more life-affirming than that? How does that lead to hating the body?”

            I have to admit that I’d been playing Devil’s advocate to some extent. I was aware of the passages to which Fyodor Mikhailovich referred, at least in a general sort of way and I was aware that even some philosophers were starting to find Paul a rather interesting figure again, although the popular view was still that everything that was wrong with Christianity was to be laid at his door. 

            “Nevertheless,” I persisted, “wasn’t it Paul who made Christianity into a matter of obedience to authority rather than relying on the spontaneity of love?”

            “Authority? Yes:  but what kind of authority? The only authority Paul ever speaks of is the authority of one who emptied himself of all his divine glory and was content to be found in the form of a servant. A servant’s authority is, I think you’ll agree, very different from an Emperor’s. Christ, Christ in his humility, in the form of a servant—did Paul ever speak or write of anything else? And Christ—isn’t Christ the one theme of the Scriptures from start to finish? If you can show me anything in Scripture that is not pointing to Christ then I’m happy to let it go. We are judged by Scripture, but Scripture is judged by Christ. You could even say that he is the Word in the word in the word.”

            “Like a Russian doll …” I began, but at that moment we were interrupted by the sound of the outer door being unlocked. Laura was home. What would happen next? Would Fyodor Mikhailovich stay? What would I say? “Laura, I’d like you to meet … Fyodor Mikhailovich, this is my wife Laura … “What on earth would she think? Or was he, after all, a hallucination? What would happen when these two realities met? 

            “Hi,” Laura called out, as she opened the inner door. “It’s only me.”

            I looked back to Fyodor Mikhailovich. But he wasn’t there. It wasn’t that he’d vanished. There hadn’t been the kind ‘whoosh’ you get in a film, when ghosts vanish. He just wasn’t there. I was alone. The only sign of his having been was The Old Curiosity Shop lying on the table. I definitely hadn’t got that out. I felt stunned. There was nothing to be done, though. I just had to act normal. As normal as I could be.

            “Hi,” I answered, going into the hall to meet her. “How was your day?”

Second Conversation: ‘Good Books’. Episode 3.

It felt a bit awkward standing there, so I suggested we sit down. Fyodor Mikhailovich didn’t object, so we took the same seats we had occupied on the first evening. He smiled. “This is a very comfortable chair,” he remarked. But the manoeuvring had also interrupted the flow of conversation. After a short but awkward silence, it was Fyodor Mikhailovich who spoke first.

            “So. You’re a teacher of literature, but you’ve never read Scott … how can you teach modern literature if you haven’t read Scott?”

            “Well, it’s not really my period,” I said rather flustered, feeling that this was a typical academic answer that didn’t throw an especially good light on the academy and its compartmentalizing habits. Trying to recover some lost ground, I did add that I had read Dickens—A Christmas Carol (of course), Great ExpectationsHard Times, and a couple of others. I didn’t mention that I probably knew several of them better from film and television adaptations than from the books themselves.

            “But not The Old Curiosity Shop?” he asked.

            “No. It’s not one that people read so much now. I think it’s probably too sentimental for our postmodern taste.”

            Dostoevsky was still holding the book, marking a page near the end with his finger. He now looked at me more directly than he had at any point in our previous meeting. His look was not exactly questioning but he seemed to be waiting for me to say more. I was aware of feeling rather embarrassed. What I had just said was, I think, undeniably true, but at the same time I knew instinctively that there was something not quite right about it—starting with the fact that I hadn’t actually read it.

            After leaving me in a state of discomfort for what seemed like an interminable time (probably no more than half a minute), he spoke again.

            “Postmodern? That’s interesting. So you postmodern people don’t like sentimentality and yet, if I’m correct, your contemporaries are always talking about their feelings. That doesn’t seem to make sense.”

            “That’s not quite what we mean by sentimental,” I said defensively. “When we say that a book or a picture is ‘sentimental’ we mean that it plays on our feelings without regard to truth.”

            “So, for example, your generation would say that the death of Little Nell isn’t true?”

            “I suppose that’s right …”

            “And do you agree with your generation?”

            It was true that I hadn’t read The Old Curiosity Shop but, as I explained to Fyodor Mikhailovich, we’d been given the death of Little Nell for a seminar on mourning in literature back when I was a student. I remembered it as being fairly sickly. I also remembered our tutor saying that people shed more tears over it than over all the rest of nineteenth century literature combined.

            “It’s a long time since I read it, but it seemed a bit … well … too much.”

            “You haven’t read The Old Curiosity Shop but you’ve read the death of Little Nell. It’s a strange way of reading a novel to read just a small extract like that, if you don’t mind my saying so?”

            “I suppose it is, but it happens all the time. Especially in teaching. You have to select. To focus. Otherwise it’s just all too overwhelming, too amorphous for the students.”


            Fyodor Mikhailovich sighed and appeared to read in the book.

            “The death of Little Nell. So you think it’s too sentimental. ‘Sickly’, you said.”

            “Yes … though, OK, maybe that’s a bit strong.”

            “Let’s see.”

            He began to read, slowly, intensely, enunciating each word very carefully. It was compelling and I could begin to see why his own readings were so popular.

            “She was dead. No sleep so beautiful and calm, so free from trace of pain, so fair to look upon. She seemed a creature fresh from the hand of God, and waiting for the breath of life; not one who had lived and suffered death. Her couch was dressed with here and there some winter berries and green leaves, gathered in a spot she had been used to favour. ‘When I die, put near me something that has loved the light, and had the sky above it always.’ Those were her words. She was dead. Dear, gentle, patient, noble Nell was dead. Her little bird—a poor slight thing the pressure of a finger would have crushed—was stirring nimbly in its cage; and the strong heart of its child mistress was mute and motionless for ever. Where were the traces of her early cares, her sufferings, and fatigues? All gone. Sorrow was dead indeed in her, but peace and perfect happiness were born; imaged in her tranquil beauty and profound repose.”

            He stopped and, after a pause, looked up at me expectantly. I still had the impression that he was amusing himself at my expense but, at the same time, there was a deep sadness, especially around the set of his mouth.

            I have to admit that, against all expectations, I did find it quite moving. In its way. It was, certainly, extraordinary writing. But I wasn’t yet convinced.       

            “Yes, it’s quite something,” I conceded. “But there’s nothing really beautiful about the death of children, is there? And doesn’t that make it … false? Dishonest, even? I mean you wouldn’t write like that, did you?”

            His expression was, I’d say, solemn. And, suddenly, I remembered. He too had lost a child, his three-year old son Alexei, who’d died of an epileptic fit. And, from what I’d read, he’d been crushed by it. Like the father of little Ilusha at the end of The Brothers Karamazov, perhaps; Ilusha, whom he described as lying in his coffin looking beautiful, ‘as though chiselled in marble’. As for myself, I—and hardly any one I knew—had experienced the death of a child. How could we know what that would be like? What would be the ‘right’ feeling?

            “Fyodor Mikahilovich,” I blurted out, “I’m so sorry if …”

            He held his hand up.

            “Please, I understand. We’re talking about literature and it’s all too easy to forget the reality from which it comes. As regards myself and my loss … you know it’s said that Christ still bears the scars of crucifixion in his heavenly body and it’s the same for all of us here who’ve suffered in so many different ways: the scars remain, though we see them in a different light and feel them—differently.”

            “But Little Nell,” he continued, more cheerfully. “You know I was so impressed by her that I borrowed her for one of my own novels. I even called my Little Nell ‘Nellie’ and gave her an English grandfather, just in case my readers didn’t make the connection for themselves.”

            “Really? And does she die?”

            “She does. About the same age as Dickens’s Nell. Thirteen or so. You haven’t read it?”

            “No.” He seemed determined to show up my ignorance today. “Which novel is it?”

            “The Insulted and the Injured.”

            “And what happens?”

            “Think of everything that can go wrong in a child’s life: it happened to her. Nellie’s mother was abandoned by her lover and after being rejected by Nellie’s grandfather was left to die in a strange land. The grandfather wouldn’t care for her and even sent her out to beg. When he too dies, she only just escapes being pimped. Aged thirteen, remember. Luckily, she’s rescued by those who become her friends, she even helps them to forgive each other, as if her suffering brings them together.”

            “But she dies—so no happy ending?”

            “No happy ending. No sentimentality, as you would put it, though I’d be disappointed if the last pages didn’t bring a tear to the reader’s eye. It was one of the passages people most wanted to hear at my readings. Russians aren’t afraid of tears, nor should you be. Her death wasn’t terrible, though. She died surrounded by her friends, she laughed, she joked, as was her way … but death isn’t the worst of it. The worst of it was that she died unforgiving, still unable to forgive her father for ruining her mother’s life. That’s where the tragedy lies. Like Russians, but unlike what you called your postmodern generation, Dickens’s readers weren’t afraid of tears. Even the strongest wept at the death of Little Nell. But they needed there to be some consolation. If not a happy ending, then peace at the last. Reconciliation all round. But even the beauty of death, the beauty there can be in death, is of no help unless there is also reconciliation. Unfortunately, your Victorians had forgotten their own Shakespeare. They couldn’t really believe in tragedy, even though (perhaps because) so many tragedies were happening all around them in their own society. But that’s how things sometimes end in this life—your life. It can’t be denied or avoided. I think Dickens knew that, but his readers didn’t—or didn’t want to. On this point, if nothing else, we Russians know better. We know that suffering can be inconsolable. And we don’t expect our writers to cheat us. And, yes, suffering too can be a lie, but when it is the truth, we mustn’t pretend otherwise.”

            “So, in a way, you changed Dickens’s story completely.”

            “In a way. But also—I assure you—I couldn’t have written anything if it hadn’t been for Dickens, for Sand, for Balzac, for Hugo, for Schiller, for Goethe, for Cervantes, for Shakespeare and, of course, for Pushkin, Gogol, and Lermontov and many, many others. You can even find inspiration in what some critics would call second-rate literature, not to mention the oral traditions that the people still treasure in their sayings, their songs, and their tales. Only God creates out of nothing. The rest of us have to make do with what we receive. Spinning, weaving, patching, dyeing, re-using, like so many old clothes, you could say.”

            I liked that idea. It fitted with the kind of literary theory that made every text into a collage of other texts. I once had an artist friend who said of his own work that he just kept on recycling failure until it became a success. But could you apply that idea to literature as a whole? Was Fyodor Mikhailovich saying there was nothing original about his own work? I felt that I had to protest. 

            “That’s a nice picture, Fyodor Mikhailovich, and I can see that it allows scope for brilliant new arrangements and wonderful variations on old themes: but what about the ‘new word’ that you and some of your characters talk about? Wasn’t your vocation—Russia’s vocation—to speak a ‘new word’ to the world? But that’s means more than just recycling voices from the past—surely?”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich looked round, as if searching for something in the room. It again struck me that he seemed exceptionally good-humoured today and quite undeterred by what could have seemed like rudeness on my part.

            Before he could speak, I jumped in with a further point.

            “I mean, quite honestly—without getting too theoretical about it, just as a matter of fact—no one had written novels like yours ever before; some of your commentators even said you’d surpassed the whole idea of the novel.”

            Lifting his hands in deprecation, Fyodor Mikhailovich spoke slowly and deliberately.

            “I am only a writer, not a logician. Yes, Pushkin spoke a ‘new word’ in literature. He put up the sign posts that we could then follow and he discovered the types that we were then able to expand and fill out—Onegin first and then and only then Rudin, Bezukhov, Valkovsky; Tatiana first and then and only then Natasha, Sonya … and, yes, this whole event, what people would call ‘The Russian Novel’, was a new word. We weren’t the only ones to believe it: those Europeans who read us could also see that it was a new word. But this doesn’t mean that we could have spoken it without your Dickens, your Cervantes, or your Shakespeare.” 

            Pausing briefly for breath, and shaking his index finger in admonition, he continued in almost lecturing style.

            “You must also take into account that it was a new word and could only be a new word because it spoke from our knowledge of a reality that, until that time, hadn’t existed: the Russian people.”

            “But,” I quickly interjected, “the Russian people had existed for hundreds of years, all the way back to Rus’—hadn’t they? And, surely, there’d been a lot of Russian history happening between Rus’ and Pushkin?”

            “Yes, yes, yes,” he responded, shaking his head as if bemused by my slow-wittedness. “But the point is that the Russian people had not yet entered world-history as a people, as Hegel might have said (though, according to him, Siberia never would or ever could enter world-history). And, yes, Russia had from time to time intervened in European affairs, but these were always interventions around dynastic struggles, the affairs of courtiers, generals, and diplomats. It was not yet a matter of the Russian people and it was their reality, their experience, their spirit, their suffering, their Christianity that made our new word possible. Yes, Russia existed, the Russian people existed, but they only entered into history when Bonaparte, unaware of their existence or their strength, thought to impose his will and his will alone as arbiter of their destiny. Yet, in the end, it was Russia that showed him the limits of his power.”

            I am not especially nationalistic, neither on behalf of England nor my adoptive Scotland, but I was tempted to remark that maybe Nelson, Wellington and some others had also played a part in checking Napoleon, but I wanted to get back to literature, where I felt on safer ground.

            “So what you’re saying is that literature is set in motion by historical events or, at least, real events … that it reflects a reality that pre-exists it … so that if there is to be a new word then something has to happen in the outside world? But if that’s true, then it’s no longer a matter of art being the product of individual genius à la Romanticism but a kind of collective event? The writer isn’t just expressing his own personal vision but bringing into language all that is important in his contemporary reality and using all the resources of literature as a whole to do so?”

            “Quite so,” Fyodor Mikhailovich almost chuckled. “But please, I’m not one of your students. I’m only a writer, not a theorist; a writer doesn’t write to answer theoretical questions about the nature of literature, he writes—rather than becoming a businessman or a diplomat—because he reads and it’s because he reads and it’s because he reads that he is able to read ‘the signs of the times’ and give them voice in his writing. If you want to write—read. Read everything.”

            “But some books are more important than others, surely?”

            “Yes, of course.”

            “And the most important?”

            He answered without hesitation.

            “The Bible.”

Second Conversation: ‘Good Books’. Episode 2.

It was now early December and already starting to get dark when, after a two o’clock meeting with a graduate student, I left the office to walk home. Even though being a university lecturer allows for a fairly flexible timetable, I had for a long time treated it as a nine to five job, or, quite often, nine to six or seven. I’d be at my desk by nine and work through whatever I needed to work through. Lately, though, I’d become more choosy. Now that our son James was away at Uni in England, home was much quieter and I could work with less disturbance than in the office, where a colleague or student would often drop by and where, quite irrationally, I found it harder not to check my email every few minutes. Today I had been sent what was hopefully the penultimate draft of a student’s thesis to read through. That is, the student hoped it was the penultimate draft. I was more doubtful. In any case, I’d get on more quickly at home.

            As I approached our block, I could see from the street that the sitting-room light was on. Probably, then, it had been left on all day, unless Laura had unexpectedly come home early, which was unlikely. Her endless series of over-extended meetings was getting worse rather than better and, in any case, she was one of those people who never take time off. But, if I’m honest, I knew perfectly well who it was going to be, though I didn’t allow myself even to form his name in my mind. As I opened the inner door to the hallway the flat was completely still—and yet I sensed someone there.

            ‘Laura?’ I called out, knowing it wasn’t her.

            There was no reply.

            The door to the sitting-room was ajar and the light lit up the hall in an interesting way.

            ‘Hello?’ I called again.

            Again no reply.

            Pretending to myself that I wasn’t even aware of his presence, I methodically put down my briefcase, took off my jacket and hung it on the coat stand. Only then did I go into the sitting-room.

            You won’t be surprised to hear and, to be honest, I wasn’t surprised to find that Fyodor Mikhailovich was there, standing by the bookcase and examining a fat paperback he’d taken down from the shelves. I couldn’t see what it was, though.

            Looking up he gave me a welcoming smile, almost as if was the visitor. Very matter-of-factly, he remarked that it was always interesting to see what books people had and that he was very pleased to see Mrs Radcliffe there (Laura had at one time bought a lot of historical women’s fiction). “But you don’t seem to have any Walter Scott?” he concluded, with a hint of disappointment.

            “Er … no,” I mumbled, “I’m afraid we don’t. Actually, I have to admit that I’ve never read Scott.” I immediately regretted this confession and attempted to make amends. “I mean, I’ve tried several times, but I just can’t get in to it.”

            That probably made it worse.

            Fyodor Mikhailovich shook his head. 

            “I’m astonished. I’d imagined that everyone in Scotland would know their great national writer like everyone in Russia knows their Pushkin, their Tolstoy, and, if I may say so, their Dostoevsky.” I sensed he was teasing, even that there was a bit of play-acting in his disappointment. “You know—you probably do know—that when I was a boy my brother Mikhail and I devoured Scott. You could say that it was reading Scott that made me want to be a writer. And did you also know that one of the first things I wrote was a play about your Queen, Maria Stuart, though I probably got that idea from Schiller?”

            “Really?” I said, not quite sure where this was going. I did have a distant memory of having read about the MQS play that, like most juvenilia, had never seen the light of day.

            At some level I wasn’t surprised to find him there, though I suppose that I’d somehow assumed that if he did appear again it would have been late at night, not in the middle of the afternoon. This didn’t really seem the right time of day for visitors from there

            He didn’t respond directly but, lifting the book in his hands, smiled again—he seemed to be in a very cheerful mood—and said he was glad to see we had some Dickens. I looked closer and saw that the book he’d picked out was The Old Curiosity Shop.

            “The Old Curiosity Shop,” I said mechanically.

            “Yes,” Fyodor Mikhailovich replied. “I’m sure you know that Dickens was one of my favourite authors. I even managed to read The Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield in prison—unofficially, of course.”

            “Really?” I seemed to be repeating myself. I needed to up my game. “I’ve often read that Mr Pickwick was the inspiration for your Prince Myshkin.” 

            “That’s not entirely wrong—though Don Quixote was probably more important. Still, I loved Dickens, even though I could only read him in translation.”

            This reminded me of something that had several times crossed my mind since our first conversation, namely, that it had all been in English. But how did that happen? Especially if Dostoevsky didn’t speak it. Perhaps it wasn’t the most important thing we could be talking about, but it was interesting. Why not ask him?

            “And yet, Fyodor Mikhailovich, you’re speaking English now—very fluently, I may say, with only a very slight accent. Does that mean you can now speak any language you like?”

            He gave a quiet laugh.

            “It’s complicated. I wouldn’t say that I’m speaking English, but you’re hearing me in English and, for my part, I understand what you’re saying perfectly well.”

            “You mean it’s a kind of mind-reading or telepathy? That you can kind of bypass language over there?”

            “No. We don’t bypass language, as you put it. Remember: ‘In the beginning was the Word.’ But … how can I say … our relation to language is … different. Yes, we too need words just as you do—we’re not angels—but it’s all somehow … freer.”

            “Language—but not as we know it,” I joked, not expecting him to get the allusion. He didn’t.

            “Not as you know it,” he replied rather seriously. “Besides, you shouldn’t be surprised. Virgil spoke to Dante spoke in Italian, a language that didn’t even exist when he was on earth.”

            He paused.

            “I cannot—I may not—explain this other life to you, but I will say that the words we’re speaking now are a bit like prisms or, better still, a series of carefully arranged prisms through which what we are trying to say gets refracted. It’s the same light, but it comes out looking different on the other side. And that would still be true if you learned Russian or I spoke English.”

            I found that vaguely comforting. I’d always been a bit worried that because I could only read Dostoevsky (and a great many other writers) in English, I must be missing out on a lot of the nuances of what he wrote. But perhaps it didn’t make such a big difference. Even if the translations were imperfect, maybe they were still transmitting some of that original light, to use his analogy. And if Dostoevsky could only read Dickens in translation, it somehow didn’t seem so important that I could only read him in English.

            “So it doesn’t matter that I can only read you in translation?” I asked

            “Of course, you should learn Russian if you can—you’re still young enough to do so. They say it takes seven years before a foreigner can read me in the original and, God willing, you have more than seven years ahead of you. But even if you were a native Russian speaker, Russian today is no longer my Russian or Lev Tolstoy’s Russian. It can’t be, because the world in which Russians live today is different from the world I knew. Just think of everything the Soviet Union did to our language!”

            “Are you then saying that it’s really only your contemporaries who could understand what you were saying or get any benefit from your books?”

            “Of course not. But what I wrote grew out of and belonged to that Russia, my Russia. It couldn’t have come from anywhere else or been written in any other language. And I also needed Russian soil, Russian cities, Russian people, and even Russian weather, in order to write. At the end of the four years I spent abroad, I was nearly washed up as a writer. I don’t know if I could have gone on. It was worse than after the four years in prison that, in a way, gave me everything.”

            “But what you wrote wasn’t just for Russia, surely? I mean, I don’t really believe there’s such a thing as ‘world literature’ but, if there was, you’re definitely a part of it. I’ve known people from South America, Africa, Asia, from everywhere really, who’ve said that you’re the only European writer who writes about the kinds of people they know in their lives and the kinds of questions that matter to them.”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich looked pleased. He may even have flushed slightly. I’d noticed before that he was still appreciative of praise. His face appeared rounder and brighter than the last time, and more like the young officer we see in the photographs from Semipalatinsk.

            “Thank you, that’s good to know. It confirms my views about the distinctive universality of Russian literature, even though most of your contemporaries, I think, regard them as slightly ridiculous. But, of course, I couldn’t have written anything that would speak to your friends if I hadn’t written in Russian as a Russian. Perhaps the easiest way of putting it is to say that, like our Russian verbs, every word has two aspects. One aspect faces towards its own time and place, the other is more … universal.”

            “The word in the word, like the man in man?”

            “Yes—if you understand it in the right way. Because you mustn’t forget that the man in man is not the philosopher’s principle of universal humanity, he’s this man, this Russian, this Scottish, this English man. He is real and he can only be universal if he’s real or, at the very least, striving for reality. So, putting ‘Dostoevsky’ to one side for a moment, Scott and Dickens would never have meant what they meant to me if they hadn’t spoken out of the truth of their own time and place and their own language.”

            That was fairly easy to understand, though it did seem to mean that there were parts of what Dostoevsky wrote that I would never quite ‘get’. But, applying what he’d said about twenty-first century Russians and nineteenth century Russians, perhaps it wasn’t any different from how there were parts of any English writer from one hundred and fifty or more years ago that I would never quite ‘get’. And what he’d said also implied that they weren’t the really important parts.

Second Conversation: ‘Good Books’. Episode 1

By the time I’d showered and dressed Laura had nearly finished her breakfast. On the radio, a bishop was saying something about the Church and climate change.

            “Sorry. I couldn’t wait,” she said, looking up. “I need to be in for half-past-eight.” It was now ten to. 

            “That’s fine,” I replied. “Coffee. That’s the main thing.”

            “I seem to have made it rather strong this morning.”

            “That’s good. Good for me.”

            “Ah-ha. You were late last night. Too much whisky?”

            “Not really.”

            The Bishop had been replaced by a tetchy exchange between an interviewer and a junior government minister.

            “Is there any more yoghurt?”

            “In the fridge. Where it always is. If you weren’t drinking whisky, what were you doing?”

            “I didn’t say I hadn’t had any whisky. Just some. I was reading.”

            “More Dostoevsky, I suppose?”

            “Of course.”

            “You’re reading a lot of Dostoevsky these days. Work? Fun?”

            “A bit of both, maybe. I’m trying to fill in some of the gaps—what I haven’t read or what I’ve forgotten.”

            “Fair enough. I haven’t read Dostoevsky for years. I loved it when I was a student. I was your Grushenka and you were my Dmitri and, yes, I would have followed you to the salt-mines! But I don’t know if I’d still like it—all his women seem to be suffering or mad or just ridiculous. And the men never give up their lives to follow them to the salt-mines!”

            “They do in Tolstoy.”


            “Yes. In Resurrection. But he was definitely a worse misogynist than Dostoevsky.”

            “Well, I didn’t know. But I have to say that all that talk about God is a bit much. I mean, I believe in something, but I just don’t think that people get so worked up about whether God exists anymore, do they?”

            “Maybe Russians do.”

            “Maybe—only I’m not Russian. Still, pehaps I should have another go.”

            The voice of the newsreader cut across what she was saying. “For a second night in a row, rockets have been fired …”

            “Oh God. They are all so bloody stupid! But I have to go … What time are you back?”

            “About seven – the students will probably expect me to buy a round of drinks after the seminar. Noblesse oblige and all that.”

            “Fine. Will you get the salmon out of the freezer before you go? I must dash.”

            “Will do. No, don’t bother. I’ll clear your things. What have you got on today?”

            “Meetings, meetings, meetings. Nothing difficult. Just a lot of it.” She cradled my head momentarily and pressed a kiss on it. “Love you. Don’t forget the salmon.”

            “I won’t.” 

            I did—at least, I forgot, but remembered just as I was shutting the door.

            Once Laura had left, I had about an hour before I needed to go out. We both worked at the university. I taught comparative literature (twentieth century, mostly French and German), Laura was in admin. It was only a quarter of an hour’s quick walk to my office, but though I wasn’t lecturing till eleven there were some things I needed to sort out beforehand. Which left me an hour or so to think through what had happened the night before. I took my second cup of coffee through to the sitting room and looked down at where Fyodor Mikhailovich had been sitting. The only evidence for his visit was a crumpled cushion, but since Laura had been sitting there earlier in the evening that didn’t prove anything. 

            What had really happened? Had I been visited by Dostoevsky—or, at least, his ghost? Was ‘ghost’ the right word?

            Dostoevsky. ‘Fyodor Mikhailovich’ as I was starting to think of him. 

            Let’s say it had been a hallucination or that I’d just been dreaming, a kind of waking dream, perhaps? Did that matter? Even if it had all been only in my mind, there were things that had been said that I needed to go over. But I didn’t think it had all been ‘only in my mind’. I’ve never been interested in spiritualism or the occult and I wasn’t tempted to start wondering about how—if it was ‘real’—it could have happened. The main thing was what we’d been talking about. 

            Going over (and over) what he had said, I didn’t feel I’d got the answers I’d been looking for. The question as to how one could go on living if, like Dostoevsky’s fictional pawnbroker, one believed that the world was dead, empty, and loveless remained unresolved. At least I wasn’t yet persuaded. There’s a Bergman film in which someone asks that same question about how to go on living and the only answer they get is ‘Because we must’—but that doesn’t help. Even more difficult was how one might believe in God in a world like that—but we hadn’t even got on to God, not really. Fyodor Mikhailovich had given a kind of answer, speaking about how the pawnbroker needed to become guilty, as in the Elder Zosima’s teaching that we should each think of ourselves as being guilty of everything and confessing our guilt to everyone.

            But there seemed to me to be two problems with that. The first was that the kind of guilt Zosima talked about wasn’t quite what we normally think of as guilt. Normally when we think of guilt we think of the kind of court cases Fyodor Mikhailovich had also talked about. Is the accused guilty as charged? But Zosima teaches that all of us, each and every one of us, is meant to assume the burden of guilt—even if, like his own consumptive brother, we’ve never actually committed any crimes. Then there’s the kind of guilt that therapists try to help us get rid of, all those internalized feelings of guilt going back to childhood. But why, even on Zosima’s principles, should we want to accept that kind of guilt?

            The second problem was that although I could almost see how thinking of oneself as guilty—or, at least, responsible—for all that was going wrong in the world might work for moral heroes, the sort of people who dedicate their lives to working for refugees, the homeless, trafficking victims, whatever, it seemed to ask too much for the kind of ordinary lives most of us lead. I mean, me. Of course, I could probably give more to charity, I could probably volunteer in the community, there’s probably a lot more I could do, but on this principle, I’d never have done enough. And even if, like Zosima, I gave everything up to become a wandering beggar or a monk, it would mean letting a great many people down. For example, it would mean leaving Laura with a big chunk of mortgage to pay off.  No. That wasn’t an option. Running away from my real responsibilities in the real world didn’t seem the right way to assume responsibility for my existence. That really would give me something to feel guilty about.

            In any case, a Dostoievskian saint who went around believing they were guilty of everything also reminded me of all that harping on about ‘unworthy servants’ that I remembered from my childhood churchgoing. Dostoevsky portrayed Zosima as a joyful kind of saint, but going around thinking of yourself as being guilty of everything didn’t seem like a recipe for joy. It all sounded dreadfully serious. Worse still, depressing. Which, I suppose, is what most people would expect from a conversation with Dostoevsky. I’ve known people who say that reading Kierkegaard can drive you mad, and maybe it’s the same with Dostoevsky.

            These questions, and variations on them, niggled away at the back (and sometimes at the front) of my mind over the next couple of weeks, without really getting resolved. At the same time, there was an even more important question: was I ever going to see him again? Had this been a once-off visitation from the other world (or wherever he’d come from), or, if he was going to come again, was there anything I could do to make it happen? I remembered a scene from a movie in which Andy Warhol said he’d tried to call God on the telephone but hadn’t been able to get an answer. How do you ‘call’ the other world? I certainly wasn’t going to go to a séance or get out the tarot cards. 

            Perhaps it would help if I knew why he’d come in the first place. Had something about the way I was reading his story tuned me in to some sort of cosmic wavelength that enabled us to communicate? Could I find that wavelength again? Was there some sort of technique, some sort of spiritual mindfulness I could practice to put me in touch with wherever he was? The problem, of course, was the familiar paradox about not being able to do something once you become self-conscious about doing it. It’s only when you stop looking for whatever it is you’re looking for that you find it. And so on. In any case, if I had somehow tuned in to his supernatural mind, why was I finding it so difficult to process what he’d said? If it was mind meeting mind, where was the flash of understanding? But perhaps I had nothing to do with it. Perhaps it was all his initiative, for reasons that I was unable even to guess at. In which case there was nothing I could do.

            Despite my scepticism about being able to invoke his presence, I made a point of staying up over the next few nights. Hopefully, I have to admit. I tried to pretend that I didn’t have any special aim in view, but I didn’t really fool myself for one minute. And even though it felt a bit artificial, as if I was practicing a simplistic form of sympathetic magic, I made a point of reading more Dostoevsky. Fairly randomly. It was hard to focus, wondering whether ‘he’ was going to reappear at any moment.

            He didn’t. After a week or so, I decided that I couldn’t expect to see him again. At least, I told myself that I’d decided. Goodbye, Fyodor Mikhailovich. It was nice knowing you. I’ll reread The Brothers Karamazov now, I promise. And I really will start on The Diary of a Writer, just as soon as the semester’s over. Maybe they’ll have the answers I’m looking for. What was it he’d said? “If the words I wrote in my books were the truth, why shouldn’t they be enough for you? What can I add?” Perhaps I just have to become a better reader.

            First up then, The Brothers Karamazov. And wonders untold! I solved the riddle of the onion. Looking through the contents pages, I noticed there was a chapter entitled ‘An Onion’. I immediately looked it up to see whether it was relevant, and it was. It describes how Grushenka, the object of Dmitri Karamazov’s passion, is tempted to seduce his innocent brother, the novice monk Alyosha Karamazov. But she stops herself just in time and later explains what’s happened by telling a story about a malicious old woman who’s spent her entire life being mean to people. When the old woman dies, she’s thrown into the lake of fire where the wicked are punished for all eternity. She’s obviously not very happy about this, but an angel tells her that if she can think of one good deed she’s committed, this might help. She eventually remembers that she once gave an onion to a beggar. The angel promptly holds out an onion to her, telling her to grab hold of it so that he (are angels he’s or she’s?) can pull her out. Things are going well, until some of the other souls see what’s going on and try to grab on to her legs so that they can be hauled out too. But she won’t have any of it and kicks them away. At that moment the angel lets go of the onion and she falls back into the fiery lake. The point being that her selfish obsession with her own salvation made it impossible for her to be saved.

            An onion, then. I’d thought at the time it was rather an odd metaphor for Fyodor Mikhailovich to use to describe the small step that the despairing pawnbroker had to take. How can a step be like an onion? Where’s the point of comparison? Now I could see: what he had to do was to stop thinking about himself and how he could go on living and to think of others. Which didn’t seem so difficult. In principle.

            Another week passed and even though teaching was over the need to mark student assignments and work through all the admin that had built up didn’t exactly drive my mysterious visitor to the back of my mind, but it did give me other things to think about. Laura was also having a difficult time, as her department was going through (yet another) major restructuring, so there was always a lot for her to unpack at the end of the day. On the third weekend after Fyodor Mikhailovich had been and gone, we drove out and walked round the Conic Hill, letting the great vista that opened out over Loch Lomond and that took in the snow-capped Arrochar Alps at the far end of the Loch take the stress away. For a couple of hours only. But at least it was a couple of hours and life felt good. What was there to be guilty about? Maybe I didn’t need to beat myself up about those eternal questions. Maybe they were really just nineteenth century questions. Maybe life was its own answer. And yet … something was missing.

First Conversation. Part Two: ‘Guilty!’ Episode 4

Over the course of our last few exchanges, Fyodor Mikhailovich was, unsurprisingly, starting to look very tired; the folds of his clothes seemed to be flattening out, almost as if he was becoming two-dimensional; even his face seemed to be fading, looking more and more like an old photograph rather than a living person. Now, suddenly, he snapped back into focus and, rubbing his hand together, smiled broadly, even mischievously, and looked me in the eye. Meeting his gaze was like looking down into an immeasurably deep well, the kind that goes so far down that you can hardly see if there’s any water there – until you catch a faint glitter reflecting the sky above.

            “Now,” he said firmly. “Now you see what our hero has to do.”

            “I … I think so.” My hesitation almost surprised myself. I was used to giving my opinion about Dostoevsky’s novels or just about any other subject in an academic seminar (sometimes even on subjects I really knew very little about), but it was something else again to be saying it to the man himself. And I was aware that I had been almost cheeky at some moments in our conversation so far.

            “And …”

            “And … isn’t the point that, as you said, he’s only thinking of himself, of his being abandoned in this cold and empty world? And the way he talks – like we said, it’s just a monologue, just talking to himself; he’s performing, but not really talking to anyone in particular.” 

            “Exactly! Like Richard III and Hamlet. Both characters locked into their own worlds. That’s exactly right. No, if he knew he was guilty, if he really knew how guilty he was, he’d be talking to her, asking her forgiveness, asking everyone’s forgiveness—like Alyosha in the garden—and if he did that, then he wouldn’t be alone any more and the world wouldn’t be so cold. To acknowledge your guilt is to let yourself love. To see others with the eyes of love.” He stopped, folded his hand, and nodded in satisfaction. 

            The way he said it was touching, I admit—but I couldn’t help blurting out a rather unconsidered reply.

            “You say that, Fyodor Mikhailovich, but your novels are full of people who are utterly unlovable. In fact, I don’t think even you loved all of them very much – I don’t think you loved old man Karamazov or poor little Smerdyakov at all. At least, you don’t seem to have given them any redeeming features.”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich sighed. “And what sort of novels would I have written if I’d filled them with only loveable people? Would they be the sort of novels you’d want to read?”

            I shrugged. “Perhaps not.”

            “I’m sure not. I was a novelist, and that means presenting people in the way that they actually appear in their world. It’s not what I think of them that matters, but how they appear to each other – no one in the novel ever has a final view on any of the others. None of them are God and even the author isn’t God. Literature isn’t the last judgement. The most I could do was to show the possibility of redemption. Remember Fedya the convict: he was a man who killed for money, a real thug, but I reminded the reader how he’d been sold by his master to pay a gambling debt, a man reduced to the status of a thing; yet even though he is violent, unlettered, guilty of murder and sacrilege, he goes on hoping for forgiveness; somewhere, deep in his heart, he knows that the Mother of God will remember him with mercy, just as she remembered the sinners who had sunk so deep in hell that even God had forgotten them.”

            “Yes, I understand that,” I said, remembering that Fyodor Mikhailovich always had a soft spot for the peasants, even the peasant who prayed for forgiveness in the act of murdering someone for a gold watch, “but I don’t see many redeeming features in characters like Luzhin or Smerdyakov, the arrivistes and lackeys.”

            “I say again, these are novels and because they are novels they show the world as it appears in all its degradation to real human beings with all their prejudices, but I’m not passing judgement on any real actual people. None of us ever knows enough about anyone else to do that. I knew prisoners in Siberia who’d committed the most terrible crimes you can imagine—worse than you can imagine—and who never showed any sign of repentance or contrition. But who knows what was going on in the inscrutable depths of their hearts.”

            “Yes, but that still doesn’t tell us how to find any redeeming feature in the kind of despair that A Gentle Spirit ends with.”

            “Really not? You surprise me.”

            “Really not. Can you explain?”

            “I can try. For a start, I’ve already explained that although he still has one more step to take (a colossal and paradoxical step, admittedly), he is in a position to take it, if he dares to do so – and if he does take it, he will re-enter the world and become capable of love. But there’s another, very important point. A couple of minutes ago, I called him the hero. But is that correct?”

            “Well, I can’t see who else is. The whole story is his story, as he told it – like one of Shakespeare’s monologues, as we said.”

            “Very well. But we writers think very carefully about our titles, you know. So, if Richard III is about Richard III and Hamlet is about Hamlet, who do you think A Gentle Spirit is about?”

            “About a gentle spirit.”

            “Exactly. And is he ‘a gentle spirit’?”

            “Not at all. Quite the opposite – I’d say he’s more like a soul in torment.”

            “So who is the ‘gentle spirit’?”

            “That’s his wife, of course.”

            “Very good.”.

            “So the story is really about her?” I thought for a moment before continuing. “But, Fyodor Mikhailovich, if that’s the case, then it still doesn’t help us very much since she too is in despair, more so, even, since she kills herself. All you seem to leave us with is the alternative – ultimate solitude or suicide. Not much of a choice!”

            It had become very quiet outside. I could hear someone singing drunkenly. I wondered whether he imagined himself happy. He didn’t sound like he was in paradise.

            Fyodor Mikhailovich straightened himself, sitting forward and putting his hands on his knees. 

            “I have to be going soon,” he announced abruptly, “So I’ll be as brief as possible. Let me ask you: do you really think that just because someone commits suicide, we can assume they’re in despair?”

            “Why not? Isn’t she in despair?”

            “Yet she was clutching an icon.”

            “Doesn’t that make it worse?”

            “What it means is that there is something in what she did that we cannot understand. Yes, I know that the Church regards suicide as a sin and will refuse to bury her, but might it not be that she still hopes the Mother of God will have mercy on her, the kind of mercy she cannot show to herself? Isn’t what she does a way of saying ‘Yes, I know I am guilty, but I know that there is someone who can love me, someone who will love me, someone who does love me despite my guilt’? And who are we to deny her? I know I can’t, because I can imagine movements of the heart that are so deep and yet so subtle that we can never see them with the outer eye. We cannot say this was simply self-will. We cannot condemn. We can only hope, for others as well as for ourselves. He had given up all hope, in this moment there was nothing in his world except self-will and perhaps his next step too would have been to end his life—that also happens—or perhaps it would have been to faith. We do not know. But she—maybe she was still hoping, giving herself into the hands of God’s own Mother.” 

            I found myself nodding. Although the ‘God’s Mother’ bit didn’t speak to me (I don’t have that sort of religious background), there was a lot there to think about. Inevitably, I thought back to the people I’d known who’d killed themselves, each of their deaths a terrible enigma. Their faces seemed to pass before me, one after the other, almost as if they were pleading to me and I could almost imagine hearing their distant voices—but too far away to hear their words; too far away—on the far side of death. Even after many years, the question remained: Why? Why? Why? And what had each thought or felt in that final instant? Had there been any hope? Had any of them died clutching a metaphorical icon?

            I looked up. He was gone. I was alone. 

            Had I been asleep? It goes almost without saying that I asked myself that question straightaway, but even on that first night I knew that this wasn’t a dream of hallucination. I was awake and the conversation had been as real as any conversation I’d ever had with a ‘living’ friend—I put scare quotes round ‘living’ because I was left with some uncertainty as to whether life and the limits of life are quite as I’d imagined them to be.

            I didn’t pinch myself. I didn’t need to, but my head was humming, bursting even, as I replayed everything that had happened in the last hour at 16X speed. I couldn’t go to bed straightaway. I picked the book up. I put it down. I went to the bookcase. I went to the window. It was very faint, but I could still hear the drunk guy singing, several blocks away by now. Happy or unhappy. A night bus drew up at the stop opposite, its engine throbbing. Suddenly, I was very tired. This could wait till morning. This had to wait till morning.            

Laura was asleep when I got to bed but stirred enough to make room for me. But, of course, even in bed I didn’t sleep much, replaying the images, the words, the thoughts. Over and over. I slept a little, probably, but my sleep was filled with wild, chaotic images. The alarm went, as usual, at seven o’clock. Laura got up almost straight away. I turned over and pretended to be asleep.

First Conversation Part 2: ‘Guilty?’ Episode 3

I recognized these last words from The Brothers Karamazov. In that novel we meet a character called Markel, a teenager who’s dying of consumption and has a kind of mystical experience that culminates in asking the birds to forgive him and declaring that we could all be in paradise today if we really wanted to be. He tells his family that the way to experience this is to realize that we each have to acknowledge our guilt to everyone, accept that we are guilty for everything, and even see ourselves as more guilty than anyone else. Later, after a misspent youth, his younger brother becomes a monk and, as the saintly Elder Zosima, emerges as the spokesman for Dostoevsky’s own spiritual vision. Zosima repeats Markel’s words many times in his teaching and his favourite disciple, Alyosha Karamazov, hears them ringing in his ears when he too has some kind of mystical vision. 

            Still, there was something about it that didn’t quite feel right. Thinking back to the outcome of my last series of counselling sessions, I’d learned – or thought I’d learned – that guilt was something I had to let go of, that it was guilt that was tying me to the past, making it impossible for me to move on from various bad scenarios and stopping me from committing to real time relationships in the present. I’d been able to follow what Fyodor Mikhailovich had been saying about the need for people who really had done bad things, the torturers and murders, to accept the reality of what they’d done. But this seemed to be something else. As Markel’s own mother said to him, he hadn’t done anything really bad in his life, so how could he be the guiltiest of all. None of us are perfect, of course, but how does thinking of ourselves as ‘guilty’ help? 

            “This has always puzzled me, Fyodor Mikhailovich” I had to say. “Why ‘guilty’? Isn’t guilt something we need less of? Isn’t it guilt that’s to blame for most of our neuroses?”

            “I suppose that what your modern psychologists tell you, is it?”

            “Well, yes. Aren’t they right? Doesn’t feeling guilty stop us living life to the full? Isn’t guilt the enemy of love?”

            “Do you think it is?”

            “I’m not sure. I think it can be … I’ve read about … I’ve known neurotic types who’ve been almost literally crippled by guilt to the point at which you want to shout at them and say ‘Snap out of it! Just get out there and live! Sin a bit!’” 

            “Sinning would do them good, would it?” Fyodor Mikhailovich asked quizzically.

            “Well, you know what I mean …”

            “I think I do,” he answered, sadly. “You mean that if you don’t like the way you’re feeling about yourself, just go take it out on somebody else and don’t worry too much about who you hurt along the way. Is that it?” 

            “I don’t quite mean that … in fact I didn’t mean that at all. I just mean something more like: accept who you are and get on with being yourself.” 

            “Even when the rest of the world is suffering?”

            “Well, no, of course not, but don’t you have to get yourself sorted out before you try sorting out anyone else?”

            I don’t know whether Fyodor Mikhailovich actually shook his head at this point or if it just felt like it.

            “Your Western individualism really is incorrigible,” he said. “You’ve had war after war, you’ve had famines and mass unemployment, you’re destroying the beautiful and mysterious planet you inherited, the rich grow richer and the poor poorer and all you can think of is being yourself! You seem to think it’s a crime to do what somebody else tells you to do or needs you to do if it means not doing what you want to do yourself!”

            I felt he was misinterpreting what I had meant.

            “No, that’s not what I mean. All I’m saying is that we need to take responsibility for others, sure, agreed; but we can only really do this when we can see for ourselves that it’s the right thing to do and not because someone else is telling us. Why does guilt have to come into it”?

            “Because you are guilty!”

            “But why should I feel guilty? I’ve never killed, robbed, or invaded anybody else’s country, or anything like that. I mean, I don’t think I’m perfect, but on the whole I haven’t intentionally done anything to harm anybody else.”

            “I didn’t say ‘feel guilty’. I said you are guilty—there’s a difference. I don’t want you to feel guilty, just acknowledge that you are.”

            “I don’t see how you I could be guilty without feeling guilty, but I don’t want to play with words. So, please tell me what exactly I am guilty of?”

            “I can’t tell you that, but you tell me: is everyone in your world happy? Are they all enjoying life to the full? Do they all have enough to eat, even in your own country? Can they live without being afraid that a stranger or neighbour will strike them down? Are children free from the cruelties and predations of adults?”

            “No, of course there are all sorts of terrible things happening in the world, but I don’t see what I can do about them; I mean, I try to do my bit, to be responsible, to help a neighbour when asked, to support charities, to recycle, but I can’t deal with all of the problems out there, nobody can, no government can. We just have to do the few things we each of us can do and accept our limits. Otherwise we’d go mad!”

            “Are you sure? I wonder. But let’s assume what you say is true. Nevertheless, are you happy? Have you always been happy? Does your presence bring happiness and joy to others?”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich’s questions hurt. I was getting on with my life in a fairly adequate way. I wasn’t a bad person, not too bad, anyway. And from time to time I remembered to try to be better. As to happiness … Of course, there were many things in my life that I enjoyed. Family. Friends. Books. Music. Food. The gym. The hills. Not necessarily in that order. I could go on. The whole range of middle-aged middle-class interests. You could probably write the rest yourself. But had I ever really escaped – entirely escaped – that residual solitude that Dostoevsky had described at the end of A Gentle Spirit? Could I really say I was happy, happy at the very core of my being, or was my happiness only ever a momentary respite, a distraction, from the vision of an empty world and a dead sun? But I hadn’t asked for a therapy session and wasn’t prepared to go down that road, so I tried to lead the conversation away from myself and back to the eternal questions. 

            “Not always, I have to admit, but I’m not usually quarrelsome or unpleasant. I’m just ordinary, a mix, you could say. But what are you trying to say?”

            “Don’t you see? Don’t you remember Markel – we could be in paradise today if we opened our eyes and saw the world as it really is! That’s what you – what most of us – are guilty of: closing our eyes to all the beauty, all the wonder, all the happiness that could be ours, that God wants to be ours; guilty of living in the world as if it was a prison-house or a gambling hall or even as if it was just ‘ordinary’ and not the paradise that it is. We’re all guilty of making the world less than it is and, even worse, stopping others from seeing it too.  And, please, observe that it’s not a matter of trying to love the unlovable, which always fails, but of seeing that all people, if you see them as they really are, are lovable – and, once you see that, loving is not so hard, the heart does it on its own.” 

            I had to think this through. It sounded wonderful, but what difference would it really make to the world if I suddenly started looking at it through rose-coloured spectacles?

            “Well, I’m sure it would be nice to live like that but surely it’s not enough to stop someone living just a couple of blocks away from abusing their child, let alone prevent wars, famines, or global warming—I’m supposing you know about that?—is it?”   

            Fyodor Mikhailovich’s tone was gentle, but he was unrelenting.

            “It’s not about ‘nice’. It’s not what your age calls a lifestyle choice. It’s about acknowledging the truth, which, as we’ve established, means being able to see beyond the facts. Of course, if what you mean is that you have to start where you are and not with some impossible utopian ideal, I entirely agree. But you don’t start with yourself. You start with others. With the world you see and the people you see around you. And it’s not up to you where that leads. I know you don’t like the word guilt, but just think of the many times you’ve passed someone in the street without particularly bothering about them, when you’ve not returned a smile—a child’s smile perhaps—let alone the times when someone looked to you for help and you brushed them aside or turned your back on them, pretending you just didn’t see. How can you know where that momentary refusal to show love led? How can you know all the consequences flowing from even the smallest act of omission? Wouldn’t you be justified in spending a lifetime trying to track down just one of those you’ve failed to love as you might and making amends? Just one. And how many are there that you might have helped and didn’t? And remember, ‘In as much as you did it to one of the least of these …’ We are each other’s’ keepers: that’s who we are, and if we aren’t that—who or what could we possibly be?” 

            “So being guilty is taking responsibility for each other?” 

            “Aren’t you listening! Who are you to take responsibility for someone else when you have failed to listen to love’s call—again and again and again! It’s not about you becoming a moral hero, it’s not about how you’d like to be or how you’d like the world to be, it’s about seeing the truth—that you owe a debt you’ll never be able to repay in full, you owe everything you have and are to the world, to your brothers and sisters, you belong to them and they to you. ‘We are members one of another’.”

            I was both puzzled and hurt. I didn’t see that what I was saying in any way involved turning my back on others, though I did start to feel that there was something missing in the way I’d put my side of the argument.

First Conversation Part 2: Guilty? Episode 2

“So, the husband – just what is it he’s got to do to get out of his despair? What is this step he’s got to take?”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich sat back and closed his eyes for a moment before looking at me almost apologetically.

            “Despair. He must despair. He must plead guilty and ask for forgiveness.”

            I wasn’t quite sure what he meant but blundered forward anyway.

            “But surely he is guilty – and knows it. Isn’t that the whole point of his confession, telling the whole world how guilty he is?”

            “Not exactly,” Fyodor Mikhailovich replied, with just a hint of the kind of glee you can imagine a prosecutor enjoying as he closes in on the crucial point in a cross-examination. He continued.

            “The question is: what is guilt and what is it to be guilty or to confess your guilt? Most people don’t understand this at all. They think it’s just a matter of fact – did he or didn’t he do it? If he did, he’s guilty, if he didn’t, he’s not guilty. Remember what Ivan Karamazov said, that everyone wants to kill their father – but the world knows many of these mental parricides as obedient and loving sons, who are not guilty of anything.” Pause. “I think you haven’t read my Diary of a Writer?”

            “I’ve read about it …” I answered, not wanting to risk offending him any more, though sensing that he did in fact know exactly what I had and hadn’t read.

            “But you haven’t actually read it?”

            “Er, no,” I had to admit, slightly confused. Perhaps the whisky hadn’t been such a good idea.

            “It’s strange,” he said, almost as if he was talking to himself. “My English and American readers don’t seem to read it very much. Of course, I do say some rude things about England in it and I know what they say in return—that’s it’s full of Russian jingoism, all very retrograde and reactionary. In my own view, though, it has some of the best things I’ve ever written in it. In fact, that’s where you’ll find this story we’re talking about right now.”

            “Really? I thought it was just a short story, like in this collection here.”

            “Just a short story …?”

            “Sorry, I didn’t mean that in a bad way, but …”

            “I know, I know,” he replied consolingly. “It is a short story, but it’s also what one of my friends on this side would call ‘a thought experiment’. We can talk more of that another time, but I’m digressing. You see there’s a lot in the Diary about guilt and what it means to be guilty. Not fiction, but real life, cases that happened in Russia, in my own time, not unlike quite a lot of cases happening in your country today—alas.”

            He sighed.

            “These are difficult things to talk about, and I should emphasize that I never wanted anyone to be locked up, or beaten, or put to death for what they’d done. I’ve seen too much of what that means. Punishment isn’t the answer, but acknowledging your guilt is … the first step.”

            As I’d had to admit, I hadn’t read The Diary of a Writer (actually a kind of journal that Dostoevsky published monthly and that consisted entirely of his own thoughts about issues of the day), but I did know that he had been involved in several criminal cases, some of which were about the kind of cruelty to children that Ivan Karamazov cited as evidence against the existence of God. I couldn’t remember any details, though. I felt rather like a student who hasn’t done his homework hoping that he’s not the one going to be asked the next question. Only there wasn’t anyone else to ask. In the event, Fyodor Mikhailovich let me off fairly gently.

            “You want me to explain?” he asked.


            “I suppose you know that jury trials were still quite an innovation in my time in Russia, so it’s no surprise that they produced some odd results. A clever lawyer could easily persuade a jury one way or another. Even when all the facts pointed to the guilt of the accused, even when it was admitted that, indeed, such-and-such a woman had attacked her lover’s wife with a razor with the intention of killing her, such-and-such a father had so violently beaten his seven-year old daughter with birch rods that even the neighbours were terrified by her screams, or such-and-such parents had treated their children like animals, keeping them in filthy conditions, and beating them with leather straps, again and again—each time our poor soft-hearted jurors concluded ‘Not guilty!’ Can you imagine? Of course, there is always an explanation, there are always attenuating circumstances, there can even be provocations, and the letter of the law may tell us this is not torture but simply punishment, the kind of punishment that, in those days, all good middle-class parents thought it right to mete out so as to give their children a sense of duty. The facts. The facts are the facts, but the truth once uttered is a lie, and even the facts can be put together in such a way as to turn even torture into well-meaning parental discipline.”    

            As Fyodor Mikhailovich spoke, he became quite agitated. His face narrowed and his eyes flashed. At first he had just tapped his fingers intermittently on the arms of his chair but as he went on he started to wave his hands around with increasing energy. Whatever he had seen in the world he now inhabited, it was clear that he was still unreconciled to the outrages that adult human beings inflict on children, who, as he had said in The Brothers Karamazov, hadn’t eaten that fatal apple. I didn’t know the details of the cases he was talking about, but I couldn’t help thinking about a particularly horrifying case that had recently happened here in Scotland. I’ll spare you the details.

            “I’m sorry,” he said, taking a breath (or what seemed like a breath). “As I say, even here there are times when I could wish for a cigarette—or even a good whisky”, he added with a smile, nodding reassuringly at me.

            “But I repeat,” he continued after a moment, raising his hands dramatically, “I am not demanding the maximum penalty of the law, not even for these torturers. I do not want them imprisoned, beaten, or executed, though I understand the outrage of people who do. Remember, when Ivan asked Alyosha what to do about the general who’d had the little boy torn to pieces by his dogs, even mild, sweet-tempered Alyosha said ‘Shoot him’. But that doesn’t help either. Just because I wrote a novel called Crime and Punishment, people imagine I’m obsessed with punishing. Not at all. All I want is that the guilty are not acquitted. That their guilt is clearly stated. And that they accept it—that’s the most important of all. Let them be found guilty—and let them go free.”

            “Just like that?” I interjected, quite shocked.

            “Not ‘just’ like that. No. If you’d read my Diary” (not said reproachfully, but matter of factly) “you’d have read how I imagined the judge speaking to such a person. He makes it clear that it’s not a matter of going home and forgetting about it, going back to the way things were before. No. There has to be change. In my time, the father was the authority figure in the family, but, as I—or my imaginary judge—pointed out, even fathers sometimes need to be re-educated by their children until they learn to listen to their children’s needs. I know that families are very different in your time, but, yes, parents, whoever they are, must learn to be parents to their children. I disagree with much that the prosecutor said about the Karamazov family, but he was right on one point: parents can’t just be parents by virtue of procreation, they have to become parents. And when they abuse their position and their power, they cannot hide behind their rights as parents—they have to own up. The guilty have to know that they are guilty.”

            By this time he was shaking his right index finger, not unlike a judge scolding the prisoner in the dock. Slowly, he lowered his hand, till it came to rest again on the chair.

            “So, you see.”


            I had been quite carried away watching (as well as listening to) his peroration. He had been gradually raising his voice as well as his hands and I wondered vaguely whether Laura might have been disturbed. But all of this seemed to be at a tangent to what we had been talking about and the devastating climax of A Gentle Spirit

            “But our husband—how does this connect to him?” I asked. “I mean, surely he does acknowledge his guilt. The whole story is in a way his confession, isn’t it?”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich thought for a few seconds, gently nodding his head.

            “In a way, yes. But only in a way. It seems to me that he has still not acknowledged what he did to her, only how it has affected him. It is not her misery but his own solitude that bothers him: how he can go on living without her.”

            “Isn’t that rather harsh? After all, he himself set out the charge sheet, if you like. He tells us just what he has done, how he has behaved. He provides all the evidence we need to find him guilty—morally, if not legally.”

            “Yes, yes, yes—but why? Why is he doing this? Let me give you another example, a better known one, I think. You remember that in The Possessed (which, by the way, isn’t quite what my title means, though it’s quite good in its own way), I had Stavrogin go to Bishop Tikhon to confess how he’d raped a twelve-year old girl and then just waited in the next room while she hung herself?”

            “I remember. It’s unforgettable. Horrific. In a way I’m not surprised they didn’t let you publish it.”

            “Nor was I, though it was very frustrating. But you will also remember that he didn’t just go to confess his sin in the way that a normal penitent does: he had even arranged for a full copy to be printed, ready to be published for the world to see.”

            “Yes, I remember.”

            “Now some people might think that was a sign of how deeply he had repented, allowing himself to be shamed before the whole word. But, as I hope you also remember, Bishop Tikhon could see that wanting to publicize your guilt in that way is not necessarily the same as really accepting it, inwardly. Wanting to be seen – and maybe even admired – as a great sinner is not quite the same as actually repenting. And perhaps that’s how it is here too. Of course, if you want to be fussy, you could say that he’s just talking to himself. He’s not produced a written, let alone a printed, confession. I’m the one who wrote it, not him. And yet, it’s as if he’s rehearsing his story for the benefit of the world, for the imaginary audience we each of us have inside our heads.”

            “You mean like in one of Shakespeare’s monologues, like Richard III or Hamlet.”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich seemed pleased at my remark, shaking his whole upper body in approval.

            “Exactly! It’s a performance. It’s not the heart speaking. The heart would say something very different. In fact, the heart wouldn’t need to say very much at all: it has only one thing to say, to love and to ask for love, to forgive and to ask forgiveness. We’ve been talking about people who commit crimes but won’t own up to what they’ve done, people who want to say to anyone who’ll listen: ‘Not guilty! My conscience is clear! Don’t blame me!’ But the real problem is not the evidence of the facts—did he or didn’t he do this or say that. The real problem is that this is completely back to front. The person who loves, even if they haven’t committed any crimes, is the person who wants to be guilty, who doesn’t just want to forgive but wants to be forgiven; the person who thinks of themselves not only as guilty but infinitely guilty, guilty of everything, before everyone, in fact the guiltiest one of all.”

First Conversation Part 2: Guilty? Episode 1.

I’m not sure if I really wanted the whisky. I’d begun to feel a bit like you feel when you’re about to pass out and perhaps I just wanted to be holding the glass between my hands as a point of contact with the real world that, in the course of the last few minutes, seemed to be drifting away.

            “Now look,” I said, “I’m really having difficulty getting my head round this, so let’s go back a step.” (This was one of my favourite teaching moves.) “I get what you say about art and reality – but what we started talking about was faith—God, immortality, the eternal questions! So let’s say I do learn to look at the world with the eyes of an artist, how is that going to help me find faith in God? Doesn’t it sometimes have the opposite effect, like T. S. Eliot said about Webster seeing the skull beneath the skin? Don’t rather a lot of artists spend a bit too much time on the dark side? In fact, some people would say that about you – that you’re always writing about sickness, violence, and despair – ‘a cruel talent’, someone said.” 

            Fyodor Mikhailovich looked momentarily vexed and he appeared to mutter something under his breath that I couldn’t hear. I continued. 

            “I mean, if we’re talking about A Gentle Spirit, it’s a very different scenario from your father and son story. In that case, your artist’s eye helped you to see the dignity that the world couldn’t—or wouldn’t—see, But in this case, you take a grieving husband whose wife has just committed suicide and turn him into a twisted self-hating sadist. You tear him apart and leave him in despair—alone in the universe, beneath a dead sun, unable to believe in love. Maybe he deserves it, but your ‘artist’s eye’ has led us away from faith, not towards it—so how are you going to get him from despair to faith? How can he learn to love again—or perhaps learn to love properly for the first time?”

As I read this over some months after the event, I have to say that I’m rather embarrassed at how I spoke to Fyodor Mikhailovich, especially that first evening, when we’d known each other for less than an hour. Although what I actually said probably wasn’t quite as coherent or as confrontational as I’ve recorded it here, I realize that it sounds more like I was dissecting an essay by a not very competent student rather than talking to one of the world’s greatest writers (the greatest, according to Virginia Woolf). As if there could be any easy answers when talking about one of his most difficult and brilliant stories and about some of the deepest challenges facing any human being. In my defence, I can only say that I was in a state of extraordinary agitation. I’m sure you can understand why. This was a chance that I could never have dreamed of and that would probably never come again. I had to get the answers I wanted now, before it was too late. At the same time, as I said before, the devastating finale of Dostoevsky’s astonishing monologue took me to a place in my own experience from which I’d spent many years trying to escape. This wasn’t just an exercise in literary criticism, it was trying to find out if there was any point in my being alive at all. And the situation itself was beyond unbelievable. Can you wonder that I was a little bit “hyper”?

            Fortunately for me, both now and in our subsequent conversations, Fyodor Mikhailovich showed himself to be a man (and I suppose that even in his supernatural state he was, still, a man) of exceptional patience.

            “You’ve finished?” he asked politely.

            “Yes … of course … I’m sorry if I’m being too simplistic – but these questions really are incredibly important to me. I mean I do understand that novels are novels and that you more than any other novelist hid your own opinions behind those of your characters. At the same time, I’m sure you were wanting to tell us something … to open a door … to show us a new way of looking at the world … to help make faith possible. But if it all ends in a paradox and the truth isn’t the truth, doesn’t it all become just a game? But I don’t believe that. I don’t believe it for a moment.”

            Again he paused and I had the feeling he was rather pleased with what I’d said.

            “Yes, yes, yes, you’re right. It’s certainly not just a game. But the question is a difficult one. From a certain point of view, what he sees is the truth. And it’s not just because he’s a bad character. Even the science in which everyone now believes tells us that, in the end, the universe is entirely indifferent to whether we human beings exist or not. One day our sun will die and then we will be no more—but the stars will continue in their circuits. Of course, that’s not all there is to it in his case, but if you believe that that’s how things are, then the failures of your own life are going to seem even more terrible than, maybe, they really are.”

            During this last speech he had held his hands clasped together, now he released them and let them rest on the arms of his chair. Shutting his eyes and slowly nodding his head very slightly, he continued in an almost meditative way, as if talking to himself. 

            “Yes, he’s seen the truth, the truth of a world without love. And it’s not just the inexorable laws of nature, it’s what he feels in his own life, a life without love. But even those who live without love need another human being, another voice, another presence in their lives. That’s what she was or what she could have been for him—except he didn’t take the chance. He didn’t let her be herself and now she’s gone, gone out through the window, and he’s alone. Again. More so than ever. This is the truth, his truth, what his life has come to. But there’s another truth, if he wanted to learn it. And it’s not very far away. He doesn’t have to learn any new facts: he just has to look at what he already knows in a different way. It’s just a small, a very small step, no bigger than an onion, in fact, but it would take him in the opposite direction from his whole development up to this point.”

            “An onion?”

            “It doesn’t matter—I thought you might get the allusion. Perhaps we’ll come back to it.”

            His head sank forward and he seemed lost in thought. Realizing that I probably shouldn’t have interrupted him, I urged him to carry on. “Sorry—but, please, what is this step?”

            Looking up, he smiled and looked suddenly mischievous. “Have you ever read Hegel?” he asked, clearly trying to sound matter-of-fact but not entirely succeeding.

            “Hegel!” I expostulated. “Well, of course, I know about him and I’ve read a lot of writers and critics who quote him, though I haven’t read much of the man himself. I tried The Phenomenology of Spirit when I was a student, but I didn’t get very far. What’s Hegel got to do with it?”

            “I read Hegel in Siberia,” he remarked, seemingly ignoring my last question. “It made me very sad.”

            “Sad? Really? I’ve never heard of Hegel making people sad!”

            “I don’t suppose he does have that effect on many” (he emphasized “many”), “but my circumstances were quite particular. I’d been in prison for four years, four years of hard labour, my fingers cracking with frost in the winter and my entire skin itching with midge bites in the summer; I’d seen the most terrible things – men being whipped to death; and what men I’d lived with: men who’d committed the most bestial acts imaginable – beyond imaginable – men who’d murdered their own families locked up alongside idealists and dreamers whose only crime was to imagine a better world. And what did Hegel have to say about those four year of terrible intense reality? Nothing. Nothing at all. Or, more precisely, he said that Siberia is not and cannot be a part of world-history. So there you are – all that experience, all those suffering, all those poor wretches, not only exiled from Russia but exiled from history itself.”

            He stopped, sighed, and looked mournfully down at the rug, shaking his head very gently.

            “A man who knew so much and thought so much– and yet he could say that! Could he really have thought about what he was saying? I don’t know. I haven’t yet had a chance to talk with him here, though I’m told he’s not so very far away from where I myself am—but, of course, I’m not in charge of how these things are organized. Anyway, that’s all beside the point. The reason why I brought Hegel into the conversation is because he was right about one thing: the way to truth is not a simple and direct way, as ordinary logicians and Euclidean geometers like to think. It’s a jagged and oscillating line, making its way from one extreme to the next and contradicting itself at every turn.”

            “Right – the famous dialectic: thesis, antithesis, synthesis!”

            “Exactly. Or, as I prefer to think of it: pro et contra.”

            “That’s the title you gave one of the books in The Brothers Karamazov, isn’t it?”
            “Indeed. Well-remembered.” (He really did seem quite pleased with this. Perhaps I was on the way to redeeming my ignorance about the onion.) “But what follows from this?”

            “I don’t know – tell me.”

            “It follows that the moment immediately before the final revelation of truth is precisely the most extreme opposite of truth, the necessary negation or antithesis that prepares the way for the final affirmation or synthesis.”

            “So the husband …”

            “Yes, the husband … the truth is exactly the opposite of what he says: we are not alone, the sun does shine on all and give life to all, and Christ’s commandment is the one true law of the human heart, as it always was.”

            “So why did you say he’d seen the truth?”

            “Because he has embraced the negation and has therefore seen one side of the truth but he has not yet seen the whole truth, the positive truth, the synthesis. He is nearer the truth than when he began because he has learned where the life he used to live has led him and what the world really is like if you do not have love. Now he has to turn around and see what it’s like when you do love! But – Nota Bene – he had to learn all of this through experience, he had to be shaken out of his ignorance and indifference and it took everything he had experienced to get him to this point – just one step away from the whole truth, the step he hasn’t yet taken; just one step – but if he doesn’t take it, then he is as far away from the truth as it’s possible for a man to be. Still, perhaps he will take it – in the very next second! Or perhaps he never will!”

            “From what I know of Hegel, wouldn’t he say that he would have to take it because the thesis followed by the antithesis leads necessarily to the synthesis? Positive. Negative. Positive. Happy ending.”

             Fyodor Mikhailovich smiled slyly. “As I said, Hegel knew a lot, perhaps too much. Who can ever know what happens next? Will our despairer take the next step? Who knows?”

            “Who knows? Fyodor Mikhailovich, surely you know – as you said at the beginning you made it all up!”

            “Me? How could I know? Who knows the mystery of another person’s heart?”

            “But surely – you did make it all up, you invented him and you can make him think and do whatever you like.”

            Probably it was the whisky or the late hour talking, but I was in danger of forgetting myself—again. Here I was, telling Dostoevsky what he could or couldn’t write! Perhaps there was a limit to nis patience, since the silence that followed was, I felt, just a little bit chilly. Then again, maybe it was just the temperature dropping after the heating had gone off and the last log in the wood-burner had burnt itself out.

            “It’s not that straightforward,” Fyodor Mikhailovich resumed, looking at me, with almost visible forbearance. “If only it were. We writers look at reality with an artist’s eyes, but we don’t invent it, we don’t ‘make it up’ (to use your expression).”

            Actually, I thought it was his expression, but I refrained from commenting. He was obviously being very serious and maybe even a wee bit offended and, in any case, there were more important questions that needed answering. 

First Conversation (Beneath a Dead Sun): Episode 4

Fyodor Mikhailovich smiled, looking thoughtful. I could feel him getting ready to say more and waited, a tad anxious that I’d overdone it.

“What is a lie? Well, if you want an answer to that question, you first have to know what you mean by truth,” he said after a while, pausing again before continuing. “If, like many of my own contemporaries, you believe that truth is the same as facts, then maybe my stories, maybe Christianity itself, is indeed nothing but lies. Some of them would do away with fiction altogether – think of Mr Gradgrind. And if that’s what truth is, then, as I think you know, I’d always take the side of Christ against truth. Quixotic, you’ll say – but I’ve got a soft spot for that crazy knight errant, maybe the greatest story ever invented by a human being. But do we have to accept that truth equals facts? I don’t think so. Sometimes facts can even stop us seeing the truth. Living according to the logic of facts and nothing else is the law of the anthill, not human beings.”

“Like you say in Notes from Underground?”

“Exactly; but let me give you another example – the Notes are a bit too complicated, too ideological, at least for now.” 

Taking a deep breath, he began to speak in the manner of someone reciting a speech that he had learned by heart. 

“One day I am out in St Petersburg. It’s a Sunday, and people of all classes are also out taking a walk. The smart crowd are promenading on Nevsky Prospect and in the Summer Gardens, showing off their fashionable costumes, seeing and being seen. But even in the back streets, people are taking the air; perhaps they only go a few hundred yards from their door –apart the drunkards among them they wouldn’t dare show themselves on Nevsky at such an hour. They meet a neighbour, they stop and talk for a few minutes; perhaps this is their one hour of freedom in the entire week. Amongst them I see a young man. He’s about thirty years old. He’s done his best to dress up well, but his clothes are old and worn, probably third hand. He has a little boy with him, about two years old. He’s been cross with the boy, but now picks him up and the child clings to his neck. Over his daddy’s shoulder, he sees me looking and frowns crossly, and holds on all the more tightly to papa. Of course, it’s rude of me to stare, but I can’t help myself. What do you ever learn about people if you only ever talk to those you meet in polite society? It’s the people you don’t know you should be learning from. Get out there, look at them. If possible, talk to them. But look, while I’ve been talking, they’ve gone, daddy and kiddo, absorbed into the crowd. Just two in a million. Who are they? I don’t know and I’ll probably never see them again.”

He stopped and looked at me quizzically.

“I’m not boring you, am I?” he asked.

“No, not at all. I can picture what you’re saying very clearly – but I don’t see what it’s got to do with what we were talking about.”

“Very good. I’ll come to the point as quickly as I can. They’re gone. I never see them again, but I can’t stop thinking about them. Who are they? Where have they been? Why? The man is the kind of worker you see in a locksmith or printing office. Solid, reliable work – but not well paid. Where is the mother? I’m thinking that she’s dead, probably not long since, maybe about two months ago, almost certainly of consumption. While daddy’s at work, he pays some old woman even less than he earns to look after the little boy, perhaps one of the people they share a flat with. By the way,” he said, changing his tone, “did you know that back then you could have got five or six families into this flat you share with your wife and son? It makes you think, doesn’t it?”

I nodded, uncomfortably.

“Back to my story then. On weekdays he leaves the boy with the old woman, but today is Sunday, so they’ve been out on a visit, let’s say to the dead wife’s sister, over in the Viborg district. The sister and her husband are probably a notch or two up the social ladder and they don’t really have much in common with our young widower. They drink tea together, but don’t say much. They say their goodbyes awkwardly and the father carries the boy home. It’s a long walk from the Viborg side to Liteiny, especially if you have a lad of two to carry most of the way. No wonder the father’s quick to snap, and tomorrow he has to get up early for work. What do you think?”

“Yes, it’s all possible – though I suppose you could make up quite different stories about them too?”

“Of course – I could. That is—that was—me metier. So: Is my story true?”

“Well, I don’t know. I’ve no way of knowing. I mean, I believe you saw a man and a boy, but as for the rest – I just don’t know.”

“No more do I. But would it be truer just to stick to the facts and say: ‘On Sunday afternoon I saw a man and a boy. I don’t know anything about their circumstances or where they lived, so I’m not going to say any more. I’m going to keep to the facts’?”

“Well, that would certainly be true – but it wouldn’t be as interesting … or as human. The way you speak about them, they become somehow real, three-dimensional personalities.”

“Thank you. Not just facts, then. We’re agreed. Keep to the facts and you can hand them over to the statisticians who will tell you all about employment rates, wages, rents, the prevalence of consumption and then produce an algorithm which will tell you how to make them and all the other millions of workers happy and contented. Or so they promise. You may even manage to turn society into an anthill, full of happy contented beings – but you won’t have human beings, people as alive as you and me,” (he smiled as he said this) “people who feel and cry and hope and love as we do. Maybe nothing I made up about my worker and his boy is true, maybe I got every fact wrong, maybe mama is at home getting a good Sunday dinner ready for them all. I don’t know. But my story, my fiction, opens your eyes. Next time you pass a poor man out on the street with his little boy you’ll remember my story and you’ll think to yourself, ‘There’s more to him than meets the eye. That man and his boy have a whole life I know nothing about, a life full of joy, and grief, and love, as rich as anything in Shakespeare or Sophocles – or even Dostoevsky.’ Isn’t that how it will be? And because you think this, you’ll respect them more, maybe you’ll even love them more. What do you think?”

He watched me steadily.

“Yes, yes, that’s true. So, what you’re saying is that even if fiction doesn’t tell us the truth, even if it’s all made up, it shows us something about the world we wouldn’t otherwise see?”

 “Not just about the world, but about us, us human beings. ‘The man in man’. Each of us, you see, is much, much more than how we seem and much, much more than the whole sum of facts – even the whole sum of true facts – about us. Maybe we all have to become artists to see ourselves and our world as they truly are.”

That made sense. It also made sense of why I’d always loved his novels and stories since I first started reading them in my late teens – because they show us something about each other that we can never see just by looking, a whole other dimension, as it were. But, again, the conversation seemed to have gone off on a tangent. What did any of this have to do with those famous eternal questions, with God, immortality, and faith?

I needed another whisky.

“Do you mind …” I asked, reaching toward the bottle.

“Not at all … please, carry on.”

“Sorry, would you like one?”

He smiled ruefully. “No, no—but thank you. That’s not how we do things here. But, please, carry on.”

I did.

First Conversation (Beneath a Dead Sun). Episode 3

We are, then, back where we started. As you probably remember, Fyodor Mikhailovich didn’t give a direct answer to my question about faith but started saying how everything he wrote in his novels and stories was just fiction, something he’d made up, in short – a lie. Anyway, he’d said, he was only a ‘peripheral’ inhabitant of the next world – ‘the great synthesis’, as he called it – and that if I really wanted answers, I’d better ask God. Which was quite a conversation stopper. Still, having got him there – however it had happened – I wasn’t going to let him brush me off that easily.

“Well, maybe if God had turned up instead of you, I would ask him—but he didn’t. I’ve only got you and since you’re the person who wrote these words you must have something to say about them. And even if you did just make them up, even if they’re what you call ‘lies’, it seems to me that they’re saying something true, something we can’t help feeling about ourselves – something we’ve got to deal with. You can’t just say ‘It’s all lies – now go and ask God’. If it’s that easy to ask God, why did you bother writing this … and all those thousands of other pages? And why did you bother coming here?”

Fyodor Mikhailovich chuckled quietly. 

“Fair questions, fair questions – we’ll make a ‘Russian boy’ of you yet!” Returning to his chair, he drew it a couple of inches closer and, lowering his voice continued in a more confidential tone, as if imparting some great secret. “Well, maybe He is here and you’re just not seeing Him – and if you were to see Him then you might be shouting ‘Hosannah’ instead of asking questions.”

I smiled, recognizing the allusion to one of my favourite passages in The Brothers Karamazov. People sometimes forget that Dostoevsky didn’t just write about crime, punishment, and the eternal questions – he could also be very funny.  When the shape-shifting Devil appears to Ivan Karamazov (which I mentioned before), he tells a story about a Russian nihilist who doesn’t believe in God or immortality and, when he dies, is deeply shocked to wake up in the afterlife. At first, he refuses to budge and stays on the spot for a billion years before he eventually gets up and walks the quadrillion miles to the gates of Heaven, still deeply vexed by the fact that he really is immortal. He goes in. Immediately, he’s overwhelmed and starts shouting ‘Hosannah’ even more loudly than many of those already gathered round the divine throne – so much so that some of the other saints think he’s overdoing it.

“Like that Russian nihilist. I see. Yes, probably. But even if He is here, I can’t see Him: I can only see you. I don’t suppose you can open my eyes for me?”

“No, of course, not,” he replied, with a touch of irritation, as if it was something that had already been explained to me umpteen times. “If it was that easy, atheism would have been vanquished long ago. I can’t do what only God can do. I can’t even teach you to pray. But I can tell stories.”

“Stories which, you say, are lies.”



Fyodor Mikhailovich didn’t give the impression of being in a hurry to make the next move. Of course (obviously), it was amazing to have him sitting there, speaking to me, almost (I’m tempted to say) ‘in the flesh’. Only (obviously), not ‘in the flesh’. Even so – amazing. But I too was starting to get irritated.

“Fyodor Mikhailovich,” I said, “you can’t just leave it at that. Please help me out here. Even if you insist on calling your novels lies, they’re not like the lies that some of your characters tell, and an awful lot of them do seem to be compulsive liars. I can’t immediately think of any examples, but there are a quite a few! Wait, let me think a moment. Yes, there’s that character in The Idiot, who lies all the time and quite often for no reason at all. You know who I mean …?”


“Yes! That’s his name. Then there’s Peter Verkhovensky in The Possessed who uses lying as a political strategy. And of course, there’s old man Karamazov. He too seems to lie for the sake of it or just to rub people up the wrong way. I think he even calls himself ‘The Father of Lies’ –like the Devil, I suppose. Perhaps he’s the worst of all?”

“Very good,” he smirked. “that’s a good list to start with, though we could easily add to it. We mustn’t forget the people who lie to themselves, like Peter Verkhovensky’s father—a man whose whole life is a kind of fantasy, imagining himself to be some kind of great man, a leader of his generation, when he’s really nothing of the sort. And then, think of all the self-deception there is in love, all the nihilists who think they’re through with love when all they really want is someone to love them without either lording it over them or drowning them in fake sentimentality. Or Katerina Ivanovna, who really believes she’s in love with Dmitri Karamazov and because of that is as much to blame as anyone for the catastrophe that follows. Imagine if she hadn’t followed him to his home town … it would all have been a lot easier for everyone. And then there’s the husband you’ve just been reading about. If he hadn’t had such false ideas about himself and wasn’t so obstinately committed to them, he would never have treated his wife in the way that he did, killing the love in her. Yes, dig down into any tragedy, and you’ll find a lie at the root of it all. In fact,” he continued in a measured and deliberate tone, “it all began with the lie. Every act of inhumanity, from the very beginning of history right through to the end – it all began with the lie.”

“You shall be as gods,” I interjected, eager to show I was following his train of thought. “Was that where it started?”

“You shall be as gods … Yes, they were ready to hear that lie, though perhaps they had already been lying to themselves and to each other long before they the serpent turned up with his smooth-talking trickery. Maybe they even began to lie in the very same moment in which they began to speak. Think of a little child. The moment it starts to speak, its world turns upside down so that a piece of wood can become a doll, a farmer, a horse … and all because the child says so. It’s all very innocent and entertaining, of course. The child’s happy, mama and papa are happy, and all the aunts and uncles are happy too. But before you know where you are, little Ivan has graduated to outright fibs, either to get something he wants or to get himself out of trouble. It’s quite a business! They say money is the root of all evil but money itself is just another way of lying. Just like language, money can turn anything into anything: I may be an unprepossessing sort of fellow but, thanks to money, I can become a Don Juan; I may be entirely without intelligence but, thanks to money, I can become a genius; I may be an utterly dull fellow but, thanks to money, my dullest witticism is met with gales of laughter. That’s why Shakespeare and Goethe both knew that money was the only serious competitor to literature. But believe, me, long before there was money, there was language. ‘In the beginning was the Word’!”

“Fyodor Mikhailovich,” I exclaimed. “This is shocking! I’m no longer a believer (though maybe I’d like to become one again), but when the Bible says ‘In the beginning was the Word’ isn’t it in order to tell us that the power of speech is God-given? Isn’t it the sign of His image in us? Didn’t God Himself talk with Adam and Eve in the garden? You – you of all people – can’t be saying that we’d be better off without language, condemned to silence, like animals?”

“In the beginning was the Word.” He repeated the words slowly and softly, as if absorbed in how they sounded. “This is true, this will always be true, this is the truth. But our words – are they ‘the Word’? Is everything we say ‘the Word’ just because it is made up of words?”“Well, no. I accept that, of course. But can’t we use language to speak truth as well as to lie? And isn’t there a difference between the kinds of lies that all these characters in your novels are trapped in and those novels themselves? Don’t they tell us something true about ourselves, something we all need to know? So why insist on calling them lies? Why can’t we just call them stories – because if they’re nothing but lies then not only me but thousands and thousands of your readers have been complete dupes. And I don’t think that’s what you wanted, is it? Face it, you did inspire people, you held out a hand to people in despair and they grabbed it … your stories gave them faith, at least enough faith to go on living. That’s nothing like Lebedev, old Karamazov and all the rest, is it? If it’s all just lies, then you must be one of the biggest confidence tricksters of all time.”

[Episode 4 will be posted on Friday March 26th]