First Conversation: Episode 2


I’ve already said that– like most of those that followed – this first conversation was taking place in my flat, which is on the second floor of a late nineteenth century tenement block in Glasgow’s West End. Like many Glasgow tenements, ours isn’t unlike those that Dostoevsky would have known in St Petersburg and, unlike most of our neighbours on the close, we’ve never got round to modernizing it. I had the impression that Fyodor Mikhailovich felt quite at ease there and architecture may have had something to do with it. But that’s not the only thing. His Russian city and my Scottish city had both been fashioned by the contradictions and absurdities of capitalism’s hyper-active and misspent nineteenth-century youth. The grotesquely rich and the unbelievably poor, old money and nouveaux riches, the insulted and the injured, revolutionary dreamers, swindlers, spongers, drunkards, down-and-outs, sellers of love, gamblers, mystics, and saints – all of them thrown into the voracious maelstrom generated by the making and losing of money. And then there are the winters … and the rain … and the shadows beyond the streetlights … the footsteps of a solitary walker crossing an empty bridge … the uncanny feeling of someone following you … or maybe you are the one doing the following? Everywhere there is matter for stories in these ‘intentional’ cities, as Dostoevsky himself had described St Petersburg—cities that hadn’t grown up organically from an ancient core but that were invented or re-invented as ‘modern’ cities, overrunning the limits of nature and reason. Glasgow, St Petersburg – both, to my mind, ‘intentional cities’.

Perhaps that’s a bit fanciful. Maybe all this could have happened in any city, town, or village. Perhaps visitors from there feel at ease anywhere in our world. Perhaps I should just keep my thoughts to myself and get on with telling you how it began. 

So, there we are, back in my flat on that (inevitably) damp November evening. At that time, I often stayed up for an hour or so after my wife had gone to bed. Whether it was overwork or something more sinister – a late onset mid-life crisis, perhaps – I needed the time to unwind, to read, to listen to some music, or just to think. Sometimes with a glass of whisky. Occasionally, two glasses. But really just a snifter. Scapa, when I could get it. Often, I’d end by switching off the reading light on the side-table and just letting the darkness gather me to itself.

I’d been reading Dostoevsky’s short story ‘A Gentle Spirit’. The story is narrated by a man, a pawnbroker, whose seventeen-year-old wife, goaded by his mental cruelty, has leapt to her death, clutching an icon. All through the night he stands over her body as it is prepared for burial and starts to realize not only what he has lost but also what he himself has destroyed through his own vile behaviour. 

His final words are a statement of despair as powerful as the famous speech in which Ivan Karamazov denounced God for creating a world in which the progress of history allowed for and even necessitated the torture and murder of children—crimes that he illustrated in grim detail. Just like Ivan’s ‘rebellion’ (as Dostoevsky called it), the pawnbroker’s words constitute a terrible challenge to Christianity or to any optimistic view of human existence. 

“Oh, blind force! Oh, nature! Men are alone on earth—that is what is dreadful. “Is            there a living man in the country?” cried the Russian hero. I cry the same, though I           am not a hero, and no one answers my cry. They say the sun gives life to the          universe. The sun is rising and—look at it, is it not dead? Everything is dead and        everywhere there are dead. Men are alone—around them is silence—that is the             earth! “Men, love one another”—who said that? Whose commandment is that? The          pendulum ticks callously, heartlessly. Two o’clock at night. Her little shoes are   standing by the little bed, as though waiting for her … No, seriously, when they take         her away tomorrow, what will become of me?” 

I first read these words when I was going through a fairly standard phase of student nihilism and it was like finding my own voice for the first time, hearing someone saying what I’d been thinking and feeling but couldn’t find the words to say. Looking back, it’s probably the fact that I heard someone else saying it that stopped me from following the logic of the words themselves all the way to – what? Other Dostoevsky characters who say very similar things kill themselves, or try to, but there are other methods of self-destruction. What one psychologist called ‘chronic suicide’—going on living, but without there being any point or joy in it. Of course, it’s unsurprising that words like these speak to ‘disillusioned youth’, but why should they hit me with such force now, thirty years later, now, when I’ve grown up and found something that I’m mostly convinced is worth living for? I’ve become a fairly normal middle-aged person living a fairly normal middle-class life. My wife wasn’t jumping out of the window but was either reading or sleeping in the next room. Life had its stresses, but nothing out of the ordinary. And anyway, as Fyodor Mikhailovich himself said, it’s only fiction. 

It would be ridiculous to try to explain Dostoevsky better than he explains himself and, in any case, every one of us will read these words in their own way. But I ask you: whatever you’ve done or been, haven’t you too had moments when you realized that the world is entirely indifferent to anything you might think, speak, do, or feel; that all the words that you and me and all of us endlessly exchange with one another are, in the end, pointless; that even if you’ve found someone to love and have friends with whom you meet, eat, party, and debate – despite all that, there is a point of ultimate isolation from which you can’t escape, a point at which you are completely alone? And even if you’re happy enough in your life, what difference does your happiness make to the world? It doesn’t—and, once you realize that, then even Christ’s words of love ring hollow. The sun comes up, the sun goes down, night falls – who cares? Short answer: no one.

As it says further down the page – THE END.

I shut the book, keeping my finger in the page. No thoughts came. Or rather, a thousand thoughts came, none of them clear enough to catch hold of. I added a dash of water to my already well-watered whisky and sipped at it, more for something to do than for the mild warming sensation it brought. I dimmed the light and shut my eyes. Again, thoughts that were no thoughts. There was nothing more to think. Half past eleven. Time to go to bed. Putting the book down next to the glass, I stood up, stretching my arms above my head, fingers locked. “So …” I said under my breath.


For a split second I wondered if I was repeating myself, but at some level I knew it wasn’t me speaking. Like many people I sometimes hear voices, usually when I’m very tired or under some kind of influence. But those ‘voices’ normally sound as if they’re coming from far away, like a distant echo of my own thoughts. This “So?” was too present, too physical.

And there wasn’t just a voice, there was someone, a shadowy someone, sitting on the far side of the fireplace from where I’d just got up. 

You may sometimes have wondered what you’d do in this kind of situation. Would you grab a poker and chase the intruder away? Would you maintain an impressive silence before slowly and politely asking for an explanation? Would you faint with shock? Or would you just shake your head in disbelief and conclude that you must have dropped off to sleep? However you imagine it, it makes no difference. In real life, you don’t think, you just react. And that means that if someone speaks to you in an averagely polite kind of way, you answer – even when that someone is a shadowy figure who wasn’t there a moment ago, shouldn’t be there, and maybe wasn’t even real.

“So?” There was a challenge there, but the underlying tone was enquiring, humorous, though I also sensed a hint of irony.

“So,” I repeated, “well, the fact is, I just don’t know what to make of it … ‘Men are alone’ … ‘Who said “Love one another”?’ … THE END … Is that really it? Is that all?”

“This is what was in your book?” he asked politely, “Do you want to say more? I can’t answer your questions if I don’t know what they’re about!”

“No, of course, I’m sorry.” I picked the book off the table, an old second-hand edition in a gold-embossed red cloth cover. “It’s by Dostoevsky. Do you know Dostoevsky?”

I was starting to make out that my mysterious interlocutor was probably about my size or a bit shorter and was wearing what might have been a suit made of some heavy wool-like material, not very well-fitting and rather old-fashioned. He seemed neither young nor old and although I could see that he was balding, with wispy strands of hair floating away from the sides of his broad domed forehead, he gave an impression of solidity and energy, not like an old man at all. Although it was impossible at first to make out his expression, I felt his dark eyes fixed on me and, so to speak, holding me in their grip.

“Certainement je le connais,” he replied, in an amused voice. “Je suis Dostoïevski.”

Involuntarily I responded also in French. “Vous êtes Dostoïevski?” Then, feeling that this was rather absurd, repeated in English, “You’re Dostoevsky – the Dostoevsky?”

“Yes, of course,” he replied politely, “Who else would I be?”

“Who else would you be? You could be anyone!”

“Not really. After all, you invited me and I don’t see anyone else here.” He lifted his hand, gently took the book from me and opening it read out the words on the title-page. “Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Eternal Husband and other StoriesTranslated from the Russian by CONSTANCE GARNETT. William Heinemann Ltd. Melbourne. London. Toronto. Interesting. Imagine, they even read me in Australia.” He returned the book. “Here. Why don’t you sit down? You’ll be more comfortable.”

As I say, I didn’t think. I just reacted and, being brought up to be averagely polite, answered when spoken to. Up to this point I could probably have dismissed my visitor or tried pretending that he was just an exceptionally vivid daydream, shaken myself and gone to bed. Now, however, I’d gone up a level. I was committed. I wasn’t just answering his questions, I was doing what he said. From this moment on I was conceding his reality, giving him the right not only to play with my thoughts but to take up space in my life. That’s how I see it now, of course. Then, I just did what he said and sat down, still clutching the book.

I was, I admit, lost for words. Who wouldn’t be? We sat silently facing each other for – I don’t know how long. He looked at me attentively, as if waiting for my question. I looked at him, trying to get him, as it were, in focus. Not very successfully as yet. Eventually, he was the one to speak first.

“You had a question, I think?” 

“Er … yes .. . of course …” I fell back into silence, struggling to remember what I’d asked just a few minutes beforehand.

“About the human condition, I think?” he added encouragingly.

“Yes … the human condition … We are alone. Are we really alone? Is that true? Sometimes it feels true. And, if it’ true  … can love really mean anything? Yes, those were the questions – my questions, your questions, that is, what the husband says, after his wife’s suicide. But they’re powerful words, Mr. Dostoevsky  …”

“Please – Fyodor Mikhailovich.”

“Yes, thank, you, of course  … Fyodor Mikhailovich. They’re powerful words – and I don’t think you could have written them if you didn’t feel them. But, still, you believed, you went on believing, in God, immortality, love … You had faith. What is it, this faith? How is it possible?”

(Next episode will be published on Friday 19th March)

First Conversation: Beneath a Dead Sun

Episode 1


Fyodor Mikhailovich smiled. Diffidently. He leaned forward. I couldn’t tell whether it was because he was thinking about how to answer my question or because he was waiting for me to say more. I couldn’t think of anything to add. A minute or more passed. Or so it seemed. Sighing gently, he looked up, not quite meeting my gaze. 

“Faith. Why do you ask me about faith?” he asked, in a quiet, self-deprecating voice, as if he was the last person in the world to have anything important to say on the matter. “You’ve surely read that when it comes to faith I never escaped the crucible of doubt in which my own faith – such as it was – was formed?”

“But Fyodor Mikhailovich,” I replied, suddenly anxious that this moment of opportunity might slip away, “you more than anyone have shown what faith could be in a world such as ours. You saw first-hand some of the worst things that human beings can do to one another and to their fellow creatures; you explored every permutation of human malice; you looked into the abyss; you were face to face with death; you gave voice to the uttermost desolation of the abandoned heart. And yet you believed. You must have seen something, must have received some word to bring back to us?”

He smiled again and seemed politely amused by my little speech, though there was nothing obviously amusing in what I had said, still less in the anxious and agitated way I’d said it. 

“I hope you’re remembering that I am only a writer? A teller of tales? An inventor of stories? As to what I wrote in my novels – I made it all up. I can’t put it more simply than that. Surely you know that?” His eyes twinkled momentarily, teasingly, but then, suddenly, he became more serious, continuing to look at me but as if talking more to himself. “It’s all made up. It’s fiction. It’s not real. You could even say: it’s all lies.” 

“Surely not, Fyodor Mikhailovich! I mean, I don’t agree with everything you wrote (if you don’t mind my saying so) but what about the words you gave to Sonya, to Zosima, to Alyosha? Weren’t they true? Thousands if not millions have thought so.”

Fyodor Mikhailovich stood up, slowly and uncomfortably, like someone who had become stiff from sitting for too long. His breathing seemed slightly laboured. Turning to the window, he looked down at the street below, washed by intermittent gusts of rain. There was little traffic at his hour and only the occasional pedestrian, hood up, head down, hurried past, who knows where. 

“You know,” he said gravely, “even now, even in my present state, there are moments when I could wish for a cigarette.” He gestured with his hand, as if to brush the idea aside.  He continued to look out of the window, talking almost to himself.

            “It’s difficult to explain, you see. Perhaps if you yourself were a writer you would understand. The fact is that even with the best will in the world, even when the artist’s intentions are entirely pure (and what writer dare say that of himself?), a story remains a story, fiction is fiction, and – a lie. You could even say that the truth, once uttered, is a lie, as one of our poets said.”

“Fyodor Mikhailovich,” I protested, feeling that this wasn’t at all helping me get the answers I needed. “Fyodor Mikhailovich, you can’t be saying that everything you wrote, everything you taught us, was nothing but lies? If that was so, then it wouldn’t be any different from the kind of despicable propaganda I know you loathed? Surely you’re not saying that words can never speak the truth?”

“Listen,” he said, quietly but seriously, turning back to me. “You have to think about why you are asking me these things. If the words I wrote in my books were the truth, why shouldn’t they be enough for you? What can I add? If I’d lived another five, ten or twenty years I could probably have said more, but it was not to be. You have to be a peasant or an aristocrat to make four score years. Like Lev Nikolayevich – not that he had much benefit from his old age, alas. Sometimes it’s best to die before you grow too old and get too angry with the world. What I have learned since then – here – I cannot reveal to you. If that’s the kind of knowledge you’re after, you’ll have to ask God and his angels. And even if I could,” he added, almost as an afterthought, “anyone, anyone at all, from this side could tell you as much or as little. We writers turn out to be fairly peripheral figures in the great synthesis.”

At this point, I should probably explain the nature of the conversation I am reporting, which, as readers will be starting to guess, was of a rather peculiar kind. The most obvious peculiarity was that the man talking to me in the sitting room of my Glasgow flat had been dead for over one hundred and twenty years. The second – and to my mind hugely more important – peculiarity was that this man I was talking with, just as I could be talking with you, was the Russian writer Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, a man who had died in the year 1881 and who has been dead ever since. How this was possible I still don’t know, though our final talk would offer some clues. 

            Now when I say that it was all ‘just as I could be talking to you’ this is not quite accurate. I am unable (and, believe me, I’ve tried) to deny that his presence was ‘real’ and that all the time we were talking he was in every way a living human being. Not only could I see him and hear him, I could hear his footsteps when he walked about the room, sometimes touching objects or picking them up, browsing my bookshelves, taking out a book and, as he leaded through it, making small grunts of approval or disapproval, offering occasional comments and asking short questions. He took a particular interest in his own novels, skimming a few lines at a time and sometimes commenting along the lines of “Oh, that’s how they say it in English … very interesting …”

He was, then, ‘real’ – but there was definitely something odd about him. For a start, he didn’t always look exactly the same. Even within the space of a single conversation he might change from the magisterial personage of the Tretyakov Gallery portrait to the traumatized young writer newly arrived back in St Petersburg from his experiences in the labour camp or, sometimes, to the youthful idealist, dreaming of a humanist utopia, and – once or twice – to the awkward unhappy schoolboy who never had enough money for tea. Yet perhaps he didn’t really change any more than any human face changes under the impact of memories and ideas. We’ve all seen old people becoming momentarily young again when they remember a happy event from long ago; death too can wipe away the lines from faces scarred by suffering, restoring a kind of hallucinatory youth. It seems quite plausible, then, that someone now living a more ethereal life might manifest their inner thoughts and feelings still more expressively and spontaneously than we do, bringing about greater physical changes – but that’s only my idea. 

On the subject of his face, it was recognizable from photographs and paintings, but these – even the best – can only ever give a shadowy reflection of the thing itself. It was, strangely, a beautiful face. There was nothing of the half-criminal, half-lunatic, envious and ambitious face famously described by Georg Brandes in the 1880s, a brilliant but partial description that stamped itself on posterity’s image of Dostoevsky as a genius teetering on the brink of madness, sickness, and criminality – the epileptic genius of modernist fantasy.

For the sake of complete accuracy, I should also add that it wasn’t just his face that changed but also his size, even his clothes … though ‘change’ is perhaps too strong a word. Let’s just say they were adaptable – even though at any given moment the stuff of his jacket or the leather of his shoes seemed as tangible as my own. I remembered his own description of the devil appearing to Ivan Karamazov as a shape-shifting down-at-heel sponger, but this was different. Whereas the devil was clearly trying to avoid being pinned down, ‘dodging away’, as a former colleague used to say, Dostoevsky’s ‘changes’ (I can’t think of any other way of describing them) always seemed to bring what he was saying into sharper focus.

A strange interlocutor, you could say. So, how did it all begin? Where? When? And why?

[Next episode will be posted on Friday 12th March]


‘Conversations with Dostoevsky’ is a blog written to mark the 200th anniversary year of Dostoevsky’s birth. It takes the form of a series of conversations between a twenty-first century academic and the writer himself. The topics centre on ‘the big questions’, including God, immortality, faith, nationality, and the power of literature. Blogs will be published weekly, though readers may wish to save them up for a monthly visit.

I hope that a revised version of these conversations will eventually appear in book form. This published version will include extensive accompanying notes, indicating the sources of the views ascribed to Dostoevsky and, where relevant, references to secondary literature. This will especially be in cases where, for example, the views spoken by Dostoevsky may involve controversial points of interpretation or where his own documented views may require comment for twenty-first century readers. However, this is primarily a work of fiction and although it is supported by scholarship and, I hope, raises questions that are of interest to scholars, it is to be read in the way we might read any work of fiction, where whatever instruction the work may offer is accompanied by a element of entertainment.

The blog is intended to develop in a dialogical fashion and I hope that readers will contact me with any critical comments, whether these relate to style or content. Despite what I have just said about fiction, it is my wish that the eventual book will present an interpretation of Dostoevsky’s thought discussed that is fully defensible with regard to the available sources and I welcome any comments drawing attention to actual errors or significant misrepresentations. In this way, the blog itself will, I hope, set in motion a kind of conversation, alongside all the other amazing conversations about Dostoevsky that are happening in reality, in print, and online. This is work in progress and I hope not only to entertain and instruct but also to learn.

A final thought is that although Dostoevsky himself did not write a blog, there is something blog-like in his Diary of a Writer, a self-published opinion piece that ranged freely over the most apparently disparate issues. To those who fear that blogging and other forms of information technology are inherently antagonistic to the values of great literature (I mean Dostoevsky and not myself, of course), I suggest that it is not a medium of which he would have been afraid. Perhaps even one he would have relished.

George Pattison