Tuesday, 11 August 2009

57 - 'The Brothers Karamazov' by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Tony made his way briskly along the muddy street, huddled inside his borrowed greatcoat, avoiding the great puddles of slush as best he could (which wasn't that well as there seemed to be more slush and snow than road). Finally, thankfully, he made out, through the newly started shower of snow, a collection of wooden structures indicating the start of the town. He hurried towards the nearest, a large, crude hut, and hammered at the door, breathing deeply and regretting it each time the frosty air penetrated to his lungs. A voice bellowed from within, "Come in if you're coming, damn you!"; Tony opened the door and stepped inside without needing further prompting than this rather unlikely invitation to enter.

Inside, behind a large table bearing a samovar, mugs and plates laden with bread, cheese and various meats, sat a thin, gaunt man, obviously in the middle of his meal and displeased with the interuption to his repast. "Who are you? Why do you disturb me?", he barked out. Tony took a deep breath and stepped forward. "My apologies for the delay", he said measuredly, "I had trouble making my way here on such short notice. Let me introduce myself, I-". The other interrupted him, waving his arm in the air as if to physically beat Tony's words to the ground. "I know who you are, the Englishman, the one who wants to talk about my book. Yes, my book!". He started to laugh, pointing playfully to the bench on the other side of the table. "Sit, Anton Antonovich, yes, I have been expecting you. Take off the coat, come now, we're warm inside, warm enough for an Englishman even!". Tony hesitated, then took off his greatcoat, laid it across one end of the bench and sat down opposite the great writer.

"Fyodor Mikhaylovich," he began, "I wanted to discuss your latest novel as, I must confess, it seemed, at times, somewhat confusing, rather circuitous. I know that there is a lot about Russia, about the Russian people, but I wanted -".

"Of course, it's about the Russian people!", the writer cried out, leaning back in astonishment, losing, for a moment, his balance and then righting himself and leaning forward onto the table. "I'm Russian, I write about Russia, I am Russia! Or rather...", he continued, a wry grin appearing on his face, "Russia is a part of me. We Russians are different to others; to you prancing womanly Englishmen, to those logical, loveless Germans, to those elegant, but lifeless Frenchmen. We live! We strive for love, we reach for the stars!". He leaned back again and shrugged his shoulders. "And should we miss, should we fall short, well, at least we have tried."

Tony nodded. "Like Dmitri Karamazov, Mitya. A typical Russian". The writer smiled. "Exactly! A true man, a Russian, a man with an impeccable soul at bottom, but a man who is unable, unwilling even, to adapt to his situations. A man unwilling to steal, to break his own somewhat twisted moral code. A man able to waste thousands of roubles, to drink, to dance, to forget the future, to exclude all thoughts not of the present time. A man of great sensuality and vigour, ha ha! Not one of your foppish Darcys or Rochesters, more than a match for your Heathcliffs even! A man, a Russian man, nothing gentle about him, but still a man!". Dostoyevsky laughed wildly, freely, until stopped by a great bout of coughing, his gaunt frame shaking behind the table. He recovered, breathing deeply. "A Russian. What else should he be?".

Tony went to speak again but waited as the writer reached over to the samovar and poured himself, and his guest, some tea, steam wafting away from the table, up towards the ceiling.

"Let us move on," he said, collecting his thoughts as Dostoyevsky sipped his tea, wincing at the heat of the scalding liquid on his pinched lips, "for I wanted to talk a little about the language used in your novel, the way that the characters use words without really revealing what they want to say, the way language is used to take up space rather than to make things clear. What I am trying to say -".

"- is exactly what you are saying! A perfect example of your point, young man, nothing better!", the writer laughed. "Do people really speak so clearly? Are intentions always there, on the surface, ready for anyone to touch at a moment's notice? Come now, young Anton Antonovitch, are your beliefs so easily found? As all people talk without saying, making noise for the sake of amusing the idiots around them, so too do my characters. They exist in their social context and their words are created by these surroundings, they speak to please those with whom they are speaking. Are people really concerned with other people's ideas? Do people really have a strong understanding of their own ideas, strong enough to be able to explain them, in detail, from one moment to the next, to the first person who enquires about them? People talk, dear Anton, but what they say...

"But not Alyosha. He knows, he understands, he cuts through the idiocy of idle pratter, he genuinely seeks communication, not diversion, and communicates in return." Dostoyevsky fell silent, perhaps thinking (as Tony supposed) about his own Alyosha, the departed soul of his poor child. A long silence settled across the room, like a blanket of snow slowly, but inexorably, settling and covering a churchyard. Neither man spoke.

Finally, the writer looked up, puzzled initially by the sight of the other, but then, as recognition dawned in his eyes, he stood up and shouted, "But wait! It grows ever later, and we have not discussed (we have not touched upon!) the central theme, the one true core of the novel! We have not discussed God!". The old man stood behind the table, shaking with, what Tony could only presume was excitement, evidently waiting for his visitor to speak, to ask a question. Tony, however, stayed silent, slightly embarrassed, unwilling to make the first move in such a delicate area. Slowly, the writer's face calmed itself, the features rearranging themselves into their usual, almost angry state, and he sat back down, silently, defiantly, on his bench. Again, silence.

This was the part Tony had feared, and part of him wished to avoid it and move on. But, with such a book, such an idea... He took a deep breath and plunged in. "Fyodor Mikhailovich," he began, "I must confess that, on this point, my ideas are not exactly clear." He paused, and, as he had expected (indeed wished), the writer eagerly took up the thread of the conversation.

"Not clear? What is there to be confused about? My views are crystal clear, a call to arms, a warning for my great country to acknowledge the true path before it is too late. You see, my young English friend, we have strayed from the right path, we have been blinded, blinded I tell you, by the progress of logic and science and philosophy, and what does it all mean? There is no God, they say, there is only here and now! And this, this should set us free, make us happy! But no. This idea is ridiculous, lacking in all credibility, this way lies madness, for if there is no God, no guidance from above, no rapture to look forward to, where will we find our guidance? What will prevent us from living like dogs, worse than dogs even?". Dostoyevsky paused for breath, panting, his eyes shining from the conviction of his words. His gaze never deviated from that of his visitor, who looked back, unable to break away from the writer's terrible grip.

"You saw what happened to Ivan, poor Ivan, when he gave up the idea of God. He was unwilling to believe because of what he saw as the inconsistencies: the suffering of children, the only innocents and still subject to death and torture; the necessity of believing in the end of days without the hope of actually being there to witness it himself. He believed he could dismiss God, dismiss his teachings and found a new life on science, on logic, but", he continued, his voice dropping so much that Tony was compelled to lean forward, so as not to miss the writer's words, "he was wrong. Without God to order his life, he lost direction, as would we all. If you dismiss God, you dismiss society, you reject laws, you decide to take the role of God into your own hands." A pause. "Ivan stepped back from the abyss, but the other, the other... he walked into it, and he took his brother with him...".

He stopped. Tony was getting up, taking his greatcoat from where it lay on the bench, as if ready to leave. Dostoevsky also rose and sighed. "I see you are unconvinced. Still, my story is not finished, Mitya's tale will continue. I'm sure that you will start to see the truth after the next book...". He stopped speaking. A strange expression had appeared on Tony's face, a mixture between pity and regret, an incomprehensible look of sadness. The two men stood there for a moment, and then, with a bow, the Englishman took his leave and vanished into the snowy night. The writer sat down again and wondered.

[This text was recently discovered in the attic of a small wooden house in a village a few hundred miles outside Moscow. There seems to be no trace of the writer. Dostoyevsky never wrote the sequel to 'The Brothers Karamazov' mentioned in the text.]