I was riding the buses, nothing better to do. Reading Dostoevsky as the people behind me chit-chatted about dinner, about drinks. I gazed out the window. Skyscrapers and commuters, suits and ties, a vast unravelling city. I allowed my thoughts to breathe, to drift to a room with a Russian view.
So Fyodor, you wrote Crime and Punishment and The Gambler simultaneously.
Debts force one to take risks my boy, but then you know all about that.
Yes of course. Your novel, which I must say is a transfixing read.
Had it come to this, imaginary praise from a dead Russian Realist? And what for, the novel hidden under my bed, the novel I was too scared to finish, or the one all writers hoped they had within them, the masterpiece yet to be written? Ashamed of my self-indulgence I returned to my book. Then my phone rang. My best friend. Did I fancy a walk round the park? A drink? Yes. Yes.
We met at the gates by the river. Swans floated along the water as lovers took photos of smiles in fixed poses. I took the chance to set the conversational tone, with more self-indulgence, writers’ seminars, and illustrious workshops. He said,
Is it helping?
That’s the problem. I just don’t know.
You should talk to a tutor. Someone like-minded on your course.
My writing had taken a radical shift, in style and tone, more melancholic, more abstract. Talking to other writers about it had become like talking with an overworked doctor. They nod along. Yes. I understand. Then quickly move you on. Next patient. What seems to be the problem? Doctor, I’m baffled by the genre conventions. You leave feeling no wiser than you did before. Maybe it’s me, a projection of insecurities not soothed, but like a good doctor, it’s hard to find a good writing friend, someone who gets you, someone who can help diagnose those problems shared. I said,
What I want is a real opinion.
I can’t take any more ‘how fiction works’ conversations, the art of, the craft.
It began to rain. Heavy. Spiteful. We stood under a fat-branched tree. I knew that what I wanted I could not have, Dostoevsky on speed dial, available to answer each late night call.
Fyodor I can’t seem to figure out the plot. I have characters but no story.
This is a problem easily solved. When I was writing The Adolescent…
I thought about him, back to the wall, awaiting the Tsar’s firing squad. I thought about Poor Folk, the praise he received as the next literary great. Then came The Double, and his early fall from grace. I turned to my friend, said,
You know I’ve been reading The Idiot again.
Please. No. If you start on about Dostoevsky I am going to kill myself.
I understood this. If we talked about Bowie or Iggy, I brought it round to Dostoevsky. If we talked about politics or economics, I brought it round to Dostoevsky. His work was my first love of literature, full of passion, ideas, and a yearning for truth. Of course there have been others since, but I re-read his books every year. Buy different editions of ones already owned. I said,
What’s wrong with Dostoevsky?
Nothing, but realise those novels didn’t just appear out of nowhere.
Dostoevsky re-wrote The Idiot time and again, through poverty, epilepsy and the loss of loved ones. Early drafts had the novel’s saintly hero, Prince Myshkin, as a womanising gambler, a brute seeking debasement. He wrote extensively in his diaries of his disgust with a failure to understand his own novel, his own characters. He wrote about his fears that the work would not be judged fairly; that all readers wanted was Turgenev and nihilism. I said,
Of course I do.
Then snap out of it. All writers get blocked. Allow for others to help.
I feel diluted. Homogenised. I’m not blocked. I’m seeking inspiration.
So stop obsessing about what Dostoevsky would do and just write.
What would Dostoevsky do? Yes I was aware of the ridiculousness of this conversation, but that was a thought too rich to resist. I knew about the pitfalls, the platforms, from writers fresh with hindsight, but what would Dostoevsky have done if he no longer knew what worked and why? I allowed my imagination to run away with itself once again.
Fyodor, The Brothers Karamazov, Demons, literary classics by any standards. Did you ever worry though that they were too grand, too idea-filled, and thus vulnerable to censorship?
Oh you’re too kind Reece, but let us be honest. I am no Tolstoy, no George Eliot.
Really? You don’t feel your work equals theirs?
Who finds pleasure in their own writing? One has to have an idea of their place, to find those like-minded, those open to appreciate.
Well rest assured you certainly reside above Turgenev.
If this were happening anywhere other than my imagination he would have laughed uproariously. He would have wagged a fatherly finger in my direction, and said,
Don’t you worry my boy; these things you want will come in the end.
That rising shame, felt so intensely before, worked its way through my body. I saw the headline, Deluded Writer Succumbs To Dostoevsky-Fuelled Madness. Thankfully the rain stopped. A gloomy breeze moved over us. I said,
No. You decide.
We walked quickly. With the collars of our overcoats pulled up, hands in pockets, heads down. We didn’t need to talk, to fill each silence, so other writers admired came to mind. Then a drummer worked his way through a warm-up beat. Snapping me out of great writer thinking. We were stood in a pub slowly filling, waiting for a band to play. My friend said,
What do you want to drink?
I couldn’t bear to look at the beautiful faces. Young. Alive. I imagined Dostoevsky saying,
You know I was talking to Hamsun yesterday. Your name came up.
We agreed that your writing is coming along. And he thinks you are entering a more mature phase.
I don’t know what to say.
We do feel you need to be tougher though. Stronger willed. But rest assured, you are getting there.
Of course if the ghosts of great writers were to appear, I suspect they’d find a place more befitting than a pub in Camden, perhaps a Nobel Prize winner’s convention, or a Knausgaard reading. The reality is that we won’t always be told what we want to hear; we’re out there alone, throwing word bombs from literary trenches. Sometimes it’s easier to daydream of Penguin Modern Classics bearing your name, of conversations with writers admired. Sometimes, instead of asking myself why, what’s the use, instead of fuelling the fire of fear and self-doubt, I might just try asking myself: what Dostoevsky would do?